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The first season of Top Of The Lake, made for Australian TV by writer-director Jane Campion with her cowriter Gerard Lee and co-director Garth Davis, is the sort of TV-meets-high-art happening that doesn’t get the mainstream play that specialty shows like Game of Thrones commands; but while Top of the Lake never had its own SNL spoof, it’s far from haughty and inaccessible. Part cop-show puzzler, part nether-realm fairy tale, and part no-prisoners manifesto for kickass women and the men who love them, Top of the Lake is quite simply one of the best things to come out of 2013, and it will leave its hooks in you for who knows how long after, maybe always.
The show stars The Handmaid’s Tale’s Elisabeth Moss as Robin, a detective on leave from her life in Sydney while she tends to her cancer-stricken mother in their rural New Zealand hometown. The setup is standard SVU: when pregnant, 12-year-old Tui tries to drown herself in the titular body of water, the local police bring Robin, whose area of expertise is abused children, in on the case. After Tui goes missing, things get far trickier, as the town’s secrets, embodied by Robin and Tui’s nasty dad, Matt (a terrifying Peter Mullan), begin bubbling up from the depths. There’s more, much more, involving Matt’s sweet-faced son Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), the town’s handsome head detective (David Wenham), and an enclave of damaged women overseen by a terse and merciless oracle named G.J. (Holly Hunter in long grey locks that lend her a striking resemblance to…Jane Campion).
“Follow the body. The body has enormous intelligence,” advises G.J. (Gerard-Jane, anybody? that’s my guess). And really, you have no choice in the matter because Campion, Lee and Davis have crafted Top of the Lake to work its way straight into your blood; the series resonates internally, physically, with fear, sex, anger, awe and righteousness.
By the time you work your way through to the end—I started out slowly, episode by episode, then watched the last three straight through in a nervous near-frenzy—it’s clear that the body, subject as it is to buffetings large and small, is perhaps the only solid thing we have to go on in a world where life is an endless negotiation with everybody and everything, from lovers to rapists to moms, to an omnipresent natural world that offers up safe havens one moment, then sucks you beneath its pretty mirrored surfaces the next.
And let’s not forget the strictures of television formatting, here nicely messed with as Campion and Lee set the standard police procedural against the kind of Brothers Grimm backdrop the team deployed so cunningly in Campion’s wave-making debut feature Sweetie—witness the chalet in which Matt lives surrounded by his brutish half-wit offspring and canine minions; or the caravan castle of bones created by Tui’s teen friend; or the lonely misfit suspect who secretes himself in a dark forest cabin, emerging only to teach the town’s children old-world folk dances.
Here, though, the trail of bread crumbs leading Robin back to the real world has been snatched up by Robin as much as anyone else, and one of the most satisfying aspects of Top of the Lake is the fact that, though surely lost in the woods, Robin’s also the agent of her own destiny. The chance to watch her fulfill it is one of the more thrilling things to emerge from the black box in ages.