TV Traveller Blog - Matt Graham

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A place at the end of the world


New Zealand is not a place widely known for its quality drama.  This might all change with the arrival new drama TOP OF THE LAKE on BBC Two in the UK and on Sundance in the US, with show with known US actors and acclaimed director Jane Campion.


The show’s recipe for success is simple – it combines what’s worked about US drama (brilliant writing) with a well established cast. Key to it all is a simple story driven by Mystery.  The show’s been compared to not only Danish drama THE KILLING, but also to classic show TWIN PEAKS, and new French drama THE RETURNED, all of which share this common ingredient in abundance. Mystery is a subject that appeals to audiences the whole world over – it’s international.  Mysteries have had profound effect on humanity because we all want to know the answer to them — after all, it was the Conquistadores searching for the mythical Cities of Gold who unlocked South America, and in modern times, a good mystery remains vital – successful shows like MAD MEN are driven by powerful mysteries are their core. Mysteries drive most stories on TV — procedural cop dramas being great examples.


TOP OF THE LAKE is layered with mystery — its an unsettling story based on a simple central mystery and backed by quest for truth in a remote and complicated place.  For audiences everywhere, Novelty of setting can also be a huge bonus alongside a familiar storyline – and it’s often a smart twist to place shows in new and dramatic settings. Audiences are smart and will read symbolism into them.  Mystery goes hand in hand with Novelty, because we all want to know more about an unfamiliar place.  In fact, as an aside, its a combination of these two which drive an entire genre, science fiction, which is driven by curiosity for the most part.

Both play a major role in the new series. New Zealand is described by the director as the kind of place where people “can fall off the world” and its historically been a refuge for felons and exiles, a place on the very edge of Western Civilization, where the British Empire’s troops finally met their match fighting the Maori; a perfect symbol of West and East.  “People live there because they want to get away from their problems and because they don’t work that well with society,” says Campion in a recent interview. New Zealand’s beautiful and isolated landscapes have become familiar to audiences through films like LORD OF THE RINGS.

Despite appearances to the contrary though, TOP OF THE LAKE is actually not really a small New Zealand drama. In fact it’s a sophisticated international coproduction with the Sundance Channel in the US, and UKTV (owned by BBC Worldwide), and this is symbolic of the fact that in today’s interconnected globalized world, what’s good in one place can be easily exported to another and enjoyed by other audiences.  The days when one country’s drama series or films should be produced for the audience of only that country are coming to an end, and industries who cannot compete should be asking themselves some very difficult questions round about now.  If the world since 2000 has taught us anything, it’s that opportunity is where you find it, and judging by the number of international coproductions there are today, there’s no mystery about that.

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