The writing of this new TVNZ series struggles to live up to the drama of its breathtaking location, writes Catherine McGregor.
The first scene is astonishing. It begins with a drowned girl floating face down underwater, her hair a weightless auburn cloud around her face. And then the scene expands. In a single shot we see an overturned kayak; then a fully dressed couple lying on the lake shore, embracing as if asleep in bed; then a man hanging by a noose from the underside of a bridge; and, above it, an overturned car, its lifeless passengers flung onto the road. Six bodies, four seemingly unconnected death scenes – it’s a scene so unsettling that I was reminded of those mystery logic puzzles, the ones that can only be solved with yes or no answers. My favourite as a child was this: a man is found dead in a phone booth, broken glass is everywhere and the phone is hanging off the hook. What happened?
Well, what happened here? That’s the question at the heart of new TVNZ drama One Lane Bridge, a six-part supernatural murder mystery starring Joel Tobeck, Michelle Langstone, Sara Wiseman, Aidee Walker, Alison Bruce and Dominic Ona-Ariki, who appeared in Filthy Rich and played All Black Eric Rush in last year’s Jonah. This show is the brainchild of Pip Hall and Philip Smith, two of the country’s most experienced TV creatives; they previously worked together on Jonah and co-wrote the 2017 Dance Exponents biopic Why Does Love Do This To Me?.
Smith, the CEO of screen production powerhouse Great Southern, lives in Queenstown, and his hometown’s jaw-dropping landscapes take pride of place in the series. The immensity of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables give One Lane Bridge an air of brooding inevitability, reminding us that these people and their problems are tiny blips in an environment that counts its age in millennia. The natural beauty is something of a scene-stealer, in fact, constantly drawing the viewer’s attention out the window or over a character’s shoulder to the spectacular landscapes beyond.
If that sounds like a slight, it is. One Lane Bridge’s main issue is that behind the natural set-dressing is a drama that fails to land. After that bravura opening set-piece, the story falls into a predictable rhythm. A dead body is found; an ambitious young Auckland detective, Ariki Davis (Ona-Ariki), teams up with a gruff, set-in-his-ways local officer, Stephen Tremaine (Tobeck), to solve the case. The victim is from an old local family with a failing farm and money troubles; their neighbours are wealthy and glamorous, beneficiaries of the transformation of Queenstown into a playground for the rich. There are long-simmering resentments, dark secrets and many clandestine romantic entanglements. As Ariki begins to investigate, he’s confronted by strange visions that suggest his special powers go further than just policing.
It could all add up to something compelling, but One Lane Bridge is let down, as so many local productions are, by its writing and pacing. Characters are sketched so thinly prior to the incipient murder that their grief washes over viewers, leaving hardly a mark. They do a lot of shouting and crying and casting meaningful looks, but with so little time to get to know them it doesn’t add up to much. The attempts to create a sense of foreboding – so brilliantly expressed in that opening scene – are undermined by the editing, which seems intent on cutting scenes down to the bone instead of letting the suspense linger and grow.
The show’s problems are especially pronounced in the flat lead character of Ariki. As the story’s protagonist, a lot is resting on his shoulders. He’s our way into the story, and we need to care about his success or failure, and his safety. But it’s hard to know who Ariki is, beyond the fact that he has a sister (who calls him up to ask him searching questions like “What do you think of those mountains?”), he’s extremely fit, and he possibly has the gift of matakite, or second sight. And while that’s possibly interesting from a story perspective, it doesn’t make him much more interesting as a character.
Of course, the episodes that remain (I’ve watched only two) will likely add shading to the people of One Lane Bridge. But deepening a character doesn’t mean simply revealing that they’re having an affair, or are conducting nefarious business dealings. It means showing their humour, their unusual way of expressing themselves, the moments when they’re truly themselves, not simply chess pieces to be moved around in the service of the story.
Doing that takes time, of course, and requires a degree of patience from viewers, neither of which are in ready supply within the constraints of primetime network TV. So while I hope One Lane Bridge contains more moments of eeriness and wonder like that incredible opening scene – moments when you’re not sure what you’re seeing, but find it impossible to look away – I won’t be holding my breath.
(In case you’re wondering, the answer to the dead man in a phone booth riddle is this: he’d caught a fish and was using his hands to describe its size to the person on the other end of the phone – “it’s this big” – when he accidentally smashed the windows, cutting his wrists and bleeding to death. Obvious, right?)