Have you heard of Top of the Lake? Neither had I, until recently. Despite premiering on the Sundance Channel back in March, this gem of a miniseries received little internet buzz. I think I saw it mentioned once this past winter in a profile of actress Elisabeth Moss (a.k.a. Peggy from Mad Men) then forgot all about it until I randomly discovered it on Netflix and thought, “oh, I’ve heard of this. Let’s give it a try.”
One irresponsibly long TV binge later, I was totally engrossed in the world of this small mountain town and its strange, complicated, and often menacing inhabitants. Written by the critically acclaimed Jane Campion (The Piano) Top of The Lake focuses on a female protagonist named Robin Griffin (Moss). This ambitious young detective leaves her home in Sydney, Australia to visit her ailing mother back in Queenstown, New Zealand, only to be called in to work on a case involving a pregnant 12-year-old girl. (How a New Zealand precinct is able to enlist an Australian detective is something that bothered a lot of people, but I think it fades into the show’s mildly surrealist style…and anyway, how many people with special training on childhood sexual trauma do we think this town typically has on call?) As we will find, the case is personal to her because of her own traumatic past, which haunts her more and more as the series progresses and she struggles against various obstacles to solve the case. Stories of love, loss and existence are interwoven with the primary mystery.
There is Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan) the father of the girl and a sexy-scary criminal patriarch who effectively runs the town. There is the enigmatic GJ (Holly Hunter!), an enlightened guru/maybe-charlatan who has set up a retreat for middle aged women looking to regain some lost part of themselves. There is Sergeant Al Parker, a vaguely creepy good ol’ boy detective who is used to swinging his dick around and having things done his way. There is Johnno Mitcham, Robin’s adorable high school sweetheart who is trying to put his life back together after eight years spent in a Thai prison on a drug charge. There is Tui, the pregnant 12-year-old herself, who exhibits a kind of laconic, feral strength.
None of these characters is without flaws, and indeed, trying to figure out who is okay, who is bad, and who is bad enough to rape a child is one of the story’s central themes. Can we choose whether or not to be victims? Robin’s one-woman crusade against the town’s patriarchal culture as well as her own demons makes her a kind of feminist Agent Dale Cooper, and the wide-angle shots of the town’s woodsy, chilly beauty contribute to dual senses of awe and dread. But the show is not without its comic relief, either. The bizarre stories of the women on GJ’s retreat and lines like “You ever try masturbating? It’s very relaxing and it’s non-fattening” provide some dark humor.
Top of the Lake is creepy, suspenseful, affecting, amusing, and genuinely surprising at times. (The mark of a great twist is one you should have seen coming, but didn’t.) And Elisabeth Moss does some of the best acting we’ve seen from her, playing a character you would never confuse with Peggy Olsen. So why didn’t more people watch it?
-Americans are not used to the miniseries, even though it’s a great way to tell stories. As Slate points out, this joint British-Australian-Kiwi production was partially funded by the Australian government, and England has the BBC. American TV companies, however, have nothing of the sort, so they’re more likely to invest in shows they can bank on for many seasons.
-They didn’t do a very good job promoting it. Or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention? Does anyone remember seeing ads for it anywhere? Because if I’d seen any, I would’ve been like “hell yes, I will tune in for this important television event.”
-Americans don’t like watching things where people have funny accents. What are they even saying?! Turn on the subtitles, dum dum.
-Top Of The Lake is a weird blend of genres…it’s surreal like Twin Peaks, but it also deals with a lot of real shit. You can’t put it in a box. Maybe that weirds people out?
-Narratives about female protagonists do not sell as well as those about male protagonists, even (especially?) when those female characters are complicated and flawed. You’d think even the mere suggestion of a female Jimmy McNulty would be greeted with great fanfare, and you’d be wrong.
The good news is that anyone who slept on Top Of The Lake can totally still watch it. All seven episodes are waiting right there for you on Netflix Watch Instantly, or you can be a bad girl and steal it. (Don’t steal it!) If you are at all into mysteries, crime dramas, strong female characters, psychology, surrealism, or shows exploring the ugly side of humanity (I cried more than once), you are going to like Top Of The Lake. But if you don’t, I will totally hire a quantum physicist to figure out a way to give you back those seven hours of your life. That’s how strongly I endorse this show.