It’s only March, but I already expect the Sundance Channel miniseries Top of the Lake to make my year-end “Top 10” list. The first two episodes debuted Monday night and repeat tonight; I recommend it not just to fans of filmmaker Jane Campion (The Piano), who co-wrote and co-produced, and Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, who stars as the heroine, a troubled police investigator, but to anyone who’s watched in dismay over the last 21 years as program after program tried to be the next Prime Suspect and failed miserably.
Top of the Lake is in the same vein as the adventures of Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, but it’s superior to most Prime Suspect–derived stories — including The Closer and the American versions of The Killing and Prime Suspect — because it doesn’t seem obsessed with satisfying the demands of any one of the genres that it references. It’s a meticulous, lived-in police procedural, a portrait of a specific community, and a look at the pervasive sexism that complicates nearly every transaction between men and women, professional or personal. The show’s narrative spine concerns the mysterious disappearance of Tui Mitcham (Jaqueline Joe), a 12-year-old pregnant girl who’s the daughter of the town bully, Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), a glowering criminal. Top of the Lake’s heroine, Robin Griffin (Moss), leaves her fiancé in Sydney to return to her hometown — a verdant, forested mountain town — to confront demons in her own past. She becomes swept up in Tui’s story along the way. Robin’s behavior at first seems erratic, at times bordering on unprofessional and nonsensical, until you start learning her secrets and studying her interactions with the townspeople and with her mother, who’s suffering from cancer.
Even though Top of the Lake is steeped in the atmosphere of its lush, real locations, and has a pungent, at times overpowering physical realism, it’s as much a fable or cautionary tale as it is a detective story. As in Campion’s The Piano — and her other films, including An Angel at My Table, Sweetie, Portrait of a Lady, and Bright Star — this miniseries is jam-packed with situations that play like archetypal showdowns between representatives of male and female psychology. Matt Mitcham is a bad daddy par excellence, a long-haired patriarch with macho criminal sons, hot-tempered and domineering, always twisting the verbal knife to gain advantage, especially when he’s dealing with women. His counterpart is GJ (Holly Hunter, the Oscar-winning star of The Piano), an American guru with flowing white hair who leads a colony of damaged-but-healing women who’ve take up refuge in storage containers on land that Tsui claims was sold out from under him. (That it was sold to women adds insult to injury; the man’s a reflexive misogynist, and every time he enters GJ’s camp, the story seems to shudder.)
How do Robin’s quest, Tui’s fate, her father’s rage, and GJ’s mysterious, somewhat aloof knowingness fit together? We’ll find out eventually, and episode three — a triumph of writing, directing, and acting that premieres next week — assembles some key pieces. Suffice it to say that from its opening scene in which Tui wanders into water and seems inclined to drown herself, you know you’re in the hands of a master filmmaker who’s in complete command of the raw material of her art, and who seems to be working very close to her subconscious. At its most hypnotic, this miniseries — which was co-scripted by Campion and Gerard Lee, and directed by Campion and Garth Davis — gives me the same intellectual and aesthetic charge that I get from watching Campion’s feature films. The flowing curves of the mountains, the verdant greens and fecund, dusk-lit blues of the forest, the stillness of the lake, all have symbolic potency. They’re dreamscapes as well as landscapes, pregnant with narrative potential and buried secrets.
Campion’s narrative landscapes are as female in their imagery and concerns as Martin Scorsese’s are male, utterly and unapologetically so; a lot of the situations depicted within them — especially Robin’s interactions with the all-male police force, which constantly strives to diminish her and put her in her “place” even though most of them never think of themselves as misogynists — will resonate powerfully in the aftermath of Steubenville and the related discussions of rape culture and ingrained sexism. But the miniseries never devolves into polemic. It’s not trying to teach lessons or sum anything up. It’s about mindsets and blind spots, hostility and fear, but mostly it’s about complicated, contradictory people, all coping with tremendous buried pain, and muddling along as best they can.
* The name of Peter Mullan’s character was previously misspelled. It has been corrected.