"Top of the Lake": Like the best crime series, it's about much more than crime-solving

Jane Campion's gripping series stars "Mad Men's" Elisabeth Moss, who joins TV's cadre of tough female characters

Published March 18, 2013 7:55PM (EDT)

Elisabeth Moss stars in Jane Campion's "Top of the Lake"
Elisabeth Moss stars in Jane Campion's "Top of the Lake"

In ‘Top of the Lake," Jane Campion’s extraordinary new crime series, beginning tonight on the Sundance Channel, Holly Hunter plays GJ, a plainspoken spiritual guru, tending to a flock of lost middle-aged women — among them, a sex addict, a woman reeling from the loss of her beloved chimpanzee — with minimal spiritual mumbo jumbo, maximum hard truths. She wears her hair long and white, her shirts buttoned up to the collar, looking like an impatient Mexican gangster lost in the New Zealand bush (or as Emily Nussbaum points out in her review of the series, something like Jane Campion). I’m going to channel GJ’s particular harsh bluntness here, because “Top of the Lake,” gorgeous and ambiguous and gripping like a hallucination, deserves it: Watch it. Do it now.

Elisabeth Moss — who when “Mad Men” begins in a few weeks, will have the distinction of being the best part of the two best shows currently on television — stars as Robin Griffin, a detective who specializes in sexual assault, with which she has too much personal experience. Robin arrives back in New Zealand from Sydney to visit her mother, who is sick, and gets caught up in the case of Tui, a pregnant 12-year-old. The series, which is visually stunning — a meandering mystery playing out in the glories of Middle-earth — begins with Tui walking into the freezing lake, trying to kill herself. The first episode ends with Tui’s disappearance. If she’s alive or dead, and who the father of her child might be, comes to consume Robin and constitutes the narrative arc of the series.

Even with this setup, what “Top of the Lake” does so well is to make digressions as welcome as the case it's unraveling. GJ and her comrades, living communally out of shipping containers in a place called Paradise, figure into the mechanics of the mystery only tangentially, but are so funny and odd you won’t mind. Tui’s father, Matt Mitchum (Peter Mullan, tearing through his every scene), the local threatening and charismatic criminal mastermind, figures much more proximately to the case, but not so much as to keep him from rolling around in a forest on ecstasy with the aforementioned chimp lady.

“Top of the Lake” is not particularly interested in the glories of crime-solving. This isn’t case cracking by speed, by frenzy, by no sleep, by kicking down every door. When Robin tacks up a picture of Tui in her living room, it doesn’t turn into a wall of crazy — it turns into a kind of understated shrine. At one point, Robin believes she’s had an epiphany, and calls up her shady, odd boss Al to tell him she’s had a breakthrough. He tells her to come over to dinner the next night, a delay of game that would be unheard of in an American-set series. Campion doesn’t make us wait for the dinner scene —  it’s the very next one — but the calmness with which it arrives imbues the series with a tremendous sense of patience.

In this, “Top of the Lake” is like another series set in a singular town full of mist and trees and diversions and unforgettable imagery: David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” But it wears the influence so well, it looks new — an outfit you’ve seen before, but never draped in quite this way, that you won't soon forget. A teenager playing the electric guitar alone in the mountains. A black bird tattooed on the side of a skull, under a slick of black hair. A young girl astride a horse, rifle strapped to her back.

Robin belongs to a quickly expanding cadre of tough female TV characters, including Carrie Mathison and Sarah Linden and Elizabeth Jennings, whose devotion to work reflects some personal trauma. But unlike her peers, Robin is not some super-spy, she’s human scale, with human skills. She has spent half her life keeping a distance from her past, from her family, from love, and when she returns home and she can no longer fend any of it off she starts to unravel. But even as it all comes crashing down — even as, in that clichéd way, the case gets too personal — Robin knows, on the deepest level, that there are limits to the truth’s power.

“Fuck the truth,” she says in the series’ climatic confession, and she means it. Robin is hyper-aware of what most cops and cop shows try not to consider: that they’re always too late. By time they are hunting for “the truth” the damage is done, and all they can do is figure out how to live with it — or not.

“Top of the Lake” is full of characters grappling with this truth — the truth of too-lateness. GJ is counseling women who have been traumatized and are trying to move on. Matt is railing against being unable to save his daughter, to have kept her from being impregnated. Robin’s boyfriend Johnno is dealing with his inability to protect her. (“Top of the Lake” concerns itself with any number of sexual assaults, multiple instances of male violence on the female body, and yet it can still be very sexy. Robin and Johnno, a high-school flame with whom she rekindles a true love affair, have a lot of heat and a lot of sex. In their first encounter, in a bar bathroom, he immediately goes down on her. It reminded me of Marnie’s emergency masturbation session in “Girls'” first season. Sexual urgency expressed in atypical, but welcome ways.) Robin’s own mother is trying to skirt decades-old missteps. And Robin is desperately hoping to solve Tui's case, like that will have some bearing on her own past and some meaning for Tui, who is already pregnant, already raped.

“Top of the Lake” is uniquely concerned with the consequences, not the case. By the time the case gets cracked, it almost seems an afterthought, of so much less urgency than the matter of living and surviving. "Top of the Lake," like the best crime series, is about so much more than solving a crime.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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