April 16, 2013



Although frequently tortuous to watch, TOP OF THE LAKE wasn’t really Snob TV, where a Famous Filmmaker slums their way through a series.  It’s more that narrative has never been of particular interest to Jane Campion, even in her best films like The Piano or Holy Smoke, and giving her 6 hours to play with was just asking for a great deal of tedious self-indulgence.  (Top of the Lake was the show for viewers who thought the problem with The Killing was that it was too damn fast-moving and straightforward.)

So it wasn’t so much contempt for the idea of a procedural mystery as disinterest that animated most of Top of the Lake, and when the show decided, in its last 15 minutes, to suddenly launch a dramatic plot twist and have heroine Robyn Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) realize that the man who’d molested 12-year Tui (Jacqueline Joe) and impregnated her wasn’t her monstrous father Matt (Peter Mullan) but the previously incomprehensible police detective Al Parker (David Wenham), it felt like Campion and her collaborators Gerard Lee (co-writer) and Garth Davis (co-director, or whatever “Directed by Garth Davis with Jane Campion” means) had suddenly remembered that they were supposed to be telling a story.  Actually, the twist made thematic sense, as one child molester really wasn’t enough for Top of the Lake–it needed a cabal of them, to reinforce the show’s overall view of the relationships between men and women.  (The sole more or less healthy couple in the show is only saved by another convenient last-minute plot twist from the discovery that they’re incestuous.)  And, in retrospect at least, it explained why Al had been so freakish from the very start of the show (serving champagne for the aborted announcement that Matt was Robyn’s father, for example, despite the obvious fact this would be the worst news Robyn had ever gotten in her life).

Top of the Lake wasn’t without interest or value.  Campion is frequently brilliant with her leading ladies, and Moss dug into Robyn in a way the elliptical style of Mad Men doesn’t often permit, making her a figure of real pathos and heroism as her horrible backstory started ripping her apart.   Mullan, too, was striking as Matt, both courtly and an animal.  Holly Hunter brought a welcome tartness to GJ, reluctant guru to battered and hopeless women of the town, but this was where Campion’s self-indulgence took over, as we spent far more time in GJ’s makeshift colony of “Paradise,” listening to her fortune-cookie aphorisms, than we needed to.  (Thanks to the snippets of Campion interviews that Sundance Channel interspersed in the Top of the Lake episodes, it was also hard to ignore the fact that the show’s main sources of wisdom were GJ and Robyn’s dying mother, both older women who wear their long gray hair remarkably like Campion’s own.) The show seemed to forget for whole chunks of episodes that there was a plot to be unfolded, drifting instead into sequences that showed us over and over again how awful Matt was, and how troubled the town’s children were.

The entire miniseries was shown (in one sitting!) at Sundance, where it received nearly universal acclaim, and of course it did–Campion herself may not be a snob when it comes to genre (her In the Cut supports the idea that she’s simply not very good at it), but the denizens of Sundance certainly are.  In an era when TV drama is frequently adorned with genuinely remarkable garments, Top of the Lake wore the empress’s new clothes.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."