The dreary dregs of March were nicely complemented last night by the premieres of two grim new series, both focused on murder most foul. Sundance unveiled the new Jane Campion-directed miniseries Top of the Lake and A&E debuted its big new series Bates Motel. Both promised to get chillier, even as we out here in the real world look toward spring.
Top of the Lake was co-created and directed by Campion, the acclaimed art-house director returning to the gloomy New Zealand of The Piano. Specifically we're taken to the shores of Lake Wakatipu, the immense South Island lake whose waters are feared and revered by Campion's characters. The opening scene finds a young girl, twelve-year-old Tui Mitcham, attempting to submerge herself in the water before she's rescued by a teacher and brought to a clinic. We quickly learn that Tui is pregnant, a sad and troubling fact brought to the attention of Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), a detective home from Sydney to visit her ailing mother. We've seen another dedicated detective stuck in a gray town when she's supposed to be somewhere else recently, of course. Top of the Lake bears much resemblance to The Killing, both AMC's adaptation and the Danish original, but Campion's concerns are less forensic or procedural and more contemplative.
Robin suffered some vaguely alluded to trauma while growing up in Queenstown, the kind of haunted backstory that fuels many a good detective yarn. Campion acknowledges those traditional mechanics while also delving more thoroughly into a community steeped in regressive sexual mores. Much like Peggy Olson, Moss's Mad Men character, Robin is an ambitious woman in a room full of patronizing and predatory men; her challenges to their authority seem both a turn-on and a threat of aggression. Tui's father is a local gangster named Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), a flinty codger who blames Tui for her pregnancy and seems to know more about the circumstances surrounding it than he lets on. There's a chord of sexual menace humming in the air — Tui pulls a gun on her father at one point, suggesting that maybe he is the culprit — made even more sinister when Tui goes missing.
Robin finds her horse clattering down the road, but the last anyone saw Tui herself she was in Paradise, an expanse of coastal land recently purchased and settled by a women's collective run by the witch-haired (and Campion-haired) GJ, a quietly looming shepherdess played by Holly Hunter. GJ and her group of recovering women — at least one is an abuse victim, another owned a chimpanzee who attacked a male friend in a fit of jealousy (about as oddly ripped-from-the-headlines as this series will get, I hope) — are so far Campion's most curious inventions, a bunch of hurt, angry ghosts rattling around converted storage containers. It's unclear exactly how thoroughly GJ and company will fit into the larger mystery, but their presence in Paradise has led to the show's first on-screen murder. Matt believes the land to be his, based on some old verbal agreement, and is enraged when the women arrive and won't move when told to. "My mother is buried in Paradise," he hisses, as if GJ is desecrating ancestral land. (And in a way, she is.) So he and two of his henchmen sons promptly, and kinda accidentally, drown the poor bugger who sneakily sold the land. The body is left floating for Robin to find while on a run with another of Matt's sons, Johnno. He and Robin have history — it's Johnno who first mentions Robin's past trauma — but they've not spoken in years. Partly because Robin left, and partly because Johnno has just spent eight years in a Thai prison for drug running. This would appear to be our potential romance for this series, dark and fraught with painful history as it is.
As Robin's investigation proceeds, it becomes clear that she will be regularly stymied by a skeptical local police force. Not simply because she's a woman, but also because this is a place with its own unique set of governing rules. It's a community rich with myth and gnarled tradition, and though Robin is native to the area, she is now firmly an outsider. Both she and GJ's commune unsettle long-held practices — particularly those of the local patriarchy — and that Campion sets the two women in opposition to one another adds a philosophical knottiness to the delicate-but-deep mystery we saw begin to unfold last night. I'm as uncertain about where this seven-episode series is heading as I was about what anyone was saying last night — an hour in I had to turn on my TV's closed captioning — but I'm intrigued. Campion is whipping up something probing and somber and I'm beyond curious to see what her final picture looks like. Holly Hunter is also completely mesmerizing as the prickly shaman-goddess, looking regal but weather-beaten as she subtly orders her disciples around like servants. I'm less enthused about Moss, whose accent is shaky and has a tendency toward the monotone. I've long been on the fence about her work on Mad Men, but hope to be swayed toward the positive by the end of this series. Top of the Lake is tonally off-kilter, a murder mystery's usual suspense swapped out for slow ponders of motivation, but there's something urgent churning under all its moody cloud cover. I don't know what it is exactly, but I am determinedly eager to find out.
Bates Motel, on the other hand, grabs you quickly and drags you into a campy melodrama that's as easily appealing as it is silly. It's the modern day, but Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) and her teenage son Norman (Freddie Highmore) still seem straight out of the early 1960s, dressed in period-referencing clothes and trying on can-do smiles. Following the mysterious and as-yet-unexplained death of Norman's father, he and his doting mother move to the famous mansion and titular hotel to start a new life. Things don't stay sunny and optimistic for long, though, as Norma begins to show signs of a creepy possessiveness and a stranger whose used to own the property comes a'calling in threatening manner. By the end of the episode we'd seen a brutal (and perhaps unnecessary) rape and our first murder, done at the hands of Norma, ostensibly to protect herself but seemingly powered by a different sort of aggression. So this show wastes little time establishing its treacherous world, which is just fine by me.
The show is filmed beautifully, with lots of shadows and pallid yellows. Last night's episode was an elegantly structured pilot, meting out reveals and upping the tension with swift precision. I'm also already over the moon about Farmiga's just-slightly-gaudy performance, a "Where have you been?" dinner table scene a particularly delightful little chiller. I'm less bullish about Highmore; though he certainly has Tony Perkins's mealy mouthed gawkiness, he's so far lacking an essential depth. I buy him as a weird, mama's boy teenager. I don't buy him as a bewigged murderer. But I suppose it's still early days; this iPod-listening Norman's maniac side could emerge in time. Like Top of the Lake, I'm intrigued by Bates Motel, far more so than I expected to be, though its open-endedness gives me pause. I know that this isn't supposed to be strictly an origin story, but I don't know how you sustain last night's gruesome energy without a specific endpoint in mind. I mean, we've already had a near-miss with the cops and it's only been one episode. Mother and son murder hijinks are fun and all, but not for season after season.
Still, I'm surprisingly excited about Bates Motel, and curious in a chin-in-my-hand way about Top of the Lake. Monday is going to be an interesting, if intense, night of television for the next several weeks. I think I'll have to start saving The Carrie Diaries for last, just so I don't go to bed with murder on my mind.