by request: 42
life itself

top of the lake

In 2013, it’s hard to know when to write about a TV series. The first time I ever said anything about TV on this blog was January 8, 2002. In one post I noted that a new Buffy episode would be on later that night. (Thanks to the Internet, I can look it up and find that it was Season Six, Episode 11, “Gone”.) I also mentioned 24, which had the seventh episode of the first season that night. In a separate post, I briefly announced that I had just finished watching Season One of Sex and the City (we didn’t have HBO in those days, so I assume this was on DVD). That would have put me three seasons behind. Those two posts established the two primary ways of watching TV shows: live, or after the fact. TiVo was introduced in 1999. We didn’t get a DVR at our house until December of 2004. So in the early 2000s, the only way we could catch up with old shows was via DVDs.

Now, of course, there are DVDs, and streaming, and On Demand, and DVRs … there are a lot of ways to watch TV shows, so many, in fact, that fewer and fewer people watch them when they are actually aired. (And, I imagine, fewer people pay for access to premium channels when they can just wait for the Blu-ray.) At first, this use of “time shifting” allowed you to watch an 8:00 show at 9:00, or a Tuesday show on a Wednesday. (And, of course, you could fast-forward through the commercials.) Now, though, it’s common for people to wait until a season is complete, and then to pig out on an entire season over the course of a weekend, several months after the show has aired.

So, when do I write about a TV series? When it’s on? That’s what I used to do, and what I mostly still do: a post when a season begins, another when it ends. I’m not one for weekly recaps (I read them, but I don’t write them). I’m also a spoiler-phobe, so I try not to include spoilers when I write.

But how long does the spoiler rule last? I’m always telling people to catch up on Rubicon, or Lights Out … those shows have been off the air for a while, am I supposed to avoid spoilers in case someone actually takes me up on the suggestion and watches them? (Not that long ago, Nathan Fillion tweeted a joke that was also a spoiler for Firefly/Serenity. He got chewed out, but, as he noted, the movie was from 2005 and the TV series from 2002.)

Top of the Lake was a classy Sundance mini-series (in the U.S., anyway … it was a co-production with the BBC, and with UKTV in Australia and New Zealand). It starred Elisabeth Moss, featured Holly Hunter in what ended up being almost a glorified cameo, and a lot of other fine actors I didn’t recognize (most notably Peter Mullan, writer/director of The Magdalene Sisters). Here’s a spoiler for you: in a real cameo, Lucy Lawless turned up in one episode. The entire production was created by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee, with beautiful location shooting in New Zealand. The final episode aired last night; today you can already stream the entire series on Netflix. Which means, if I convince you it is worth watching, you can catch up this weekend.

Here in the States, Top of the Lake was compared to The Killing, another detective series with an unusual setting, dark secrets, a very good pilot, and top-notch acting from the leads. Sadly, The Killing went astray (not for everyone … the third season is about to start, so someone out there is watching), resulting in some of the harshest criticism I’ve ever read for something that got such positive reviews in the beginning. Top of the Lake doesn’t stick around long enough to go astray, which is a point in its favor. But the truth is, Campion and Lee have such command of the material that they were never in danger of wandering off. Holly Hunter’s character is a kind of guru to a commune of women, and their scenes aren’t always clearly connected to the rest of the narrative, but they make thematic sense, and it all comes together in the end, anyway.

Moss plays a detective with a few secrets of her own who becomes obsessed with a case involving a missing, pregnant 12-year-old. The series brings together a lot of common elements without ever quite letting us know how common they are … you think you’re watching something entirely new, but in retrospect, you recognize much of what goes on. The troubled detective from the small town where the crimes take place, the town where everyone knows everyone and everyone has something to hide, the red herrings and the red herrings that turn out to be on target, the sympathetic police officer … it’s all familiar, but in a different location and with a different feel.

While all of this goes on, there are undercurrents about power and gender and violence. Top of the Lake doesn’t rub this in our faces, the way a killer-porn show like Criminal Minds does. It takes its time, it gets its points across, all the while keeping the mysteries intriguing.

Elisabeth Moss is great, and if you only know her from The West Wing and/or Mad Men, you’ll enjoy her even more. I have a few quibbles about the conclusion, but it often seems that a story with deep and interesting characters getting involved in deep and interesting events fails us at the end. Perhaps it’s because the journey is so good, we don’t want it to end, so any conclusion feels forced. Grade for series: A-.