Johnny Says This: In Top of the Lake Peggy Olsen Swims To The Top

By now most of us are well familiar with the character of Peggy Olsen on the AMC series Mad Men. While Mad Men returns next month viewers now can see what Elisabeth Moss has been doing while Mad Men was on a break. Moss went to New Zealand and filmed Top of the Lake, a stunningly good new series currently being aired on The Sundance Channel.

Written and Directed by Academy Award for Best Director Nominee Jane Campion this series illustrates, for those few who still need it, that television is where the best stories are told. Filmed in New Zealand the show tells the story of Robin Griffin, a young woman who returns home to spend time with her Mother who has been diagnosed with cancer. Before we meet Robin however we see a young girl, we are later told she is 12, walk into a lake up to her shoulders. After being seen and pulled out by her schoolmistress it is discovered that she is with child.

Griffin, who we learn is a police investigator in a larger unnamed city, is brought in by the local police to help with this discovery. Taking charge she gets the men on the police force away from the girl to talk to her. Elisabeth Moss is a revelation in this role. With her Kiwi accent and body language matching her character perfectly she shows herself to be much more than that girl on Mad Men. The first time we see her character she is getting out of bed at her Mother’s house and she looks like Peggy after a very bad date. She is, we discover, haggard and confused over her Mother’s condition as well as her Mother’s new friend who is helping her through the ordeal.

The episode really picks up when the scene shifts to show us a couple of young twenty something men who appear to be a bit on the wild side. With skinhead type hair and tattoos on their neck, arms, and head they do not appear to be nice boys. After seeing some storage units being moved up onto a neighboring hill they call their father out of the house to tell him about it. Peter Mullen plays Matt Mitcham, a scowling, nasty, long haired, bad man who appears to have a strong interest in who is moving these storage units into place.

We learn that the units are being placed by a woman named GJ who has purchased the land for a sort of women’s commune. Played by Holly Hunter as a man hating, or at least man doubting, free spirit GJ hopes to lead her community of women to a new peace and understanding devoid of men.

All of this happens in the first twenty minutes. Over the next forty we see why Matt was so interested in the land, see a funny but dangerous confrontation between the women and the bad boys, and learn what Matt does when he feels like he has been double-crossed  by the local real estate agent,

Later we see Robin meet with the pregnant girl’s Mother while the local Police Captain returns the girl to her father. His reaction to her pregnancy is not what you would expect, or, perhaps considering she is a 12 year old pregnant girl, it is.

Already we can see that Robin has a past in this town, a story that will seep out over the next few weeks. One senses that she dreaded coming home and hoped to leave quickly, a connection she feels with the girl, seems to change all that.

The scenery in the show is as pretty as you will find. Some have compared the show to AMC’s The Killing, a series I did not like, while others have noted that the show is a strong reflection of Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect. That is high praise indeed. I actually think that the show has quirks and characters, as well as scenery, that puts me to mind a bit of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. This show will not be so intentionally weird but there are certain similarities in the geography and introduction of characters.

With episodes two and three loaded in my Tivo I suspect I will know much more about where this series is going before I go to bed tonight. As my readers know I am not a fan of television shows with a dark subject matter, I left The Following after just two episodes, but Top of the Lake at this point appears like it will be about much more than what it initially seems.

With this series it becomes clear that we now have one more player in the ever increasing number of cable channels providing quality series that better anything you will find on the networks. The day is not coming, it is already here, when you are much better off to watch two or three episodes of one of these fantastic series than to go watch Hollywood’s latest over budget, under storied, movie at the cinema.

Top of the Lake airs on Sundance Channel at ten o’clock on Monday nights. Older episodes can be found online or on Sunday evenings. If you feel you are too far behind, never fear, Sundance will surely schedule a marathon of past episodes soon to allow those who hear the buzz about this show to catch up.

It is buzzworthy. This show gets a huge recommendation.