Over on HitFix this week, TV critic extraordinaire Alan Sepinwall wrote a sterling piece called “How much good TV is too much?” Much of it is some insider TV baseball that can be summed up in one sentence: there’s more good TV now than there ever has been before. Sure you can point and sneer at the popularity of “Honey Boo” and “Duck Dynasty” but you can’t argue with the fact of “Justified,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game Of Thrones,” “Shameless,” etc. etc. I mention those particular cable beauties because they are, in a sea of choices, some of the most filmic options going.
The cinematic calibre of certain television shows are at the forefront of my thoughts this week as we witnessed both the beginning and ending of two of the most gorgeously rendered TV shows in recent memory. Though it’s only in its third week and it’s way too early to call it a masterpiece, there’s no denying that NBC’s “Hannibal” is an absolute visual stunner. The show’s creator Bryan Fuller (“Pushing Daisies,” “Wonderfall”) is certainly no stranger to impressively framed and executed shots. But he’s imbued his newest take on the police procedural with such a stunningly, grisly beauty you’ll find yourself gasping in delight while simultaneously cringing at the subject matter. (If you missed last week’s episode and you have a cast-iron stomach, this indelible image is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.) For those with a weaker constitution, I’ll include a less repugnant, but no less arresting visual below. (H/T Cindy)
But, with apologies to “Justified” and “Mad Men,” the most impressively beautiful piece of television I’ve seen this year is The Sundance Channel’s original mini-series “Top Of The Lake.” The seven episode show ended its run last night with a two-hour stunner that was worthy of the five hours of slow burning dramatic ecstasy that lead up to it. The bad news is that the show is over. The fantastic news is that it’s available as of today on Netflix Instant Watch. The series, written and produced by Academy Award-winner Jane Campion (The Piano, Bright Star), tells the story of a cop (Elisabeth Moss) who returns to her home in a lakeside community in New Zealand to be with her dying mother. While she’s there she gets embroiled in the case of a young missing girl and is drawn back into the criminal and social drama of her past. In a stellar piece advocating for the criminally under watched series, Uproxx’s Josh Kurp wrote:
If “The Killing,” another slow moving detective series that’s as much about atmosphere as it is action, had lasted only seven episodes, we might have considered it a modern TV classic. Instead, it’s a laughingstock, slowly trudging through the mud into its unnecessary season three. Top on the Lake, on the other hand, seems destined to spend just the right amount of time on its subject matter, before going away for good. Also, the missing girl on Top of the Lake isn’t an age-appropriate, attractive female, like on The Killing, a formula we’ve seen a million times before; it’s a 12-year-old girl who’s been raped and is now seven months pregnant. Sh*t’s dark.
He’s right. Sh*t is dark. Drastically so. But like “Hannibal,” “Top Of The Lake” is one of the most staggeringly gorgeous things I’ve ever seen. Filmed entirely on location in Queenstown and Glenorchy in New Zealand, the sweeping vistas of the spare hills and frigid lake are enough to give Peter Jackson a run for his money. The various shots of the lost and frightened characters bobbing along the vast Moke Lake are worth the price of admission alone. (What price?) Moss is joined by a stellar cast including her too-slick sergeant (David Wenham, Lord Of The Rings), the missing girl’s terrifying father (Scottish character actor Peter Mullan) and a gray-haired Holly Hunter as the enigmatic leader of a lakeside commune of women. The way in which Mullan’s wolf pack of men continuously squares off against Hunter’s she-wolves makes for delightful dramatic fodder. The writing’s impeccable, Moss’s acting astonishing and, as I mentioned, the location should, by rights, have second billing.
So with this hitherto unknown embarrassment of TV riches, what on earth is left to compel us to go to the movie theater? I used to hit up the cinema every weekend with a pack of friends. In high school? Every Friday night, rain or shine. Maybe it’s a by-product of my ever-advancing age. Many of my friends are married or they have kids. Sitters would have to be got, arrangements would have to be made. Maybe it’s a decline in quality of what’s available in the theaters. (I very much doubt that.) More likely it’s the hermit-encouraging convenience of OnDemand and Netflix Instant Watch that’s making us all a bit more disinclined to line up at the multi-plex. With the exception of certain tentpole summer blockbusters (The Avengers, Iron Man 3), you don’t even need to be overly concerned with missing out on the cultural zeitgeist. The zeitgeist itself is on some sort of convenient time-delay. I reviewed Pitch Perfect for Pajiba right when it came out, of course, but wasn’t able to geekily enthuse with anyone about it until the movie hit Netflix. That’s the sort of second-wave popular reaction to film that makes many of us reviewers drum our fingers with impatience and frustration.
But hermit-y convenience aside, there’s also the ways in which TV can, of course, be a more enriching way to experience a story. The seven hours of “Top Of The Lake” or the five seasons of “Breaking Bad,” mean we travel with these characters over time. Our emotional investment of living with them week in and week out (or in one gluttonous spree on Netflix) makes the emotional pay-off all the more poignant. You can’t quite get there in two hours. Even with light-as-air sitcoms like “New Girl” and “Parks & Recreation” where we essentially see a classic rom-com plot spun out over several seasons, there is a surprisingly profound emotional connection with the characters. You can’t possibly hope to achieve that with a 90 minute Jennifer Aniston vehicle. And, thus, the wedding of Ben Wyatt and Leslie Knope hits us harder than any “you had me at hello”s or boomboxes in the rain. So what’s my point? My point is this. If you’re going to be a Netflix hermit this weekend, at least spend it with something worth your time? Move “Top Of The Lake” to the top of your queue. You won’t regret it.