By Blake Baxter (@bbax2)
In 2013, television fans have been treated with an embarrassment of riches. There have been and continues to be an unlimited number of options for our viewing pleasure. Not only has this year given us new seasons of Golden Age shows in their twilight years like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but it has also produced a plethora of new shows for us to sink our teeth into. Notably, rising cable conglomerate FX added two thrilling new dramas in The Americans and The Bridge to solidify their roster of adrenaline pumping, ratings generating hits. On the web, Netflix attracted attention and garnered critical acclaim for its foray into original programming with the political thriller House of Cards and the women’s prison comedy Orange is the New Black. However, that is just scratching the surface. In fact, some of the best television occurred on a channel that there’s a decent you don’t even have.
Top of The Lake is a seven-part miniseries that aired in March and April on Sundance Channel. Created, written and directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion, it hauntingly tells the story of a detective in desperate search of a missing, and surprisingly pregnant, 12-year old girl as she is forced to confront personal demons of her past. It takes place in a fictional town in New Zealand, surrounded by majestic mountains, spooky woodlands and an alluring but ominous lake.
It begins with Tui Mitcham, the aforementioned twelve-year old girl, attempting to kill herself in the freezing lake. After she is rescued, she is discovered to somehow be pregnant and is questioned by Detective Robin Griffin. The girl, too timid and frightened to reveal anything to the investigators, opens up slightly to Robin, but when asked who impregnated her, she writes “no one” on a sliver of paper.
Robin, played masterfully by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, (Peggy Olson) lives in Australia and is only in town to stay with her dying mother. However, soon after Robin interviews Tui, the girl vanishes and Robin becomes consumed by the case. As her investigation unfolds, it is revealed that the luscious lands of her hometown are filled with secrets from both the past and the present. There is an underbelly to this quaint, and seemingly innocuous place that takes guile and knowledge to navigate. And it could be as dark and mysterious as Robin’s own past. She has guile and more than enough guts to survive, but to her, it is all a great unknown. And, to make matters worse, she doesn’t know whom she can trust. Old friends, old enemies and old flames all offer to help in finding the girl, but whose best interests do they really have in mind?
Moss is accompanied by a trio of character actors who shine in supporting roles. Veteran Australian actor, David Wenham, best known for playing Faramir in The Lord of The Rings trilogy, plays Robin’s boss, detective Al Parker. Scotsman Peter Mullan plays Matt Mitcham, Tui’s volatile and self-loathing father, with such an edge and tenacity that the viewer doesn’t know whether to respect or fear him. Lastly, the versatile Holly Hunter plays a form of a gruff soothsayer in a subplot involving a group of battered women seeking “Paradise”. Here, Top of The Lake plays with the idea of feminism without fully embracing or shunning it with interesting results. The other major character and star of the story is the extraordinary setting. Campion and fellow director, Garth Davis shoot the New Zealand landscape in a surreal fashion that feels more dream like as the events and revelations grow stranger.
It is certainly a strange series; one that starts a little slowly, but quietly builds momentum. First it’s intriguing, then it’s addicting, and then, it’s over. By the end you are just as invested in the characters on the screen as the one that is conspicuously missing from it. The conclusion, by no means, answers all of the questions introduced, which will undoubtedly infuriate some people, but this isn’t Breaking Bad. Top of the Lake isn’t concerned with cleaning up loose ends; it is a meditation on the effects of crime, abuse and the heartbreak left in the wake. The knee-jerk reaction is to say that this sounds like AMC’s The Killing, but Grantland’s Andy Greenwald put it best when he said, “saying Top of the Lake is a smarter version of The Killing would be like calling a Harley-Davidson a smarter version of a Big Wheel.”
While even the most enthusiastic TV junkie might have missed Top of the Lake in its original run, the good news is that the whole series is currently streaming on Netflix so you can catch up with it at any time you please. A more daring person than me might attempt to watch it without the subtitles, but I would advise turning them on to make sure you register each line of accented dialogue. Either way, I recommend Top of The Lake to anyone in the mood for a dark, compelling and weird mystery set in a bizarre world unlike any other on television.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.