A scene from Top of the Lake. (Credit: Sundance Channel)
Top of the Lake, which premiered last night on the Sundance channel, is a police procedural, a genre I often avoid, at least in its popular-network incarnation. (The Wire, for example, I obviously loved.) There is something that has always bothered me about the way these shows organize their plots around a particularly lurid read of violence in modern life and, in many cases, violence against women. This is not a matter of blood and guts so much as it is that the entire enterprise—the pretense that the cops are always well-intentioned and impeccably trained, indifferent to power structures and, to the last one, a maverick. Nobody on television suffers from less-than-diligent law enforcement. The victims are, often enough, flat, idealized girls who hardly seem human. They aren’t usually alive for long enough to acquire a personality. Sympathy for the perpetrator—or the cop dedicated to catching him—is the only room for real empathy in the narrative.
Top of the Lake isn’t like that. So you should be watching it.
In the first episode, which will be re-broadcast tonight and tomorrow, Detective Robin Griffin, played by Elisabeth Moss from Mad Men, has come back to her hometown in New Zealand to visit her possibly terminally ill mother. This is not an assignment she relishes, so when the local police outpost asks her to help out with a sexual abuse case, she quickly agrees to interrupt her vacation for it. The victim is a twelve-year-old, half-Thai girl named Tui (Jacqueline Joe). At first she seems like the same sort of hair-in-her-eyes, sullen victim you’ve seen on a hundred shows. But when Robin asks her to write the name of her rapist down on a sheet of paper, Tui writes: “No one.” And when she is sent home to her white father, Tui’s first instinct is to go for the guns. So when she vanishes, without the series ever needing to say so, it’s obvious that she did not go gently into whatever night was following her.
From there I’ll let you watch the show itself to see what, precisely, is going on. From the get-go it dedicates itself to something other than the ordinary Missing White Girl story that these sorts of shows traffic in. Even AMC’s occasionally brilliant (if ultimately terrible) The Killing fell right for that, female showrunner and all. In fact, Top of the Lake’s best forebear might turn out to be Twin Peaks, where it turned out that Laura Palmer was not just a prom queen. Tui is a fighter, it’s clear from the first episode, and a wary and piercing presence. Which isn’t to say that it must have been enough to save her from what happens, often enough, to young women with a secret adults want them to keep.
Or, at least, some adults: mostly men. The most remarkable moment in the pilot comes when Tui visits the feminist collective (and/or cult) which has set up on a property next to her dad’s, and the collective’s guru—played by Holly Hunter in a less-than-realistic grey wig—tells Tui that her stomach contains a “time bomb.” That sort of comment might seem hard to tell a twelve-year-old, and yet it is also just the thing to say to Tui at that moment, articulating something she clearly feels about herself. And given that this is the last scene before she slips away, it is an apt punctuation.
The Crones (my name, not the show’s) may seem a bit caricaturish to people unused to seeing women over forty on television, at least without considerable intervention by surgeons and a diet of kale, yerba maté and pilates. But they aren’t so much satirical as kind of startlingly honest. “They’ve no longer got any hope of fitting into the world, so they’re kind of outspoken. They’ve fallen off the social edge of the world,” Campion told New York Magazine’s Vulture. “Their story doesn’t have a part for them to play, which is the unfuckables. They kind of know it, and it’s sad, but it’s also liberating.”
That none of the women in this show seem to have any illusions about the men they live with is, after all, important to how this mystery unfolds. The Scottish actor Peter Mullan is already drawing raves for his performance as Matt, Tui’s strange and violent father. In another kind of show he’d have a dramatic bullseye painted on his head, the one evil man in a pack of soft, pudgy and comforting dads. In Top of the Lake, by contrast, Matt’s just the one who is the most honest about his violent temper. A friend told me last night that she’d already heard the show joked about as “misandrist.” It’s certainly true that there’s barely a decent man in this show. All I can say is watch, and tell me that it doesn’t seem, to you as it did me, like there was more than a little truth in the fantasia. Especially in small towns.