I am a fan of long form narrative. Recently, there has been a flux of two hour plus movies hitting the big screen. Some people feel that long running times are excessive, denoting the need for tighter editing or more competent story telling. However, I think that these worries are unfounded. Whether elongated scenes of life (see The Place Beyond the Pines and In to the Wonder) or grandiose denseness (see Django Unchained and The Great Gatsby), these epic length films allow fuller and ultimately more satisfying experiences. They do more because they have more time. Nothing shows the quality of the long form better than modern television. TV series have evolved from by the numbers single episodes to long ranging stories. Shows like the ill-fated Terriers and the online only House of Cards are more like incredibly long films. Their pacing and plot structure work on a grand scale, looking to a definitive end point and eventually reaching it. This re-invigoration of the long form in television has elevated the medium, making it the preferred method to tell a fuller story. Such is the case with Jane Champion and Gerard Lee’s Top of the Lake.
Miniseries is too simple of label to place on this project. It’s pacing is far different than most miniseries. This feels more like a meeting between an incredibly long film and a novel; something divided by chapters but made to be experienced as a whole. In fact, the cutting of episodes almost seems like an afterthought. They don’t end on a big moment or revelation. There is no shocking “to be continued moment”. Top of the Lake instead relies on its stark portrayal of misogyny, abuse, and corruption in a fictional small New Zealand town of Lake Top to keep you hooked.
The story begins with little to no context. Top of the Lake centers on a police inspector Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) as she works on a case of a Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe), a young girl who attempts suicide and disappears after confirming she is pregnant. Tui’s criminal family, led by patriarch Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), interfere with the case while simultaneously quarreling with a group of women, guided by spiritual leader GJ (Holly Hunter), over a long standing parcel of land called Paradise. The audience’s hand is never held throughout the show. We meet characters as naturally as passing by them. History and experience is slowly revealed in humanistic conversation and interactions rather than plodding exposition. At times it can be jarring, learning something that everyone already seems to know. Top of the Lake treats the audience as voyeurs, carefully watching every strange and uncomfortable moment in the small town of Lake Top.
The themes in the show are masterfully handled by Gerald Lee, Jane Champion, and Garth Davis (the latter two of which directed the show). The misogyny repressed varies from repulsively forward to heavily veiled. Matt Mitcham represents the full frontal abuse of masculinity as she push around women as if they were nothing. Uncaring comments from police, specifically Det. Al Parker (David Wenham), land heavily. “It’s not like she can get pregnant twice” is said so offhandedly, ignoring further abuse and maladies. Women are treated as second class citizens, their value determined by the men around them. Even amongst women, the idea of the fairer sex is taken to extremes. Robin’s mother (Robyn Nevin) fears for her daughter’s safety derives more from the concept of a woman’s frailty than the danger of the men she deals with. This multifaceted approach to the themes doesn’t ever seem heavy handed or unreal, instead it offers a look into how deep seeded men’s abuse of power has gone.
Power isn’t exclusive to men in the show. Holy Hunter’s stone faced portrayal of GJ lends a mythical aura around her. Her power comes from a sense of independence from the material world, instead focusing on an abstract philosophical ideal that her followers also strive for throughout the show. Elisabeth Moss’ depiction of Robin also provides an example of a strong woman. Moss’s performance is so diverse and subtle, maintaining a hardened and dominant exterior while the secrets of Robin’s past strongly affect her character. When she is with her ex-boyfriend, Johnno Mitcham (Thomas M. Wright), Robin shows a very different side of her character. She flirts and shows her femininity, something that often hidden due to the atmosphere of the town.
The final episodes of the series complicate matters in such extreme ways that they fundamentally change the track of the entire show. Sections of the final episode are so blunt and seemingly come from nowhere that a viewer may feel cheated. Don’t. If Top of the Lake is trying to show anything, it’s the complexity of how people react when faced with unimaginable circumstances. Top of the Lake is a clear example of the rising quality of television’s golden age. This is a new breed of television program that will hopefully catch on and pave the road for more. You can take a part in it by watching the show, currently available on Netflix.