Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Top Of the Lake

(Australia, 2013)

This was the first TV miniseries ever to be shown at Sundance. The seven-hour running length was broken up for lunch and another intermission. It is currently running on the Sundance Channel, and I can only hope that not too much has been excised to make room for the goddam commercials.

People have been reminded of both Twin Peaks and The Killing. I can’t see the first comparison—that was way quirkier than this is—but the second one makes sense. Both series follow one incident, though The Killing was in the big metropolitan area of Seattle and this one takes place in a small mountain town in New Zealand. And, as of the second episode, we don’t really know if there has been a killing, at least of the girl everyone is looking for. Seattle was perpetual rain, and here we have the truly stunning scenery of New Zealand, mountains and lakes. But the commonality is the atmosphere, the tone, the undercurrents running deep.

Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe) is a half-Thai girl, twelve years old, who is four months pregnant. She lives with her really nasty father and … two half-brothers? The family situation is pretty complex, and I haven’t figured it all out yet. Did one of them rape her? She runs away or disappears for some other reason. Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) is the police detective who had been working on the case when Tui vanishes. She is up against a lot of Down Under sexism—and I love you, Aussies and Kiwis, but you are the most sexist men in the English-speaking world, though I’m sure there are many sensitive men among you—and at least one law enforcement officer who is clearly bent. Tui’s father and brothers are unreconstructed outbackers, men’s men. Alpha males, as one woman puts it. Early on they drown a man with a punishment that got out of hand, or at least it did for the brothers. The dad may have intended murder all along.

What they’re pissed off about is a place called Paradise. They’ve had something going on up there at the top of the lake, and now a group of psychologically damaged women have moved in, and may have title to the land. They arrived all at once with cargo containers they converted into homes. Their semi-guru is Holly Hunter. And there things stand at the end of episode two.

(4/16/13) Now we’ve seen it all, and I was interested all the way through. The chief attraction is the edgy atmosphere and the performance by Elizabeth Moss. As is always the case in stories like this, there are a lot of twists and turns, and you can be pretty sure that the primrose path they’re leading you down is not the way things really are. But I never felt they weren’t playing fair. Here is a minor SPOILER: Tui is alive, but I think we all knew that. The tension, as the months go by, is whether of not she will be able to have the baby, given her very young age, and whether or not her crazy father will find her. He’s pulling out all the stops, bringing in an army of his meth-freak biker friends. And Robin has few friends and resources in her quest to find the girl.

I won’t reveal how it ends, except to say that the first solution offered was not very satisfying, but never fear. In a story like this you can be pretty sure there will be a last-minute revelation that will prove that things were much worse than you imagined. The groundwork for the actual solution was cleverly prepared and obscured, but it was there all along if you think back, and there was no cheating. They play fair, and the ending never insulted my intelligence by having someone do something real dumb. In fact, it is because we so often expect a protagonist to do something stupid right at the end that the tension builds, to the point that we were telling her “Don’t put down the gun!” and “Watch your back!” in the final minutes.

The conclusion leaves room for a second season if they want to do it. It will have to be a whole different case, though, unlike The Killing, which left us hanging at the end of season one. Which would be all right with me. I’d like to see the continuing story.

There was a lot of anger Down Under at the casting of Moss in the lead role, because she’s an American. People (Aussies and Kiwis, I assume) have viciously attacked her “horrible” accent. For myself, I hadn’t even known she was a Yank, never having seen Mad Men and not remembering her as the president’s daughter on The West Wing. And while I can easily distinguish between an Australian accent and any of the various British dialects, the difference between Aussie and Kiwi is too subtle for me. They are also angry at Jane Campion, who co-wrote and co-directed, for casting her in the first place. I say, get over it, assholes. You want Americans to retaliate by refusing “American” parts to Cate Blanchett, or Nicole Kidman? Of course you don’t. The mark of a good actress is the ability to play a variety of parts, use a voice coach for the accent, and then if they get a few words wrong, just live with it, okay?