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.