It used to be easy to watch television. Too easy. Everything went down smoothly, predictably, according to decades of familiarity.
You can still find the old style of television if you look for it; but even one of the most successful shows of the decade, Mad Men, is less the straightforward serial drama it appears to be than a meticulous simulacrum of old-style TV, with big quotation marks around every scene and action suggesting “See? This is how TV used to be: Isn’t it strange?”
It’s those quotation marks which have kept Mad Men lively on its six-season journey through the national psyche. (Its seventh and final season begins 10 p.m. Sunday on AMC.) In the same way, it was the sardonically amoral atmosphere of The Sopranos that kept us serially fixated through a near-decade of grotesque violence and family horror-comedy.
Narrative, its permutations of events, is just not enough anymore to engage us. The most successful contemporary television shows are individually hand-tooled to capture a state of mind, a pervasive mood that saturates the whole experience.
Which brings me to a seven-part “mini-series” from New Zealand co-produced with BBC2. At first look a plain-vanilla police procedural in the laid-back, moody Nordic manner, Top of the Lake rapidly evolves right off the genre map into something more like Twin Peaks than CSI.
It opens with familiar-enough procedural tropes—a preteen pregnancy, a disappearance—but the pedestrian mechanics of cop-show routine are rendered eerie and echoey from the git-go by the physical setting, the precipitous Lake district of New Zealand’s South Island. Even in near shots, the characters seem ant-sized against the blue-gray sheets of water and their surrounding peaks.
Adding to the eerie mood is the sheer lack of exposition; we learn (or fail to learn) the facts along with juvenile-crime specialist Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) as she awkwardly copes with her high-macho colleagues in investigating the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old. As the facts do reluctantly emerge, they seem increasingly less important than the atmosphere around them and the rising pressure on Detective Griffin to separate her own fate from that of the vanished child.
Despite its episodic structure, Top of the Lake is conceived and edited as a single dramatic arc, some six hours of experience to be absorbed slowly through restrained immersion—not the now-fashionable practice of binge-watching. Written (and largely directed) by Kiwi auteur Jane Campion, the series is saturated by the surreal, Kaspar Hauser–ish sensibility that made her early work—including Sweetie, The Piano, and An Angel at My Table (originally broadcast as a miniseries)—among the most distinctive and disturbing of the early ’90s.
Top of the Lake ’s release history is as unconventional as its dramaturgy. Instead of debuting on the small screen it was shot for, it premiered instead as a theatrical marathon at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, then debuted last March in seven installments on the niche Sundance Channel before even airing Down Under. Despite extraordinary reviews, it continued its idiosyncratic career, more or less disappearing from view before arriving without fanfare on DVD this January (BBC Home Entertainment, $34.98). You can rent the discs at Scarecrow, or stream it from Amazon or Netflix.
Viewers accustomed to today’s free-and-easy way with video watching may have difficulty with Top of the Lake. Its comparative brevity may tempt you to gorge instead of letting the show make its effect over time. Let it breathe, and it will linger powerfully in the mind, making most contemporary “long-form” TV seem formulaic and vacuous in comparison.
By mid-series, it’s clear that the real drama of the show is archetypical, not individual. We’re watching two unconventional “families” of characters, polarized by gender: the rankly male compound of the missing child’s feral father, and a collective of women damaged by poisonous relationships huddled around a ferociously sardonic feminist.
Against their background, agencies of the state—police, school, hospital—seem tissue-thin. And, increasingly as the “story” unfolds, there are the children of this anomic “paradise,” emerging to “play” the roles of the adults missing from their lives. With our knowledge that there will be no postponement of issues to a second season, the pressure for dramatic and emotional resolution as the final episode nears its end becomes intense.
Much of the drama’s tension is dependent on Campion’s characteristically brilliant casting: of Holly Hunter, viper-thin, as the women’s-collective guru, and of the male trio of David Wenham (Lord of the Rings’ Faramir) as top cop, the embodiment of oblivious male authority; Peter Mullen (My Name Is Joe) as his raging feral counterpart, and Thomas M. Wright, charming and feckless as Mullen’s sexy boy-man son.
And above all is Moss as Detective Griffin, with her enigmatic gaze, already so brilliantly exploited as Mad Men’s Peggy Olson. In that show, Moss’ character subverts expectations of the males around her by apparent innocuousness; in Lake, it’s the viewer who’s subverted by that gaze, fixed but uncertain, forcing us to see everything it sees from Griffin’s point of view—while also keeping us at a distance from her thoughts and feelings.
It’s understandable that viewers are succumbing more and more to the force-feeding of TV entertainment. There’s just too damn much good stuff out there, more than any normal, measured appetite can absorb. Fortunately there aren’t that many of us equally drawn to the comic-versus-gothic politics of Veep and House of Cards, the meticulous period evocations of Boardwalk Empire, and the over-the-top fur-and-sorcery of Game of Thrones. Somewhere among the giants’ battle for viewers, there must be room for a Top of the Lake somewhere underfoot.