Deep end of the water

Top of the Lake

* * * ½

Sunday, 8.30pm, UKTV

Elisabeth Moss in <i>Top Of The Lake</i>.
Elisabeth Moss in Top Of The Lake

This new crime series comes with a lot of baggage.

Originally announced more than two years ago as an ABC co-production, the national broadcaster pulled the pin and we now have a collaboration between the BBC, UKTV and the Sundance Channel, along with a suitably international cast (Elisabeth Moss, Holly Hunter, David Wenham, Peter Mullan).

It was always Jane Campion's baby, her first real foray into television, a crime thriller as reimagined by one of New Zealand's genuine auteurs.

It's the first television production to screen as a cinematic event (all seven hours of it) at the Sundance film festival. All of which prompts the question: is it any good? Well, yes.

It certainly has all the distinctive Campion trademarks, from its awesomely bleak landscapes to its obsession with women, with vulnerable children, with mothers and daughters.

Set in the New Zealand highlands, there's a decidedly Twin Peaks vibe engendered not just by the surrounds but by the slightly off-kilter performances. This is a world of aberrant beings, a community of people who are all not-quite-right, from the inbred locals to the blow-in guru (Hunter, magnificent) who sets up a retreat for damaged women on the edge of the lake.

Moss plays a police detective, a local girl home to visit her estranged, dying mother. Just days in to her stay she's on a case: a young girl in trouble, who ends up in way more trouble. Nothing happens in a hurry (and I'm glad I wasn't at that seven-hour screening) but it's undoubtedly eerily compelling.


* * * ½

Saturday, 8.35pm, SBS One

What an absurd idea. And yet, how delightful. The very notion of a US-Norwegian co-production is kind of odd, and the reality as it's put into practice here even odder, but there's undoubtedly something delicious about a New York gangster (The Sopranos' Steven Van Zandt) going into witness protection in Lillehammer a) because no one will ever find him there and b) he's been in love with the place ever since watching the 1994 Winter Olympics.

We're absolutely in the right place for all the usual fish-out-water tropes but rarely has a fish been so far from his home shore. The word lugubrious may as well have been coined for Van Zandt, and purely in that respect there could not be greater contrast between his jowly, frowny visage and the fresh ruddy faces he finds himself among.

On the long train ride from Oslo he earnestly sets himself to learning the language, but by the time he arrives in his new home he hasn't quite mastered the pronunciation of his own new surname (Henriksen).

Then he discovers the FBI has installed him in a cottage right next door to the local chief of police. He's not a happy man. But, you know, he's alive. And he's resourceful. And by the end of this first episode he's formed a number of unlikely connections within the small community - made some enemies too - and discovered nowhere is so rich with intrigue as an isolated mountain village.

Van Zandt, who co-created and co-wrote this with Norwegian collaborators. does a wonderful job, not quite reprising his role as Sil but certainly channelling that Sopranos vibe: no-nonsense, ruthless, capable of extreme violence but also of firm friendship. He's also a man accustomed to leading and he's not that interested in adjusting to local customs and mores.

The Norwegian cast - the names of whom mean nothing to me but uniformly turn in excellent performances - provide terrific support. No one overplays the yokel but they're small-town folk used to an orderly life and are equal parts alarmed and intrigued by this newcomer.

The look of this is typically Scandinavian - picturesque but also a little shabby - and the contrast between the big sweeping shots of the town and worn, tight interiors perfectly captures both the isolation and claustrophobia of the place. Add a bone-dry humour and you have a fabulous character comedy-drama that's as unusual as it is entertaining.

US Kids' Choice Awards

* * *

Sunday, 6pm, Nickelodeon

Almost-live from LA (it all occurred there Saturday, US time) the 26th edition of this outrageously popular awards night is bound to be a crowd pleaser.

This year the host is the ever-affable Josh Duhamel, who grown-ups know from the TV series Las Vegas but Nick's core audience have grown to adore as Lennox in the Transformers movies. Luke Ryan and Wyatt Nixon-Lloyd (hosts of Camp Orange) will be representing on our behalf. Our very own Chris Hemsworth (The Avengers) is also up for favourite butt-kicker.

There are even special Aussie awards handed out (Aussie's fave, and Aussie's fave homegrown act). As you might have guessed, the award categories are eccentric. The night attracts a real A-List of kid favourites. The whole thing is reliably ebullient and good-natured. And someone, somewhere, will end up covered in green slime.

Please Like Me: Final

* * * *

Thursday, 9.25pm, ABC2

Josh Thomas showed us from the get-go both that he wasn't afraid to go dark, and that he was keenly aware of the absurdity in life's tragedies.

So it seems fitting that the final instalment of this excellent series should open with a funeral. Aunty Peg is dead, and as the family prepares in its own peculiar ways for her send off it's alternately funny, poignant, silly, and occasionally terribly wrong.

Debra Lawrence puts in another fabulous performance as an ordinary housewife on the edge but once again Thomas himself is just as impressive both in his performance as an actor and in his insights as a writer.

The final moments are satisfyingly elegiac. So just one question remains: nothing about this series was really about Josh's search for approval or acceptance - on the contrary, it was about him realising he didn't need those things. So why was it called Please Like Me?