The quick description of director/writer Jane Campion's "Top Of The Lake" (9 tonight, Sundance Channel) is "The Killing" as written by someone who possibly smoked something...interesting, which makes for a story that's more than a murder mystery. You get entry into a weird little world and to witness the underbelly of humanity.
Like "The Killing," at the heart of the story is a police detective with a troubled past, in this case she's Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss). Griffin is on vacation with her mom, who has cancer, when she gets a call to consult on a case. A little girl named Tui (Jacqueline Joe) was found standing in freezing water, a move that might have killed her. When she's retrieved from the lake, it's discovered that she's 5 months pregnant. Robin tries to get her to reveal the rapist's name; Tui tells her that it's 'no one.'
As it turns out, Tui is the daughter of Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), the local drug lord. We will gently describe Tui's surroundings as rough and tumble. He has a less-than-parental response to Tui's pregnancy. Then Tui disappears, taking Robin's investigation into stranger and more ominous places.
Although the mystery of Tui's rape and disappearance drive the story, there's so much more going on. There's Robin past in Queenstown and her relationships with Tui's half-brother Johnno (Thomas M. Wright) and her mentor Al Parker (David Wenham). There's the androgynous, comically blunt, scarily astute spiritual guru CJ (Holly Hunter) who leads a group of broken women on a piece of land called Paradise that has ties to the Mitchams.
Here's what is not a mystery: the excellence of the performances. By my ear, Moss does a credible Australian accent and, as Robin, reveals the layers of her turmoil brilliantly. Mullan is creepy, sad and oddly alluring. Hunter's turn as CJ is crazy good.
Except for the beauty of New Zealand, "Top Of The Lake" isn't an easy watch. It starts slow, but stick with it. After the third episode, I was all in, although I'm not sure why. I think the best word for the series is mesmerizing; it sort of hypnotizes and fascinates. Falling in love with it might come later.