In my opinion, Top of the Lake is some of the best TV that’s been made this millennium. Perhaps this is because it is not really TV, but rather a miniseries in which each episode could stand alone as its own film. It was aired on the Sundance channel last year, and consists of 6 episodes, which revolve around the investigation of a missing, pregnant, 12 year old girl: Tui. The show was written and directed by Jane Campion, whose previous work has won her awards and consisted almost entirely of feature films.
The center of Top of the Lake is really the location. Set and shot in New Zealand, the landscape is almost as important as the plot. For example, where much of the action focuses is in a place called “Paradise” where a group of middle aged women whose lives are in shambles live with the spiritual leader GJ (Holly Hunter in an amazing performance), in hopes of getting their lives back on track. The women live in giant empty shipping containers on the shore of the lake. This set up is exceedingly cinematic and lends itself to the breathtaking natural beauty which cinematographer Adam Arkapaw is able to draw out in every single shot.
Another striking feature of the show is how the characters are all split into groups who seem to know something about where Tui is. There’s GJ, and her clan as mentioned above, Det. Robin Griffin (Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss), and the police department. Then there’s Matt, Tui’s father, whose family makes drugs in their basement and are all around crazy, and then additionally Tui and her friends. All of these groups seem to be hiding something from Robin. This structure allows for the plot to build slowly in all of these different places. We learn about Tui and why she is pregnant and running away, through bits of information from each one of these groups. This slow-burn narrative style of building action and suspense makes the show almost unbearably addictive. This is something that could not have been achieved if the show were a film.
The mini-series style is perfect for this story because it allows Campion to spend 6 hours on something that would otherwise have been condensed into one and a half. She uses this extra time to introduce us not only to the main characters but to a lot of secondary characters as well. It also allows her to give information slowly and more organically, rather than explaining it all very quickly and neatly. The show also allows for the episodes to end on cliff-hangers which take the story in many different directions. In a film there would not have been this many opportunities to lead the audience away from what is really happening.