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Top of the Lake | TV review

Jane Campion dives into television with a small-town mystery.
By A.A. Dowd |

Once upon a time, television was where movie careers went to die. Not so much anymore: In our era of primo prime time, a tenure on the tube looks like a savvy professional move. It certainly did wonders for Alec Baldwin.

For a real sign that the stigma of the small screen is a thing of the past, look at some of the moonlighting masters who have directed for TV these past few years. Martin Scorsese helmed the debut episode of Boardwalk Empire, while Luck and Boss kicked off their inaugural seasons with pilots from Michael Mann and Gus Van Sant, respectively. Most recently, The Social Network’s David Fincher lent his formal prowess—and Hollywood-honcho pedigree—to the first two hours of House of Cards, Netflix’s fledgling stab at original programming.

Those gigs were toe-in-the-water forays into the medium. With Top of the Lake, Jane Campion takes a headlong plunge. Shot for Australian television, this moody, missing-girl procedural airs on the Sundance Channel in seven installments. Though Campion split directing duties with Garth Davis, her fiercely feminine sensibilities are unmistakable. (At least from what I saw; though the miniseries screened publicly at Sundance, the distributor wouldn’t provide more than the first four eps.)

Working from a script she penned with Gerard Lee—who cowrote her first feature, 1989’s Sweetie—Campion bends a familiar whodunit template into one of her lyrical bouts of gender warfare. Back home in forebodingly remote New Zealand to care for her ailing mother, big-city detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) gets pulled into the case of a pregnant 12-year-old found wading through icy water. The girl quickly disappears, leaving local authorities to uncover both her whereabouts and the identity of the father—parallel mysteries that open up old wounds for our sleuthing protagonist.

Because of its long-arc focus on a single crime investigated by a troubled female detective, Top of the Lake has earned not-unfair comparisons to AMC’s The Killing. Of course, both shows are really just dead-serious riffs on TV’s ultimate game of clues, Twin Peaks. You’ll find little of David Lynch’s surreal humor in this ash-gray landscape, but Lake spins a similarly tangled web of grudges, town secrets and hidden passions. As in Peaks, the supporting cast of townsfolk/suspects is superb. Peter Mullan, as the missing girl’s terrifying drug-lord father, turns the show’s most obvious red herring into a faintly sympathetic monster. No less cloudy in his motives is local cop David Wenham, who shifts almost imperceptibly between good intentions and boys’-club chauvinism. Only Holly Hunter’s messianic leader, bestowing wisdom upon a cabal of soul-searching women, fails to make much of an impression. Perhaps later episodes will clarify her character.

But it’s Moss, at once vulnerable and ferocious, who provides the series with its dramatic heft. Deflecting institutional sexism is her full-time job on Mad Men, yet that cross to bear is the only real similarity between Peggy Olson and this damaged, determined law-woman. She’s a quintessential Campion heroine—navigating an alternately menacing and dreamlike world, pushing back against the hostility and condescension of predatory men. The director, filming in her native New Zealand for the first time since The Piano (1993), has applied her big-screen vision to a small-screen canvas. Auteurs looking to make the leap: This is how you do it.

The first two episodes of Top of the Lake premiere Monday 18 on Sundance Channel and arrive on VOD Tuesday 19.

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