There are some things you know immediately about Top of the Lake. First, it’s set New Zealand. Second, it stars Elisabeth Moss (Peggy on Mad Men) as you’ve never seen her before. Third, it’s as bleak as it is lovely, but it’s far from easy, escapist entertainment.
Top of the Lake (Saturday, Bravo, 9 p.m.) aired recently on the Sundance Channel in the U.S. and met with mostly ecstatic acclaim. It’s pessimistic, often angry and very beautiful. The creation of Jane Campion (An Angel at My Table; The Piano), it is at times unnervingly focused on the New Zealand landscape. The main setting is Laketop, a very remote town in southern New Zealand where the environment presents a gorgeous lake where one expects a mountain. It looks stunning, idyllic. And the point, from the beginning, is that this lovely place seethes with corruption, horror and hatred.
The seven-part drama approaches the core story in a sideways manner. First we meet the 12-year-old girl Tui (Jacqueline Joe), who walks into the lake, apparently intent on suicide. She’s rescued and it emerges she’s pregnant. Asked to name the man who had sex with her, she writes on a piece of paper: “No one.” Then, for a while, Tui disappears. It also turns out she’s the daughter of Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), a sort-of local tribal chief whose vast family engages in drug dealing and all manner of criminal activity. Mitcham is a monster of misogynist rage, raw with barely suppressed violence.
Into the picture comes Robin (Elisabeth Moss), a young police detective who grew up in the area and is now back, visiting her sick mother. She specializes in crimes against women and children and is corralled into helping out with the case of Tui. Robin has a loaded history with the local cops and the appallingly macho, violent Mitcham family. Already traumatized by being at home and seeing her mother’s frailty, she’s hardly capable of being involved in the case, but steps gingerly into it, to terrifying results.
Throughout, there’s an important sideshow. A local woman, G.J. (Holly Hunter), sets up a community she calls Paradise – “a half-way recovery camp for women in a lot of pain” that houses women in old shipping containers. Ignoring the local landowners, G.J. operates like a cult leader. She inspires the women she shelters and cultivates hatred in the local men. Spewing as much b.s. as she does wisdom, G.J. is very much a Jane Campion creation – there’s a preachiness to this sideshow but it fits, albeit awkwardly, into the unfolding crime drama.
Moss is a revelation here. There’s a scene in the fourth episode in which Robin seems to flirt with a jerk in a bar. Let’s just say he’s gutted by the outcome. One can see why Moss spent six months in New Zealand for this role. It’s as far from the office politics of Mad Men as it is possible to journey. Robin is a deeply complex character – depressed, angry, strong, flawed and at times on the edge of disintegration.
There is already talk of Emmy nominations for Top of the Lake, especially for Hunter and Moss. As fine as it is, a case against it is the utter grimness. Campion’s point, woven through it, is the sheer bottomless depth of male rage against women. Be warned.
Also airing this weekend
The Newsroom (Sunday, HBO Canada, 10 p.m.) is barely reviewable, really. Such are the extremes of opinion. I came to it late last year, the first season having aired while I was away at the soccer in Poland and Ukraine. The awkward grandstanding about TV news in the U.S. put me off, no matter how correct creator Aaron Sorkin is. From what I’ve seen of season two, Jeff Daniels, as cable-news anchor Will McAvoy, is still pontificating, taking a moral stand against reactionary news coverage and he’s loathing the Tea Party and its agenda. He’s a leader, of course, inside the newsroom, and the ambitious young journalists still seem oddly comfortable with speechifying-as-news. The series is that peculiar thing – one can cheer for it and jeer it, at the same time. Sorkin’s correct, his method is messy. Mind you, some scenes and story lines transcend the mess – Canadian Alison Pill is very fine as news producer Maggie Jordan, coping with a dreadful love life as she also tries to cope with work, and sometimes fails.
Last Call at the Oasis (Sunday, 10 p.m. CBC News Network on Passionate Eye) first aired in January and is a must-see for anyone brooding about the environment. It’s about water, and, mainly, the lack of it: Water as commodity, water as life-source. While it sometimes has an end-of-days tone to it, it is a reminder that, as we fret about oil, the issue of our water supply can’t be forgotten.