Monday, March 25, 2013

Top of the Lake

I’m not going to lie. I was in love with this show before the opening credits were over. The imagery was so unique and full of meaning. An elk’s head, a fetus, a photo of a little girl, all buried beneath this incredibly picturesque lake, images of masculine and feminine, all overflowing. I was already deeply impressed, and that’s not even to mention the cast.

The show itself is very much like a New Zealand Twin Peaks or The Killing, telling a long-form mystery over the course of a season, all revolving around a rather unspeakable crime done to a little girl. But, instead of being about death, Top of the Lake is about the pregnancy of twelve year old Tui Mitchum (played by the excellent Jaqueline Joe). Unlike any of its contemporaries, Top of The Lake has a much clearer focus. The fact that this is about a pregnant girl makes the story much more about gender relations than it is about human depravity. The conflict inside Tui, a little girl with an unwanted boy growing inside her, really captures what the show is trying to tell us about human beings. This strange and unsettling conflict of the internal war between genders lives in every character.

There are two clear story arcs for this show. The first features Tui’s father, Matt Mitchum (played by Peter Mullan, a veteran character actor and an absolute joy to watch on screen) and his Neanderthal sons pitting themselves against a women's retreat, lead by a strangely gender neutral Holly Hunter. And while there’s comedy in watching Mullan being forced to listen to a long insane story about a woman and her chimp boyfriend, there’s also a clear meaning. This intersection of heightened masculinity and vaguely tortured femininity is the focal point of the show. Having the woman detail a failed relationship with a primate is really the cherry on top.

The second story arc is about a detective (played by Elizabeth Moss), working for child services, trying to find out who impregnated little Tui. She has a host of possible suspects. Moss is, in a lot of ways, the perfect feminist hero. With her strong features and totally unique look, she’s great to look at without being sexualized or even attractive. Squaring her off against a host of almost comically fragile woman and apish men makes for constant drama.

I could dissect each scene, pulling out the gender-related themes and analyzing each one in turn, but suffice it to say, writer/director Jane Champion infuses her thesis into every moment, while never derailing the tension or the mood. The mood remains like the first image of the lake, serene yet foreboding, while just below, dark and unsettling imagery conveys the terrible struggle embedded in our genes.

Article first published as TV Review: Top of the Lake -"Pilot" on Blogcritics.

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