by Tony Dayoub
It's that time of year just before the summer blockbuster season when I find it hard to get my butt into a theater seat. For every surprise like The We and the I (which has, unfortunately, yet to open around the country) you get two entirely predictable movies like Olympus Has Fallen (opening Friday) or Oz: The Great and Powerful, a film so dull I can't even think of what to write about it. So it's not unusual that some promising television series start appearing during this lull to take advantage of the open playing field. Game of Thrones and Mad Men, two outstanding cable shows, return in a few weeks. David Mamet's Phil Spector, starring Al Pacino and Helen Mirren, debuts this weekend on HBO. And now the Sundance Channel has realized the virtues of airing their own scripted original programming starting with Top of the Lake, a 7-episode miniseries created by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee (who last collaborated on 1989's Sweetie).
Top of the Lake begins with an eerie sight. 12-year-old Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe) walks chest-deep into a freezing lake in a small mountain community in New Zealand. Appropriately enough, the town is called Laketop, and Campion—who directs most of the series herself—spends most of her time establishing the peculiar rhythms of the insulated village. Most of Laketop's men are sexist, particularly Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), a local "town leader" and Tui's father. Yet not too far higher up, in a lakeside clearing called Paradise, a group of women cast off by society feel comfortable enough to have established a colony under a gray-haired guru named GJ (Holly Hunter, reunited with Campion 20 years after The Piano). When it's discovered that Tui is 5 months pregnant, local cop Al Parker (David Wenham) calls in Queenstown Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) to assist. Griffin—who grew up in Laketop and is back to visit her dying mother—feels compelled to stay when Tui goes missing, for reasons having to do as much with finding the little girl as they do with finding herself.
Moss (Mad Men) is an inspired choice for the lead. Her frowny, sharp-edged face and piercing eyes mask the vulnerability inherent in her small frame. From some angles Moss looks fragile, and yet, most of the time, there's a steely dimension to her glare that seems perfectly in line with Griffin having grown up in Laketop. She is a feminine/feminist successor to Twin Peaks' F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper, in much the same way Top of the Lake is to the David Lynch murder mystery. Both Griffin and Cooper are outsiders scorned by their respective towns' denizens. But each has a unique viewpoint that appreciates and melds with the surrounding environment to help cast light in some of the darker corners they are led to.
If there is any difference in Top of the Lake from Twin Peaks—and mind you, of all the shows to ever stake a claim as Peaks' spiritual inheritor, this comes closest—it is in the countenance of its insular townspeople, who seem less a Green Acres kind of harmless-but-quirky than just outright threatening in the Straw Dogs vein. Much of that may have to do with the intrinsic tension of Top of the Lake. Mitcham's retort to Parker after the cop wonders whether the dog-breeding drug lord is in shock? "Shock?" he scoffs. "I had my first orgasm when I was 7. My first fuck when I was 11. So she's a slut... like her dad was a slut. But she's too young to have a baby. I wouldn't do that to one of my bitches." This and the barely concealed misogyny that arises in Mitcham when he confronts GJ's female followers (Sweetie's Genevieve Lemon numbers among them) over ownership of Paradise (land that he long sought for himself) are potent reminders of the heightened disconnect between male and female in Laketop. In Top of the Lake, retribution against a cop like Griffin, as brash as she is, still has the potential of becoming sexually transgressive—as it probably was for the missing Tui.
Straddling the line separating Griffin from her hometown is Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), an ex-flame haunted by his recent time in prison who also happens to be one of Matt's sons. His increasing involvement in the case has less to do with the fact that Tui is his half-sister than that he still feels protective of Griffin. But it's too early to tell what part Johnno plays in this. There's a pagan aspect to him that fits right in with that of the rest of his clan. It's a sharp contrast to the more civilized demeanor of the other man who looms large in Griffin's life, Al Parker. Of all of Laketop's interesting personalities, the hard-to-peg Johnno is the one that gives off the most disquieting vibe.
Top of the Lake premiered on Monday with the airing of its first two episodes. But you still have many opportunities to see those in reruns before its third episode premieres next Monday. With Campion and company wisely deciding Top of the Lake would be more potent in a closed run of 7 installments (rather than the ongoing serial format that was the death knell for Twin Peaks), I can't think of a better way to while the weeks away before more promising material makes a comeback at the movies.