It quickly becomes clear that the fictional lake valley community of Laketop, New Zealand, is more character than setting. As idyllic as it appears, something is askew in the landscape. Far from being the lifeblood of the town, the lake shows evidence of being both literally and metaphorically breathtaking. What little we learn of this place seems only to add to the questions.
Here we find big city police detective Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) returned to Laketop to care for her ailing mother (Robyn Nevin, confident that her unusual birthplace — and its secrets — are well behind her.
Before long though, she’s called in by the local constabulary to assist in the interview of an uncooperative young girl, reportedly suicidal, verifiably pregnant and, most likely, a victim of abuse.
The brooding Tui (Jaqueline Joe) remains stony in spite of Griffin’s attempts. The case is further complicated when the girl’s father is revealed to be Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), patriarch of the notorious Mitcham clan.
And just like that, Griffin finds herself tumbling down the Laketop rabbit hole.
For Mitcham, Tui’s predicament is an inconvenience, an untimely distraction. Equal parts back-to-the-land hippie and gangland kingpin, Mitcham’s crosshairs are keened for bigger game. A prime landholding—forebodingly christened Paradise—has been sold under questionable circumstances.
His own claim on the acreage is unclear. But no more so than that of the new tenants, an awkward — cultish — gaggle of wounded women, led by the witch-like GJ (Holly Hunter).
Camped out under the stars with only steel shipping containers as shelter, this pop-up commune feels as unsympathetic and alien as everything else we’ve encountered in Laketop.
That the friction between Mitcham and GJ will come to a head is clear. They are two sides of a binary equation. The question is whether they will destroy each other or make each other whole. More importantly, will we know the difference when we see it?
TOP OF THE LAKE draws you in fast but it isn’t a terribly welcoming experience. Human contact is never easy and, more often than not, unpleasant. More is left unsaid than could ever be expressed.
From the outset, there’s a nagging sense that the mysteries of Laketop will never be solved. In that way, comparisons could be made to TWIN PEAKS. But there’s no camp in Campion. The light she shines is a harsh one, no matter how picturesquely she disguises it.
The second season — called TOP OF THE LAKE: CHINA GIRL — is a near standalone series which aired four years after the original’s run. Changing its setting from Laketop to Sydney, Australia, the storytelling loses some of its magic realism, if not the pervasive cringe factor. It’s not as strong an experience but, after viewing season one, I’d be surprised if you don’t want to jump on the sequel.