Vulture's review of Top of the Lake had me at "Jane Tennison" and "Elizabeth Moss." I would never have thought these names--one fictional, one not--would be in the same paragraph, but now that they were, it made sense.

At first the reviewer, Matt Zoller Seitz, sounds like someone "who's watched in dismay over the last 21 years as program after program tried to be the next Prime Suspect and failed miserably," and like someone who's watched Top of the Lake. But maybe he only skimmed it. Why else such confusion about the motives of a character whose frustration we are so often asked to share?

After watching the first two episodes, this sentence borders on unprofessional and nonsensical: "Robin’s behavior at first seems erratic, at times bordering on unprofessional and nonsensical, until you start learning her secrets and studying her interactions with the townspeople and with her mother, who’s suffering from cancer." Surely I am not so Sarah Lund-addled that her "behavior" (what is she, a case study?) only seems normal to me? Saying that "we" are asked to share Robin's frustration may be premature, of course, but the idea that the show speaks to me alone is absurd narcisism.

This sort of singling out is the atmosphere that Robin inhabits. The men of the local police force, and almost everyone else, for that matter, consider her a looney eccentric at best, and more often an irrational (tell me, what do "erratic," "unprofessional," and "nonsensical" add up to?) inconvenience--a pain in the ass. This is for the obvious "reason"; when the police chief hears she's a she, he says "oh, fuck, well, this is going to be a painful."

The trajectory of Seitz's view of Robin is exactly the police chief's: he tolerates her and then seems to soften once he finds her reasonable (in Seitz's terms, "learning her secrets"). But the way he communicates his newfound respect, praising the way she "handled that" (a briefing) when they sit down for coffee, makes you wonder. Patronizing sweet nothings come as easily as the sunlight through the windows in a cute coffee shop. You know he wouldn't take any of his boys here.

We learn that her mother is ill before we even meet her. Later, Robin asks her "why do I feel manipulated?" but it's clear in the first scene in her mother's house that manipulation is afoot. To someone on the phone (her fiance, I now assume) Robin says "Mum's doing well. She might even be happy finally." Finally, now that she has a reason to be unhappy, she can be happy. She can summon her daughter to take care of her--"I know, whatever she needs"--because who knows how much more time she has. The pull of love-cum-obligation is so strong that Robin has to ask her "can you spare me for the afternoon?" What exactly she can do for her mother the entire day, I couldn't say. The irony is, the reason Robin ends up brandishing as trump is "it's a child." She escapes the need of her mother--who, no longer needed by her daughter, has to settle for being needy--to be needed by a child. If doing so is Robin's "behavior," it's anything but "nonsensical."

If on the other hand the behavior in question is her restless investigatory tendencies, then it's less erratic than impulsive, in a genre way. That's what hard-boiled detectives do. Besides, down that road, along which characters are just collections of predictably crazy impulses, is "David Lynch-style characters," which the Sundance Channel bafflingly proclaims its own show has. What comes to mind of course is Twin Peaks, whose characters mindlessly repeat their particular compulsions. They're all "characters" in that sense of being both eccentric and utterly stuck in their eccentricity. Top of the Lake may operate in a psychosexually charged register, but the characters are not like Lynch's--they're more rational, they retain the capacity to surprise, and they're less cariacatured.

But this principle-of-chaos difference feminism doesn't stop with Robin. Seitz describes the landscape as "pregnant with narrative potential and buried secrets," and goes on to say that "Campion's narrative landscapes are as female in their imagery and concerns as Martin Scorsese's are male, utterly and unapologetically so." I do think that any account of the landscape's role in this show is bound to be clumsy (for instance, I felt like saying "mesmerizing"), but this sounds as lazy as "water = semiotic chora." I get the feminism he's going for, Campion being unapologetic about the femaleness her show, but I find the idea that there are female and male concerns a bit risable.

I'm reminded of Robin playing darts in the bar. The local men question her in a manner somewhere between curiosity and aggression. "Are you a feminist?" one asks. She doesn't answer. That a woman is considered a feminist because she acts human is a good reason to be a feminist.

24 March 2013