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'Top Of The Lake: China Girl' Takes You Places Cop Shows Usually Ignore

Sep 8, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 12:15 pm
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The acclaimed filmmaker Jane Campion took the plunge into television with the 2013 series "Top Of The Lake," starring Elisabeth Moss as an Australian police woman in New Zealand. Moss is back and is joined by Nicole Kidman for the show's second season, titled "Top Of The Lake: China Girl," which airs over three nights beginning Sunday on SundanceTV. Our critic at large John Powers says the series takes you places cop shows usually don't go.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back in the 1970s, it was considered groundbreaking when Angie Dickinson starred as sexy but tough Sergeant Pepper Anderson and in "Police Woman," the first television series about a female cop. Since that time, TV has given us lots of women officers, from Helen Mirren's flinty inspector Jane Tennison, battling squad room sexism in "Prime Suspect," to Mariska Hargitay's empathetic New York detective Olivia Benson, who's been solving sex crimes on "Law & Order: SVU" for the last 18 years.

Women cops are now so routine that just to register, a show needs a striking new angle. You get it in "Top Of The Lake: China Girl," the terrific second season of the TV series created by filmmaker Jane Campion, who made "The Piano," and her co-writer, Gerard Lee. It starts airing on Sunday, September 10.

And if you didn't see the first season when it came out in 2013, here's what you need to know. Elisabeth Moss from "Mad Men" and "The Handmaid's Tale" stars as Robin Griffin, a spiky police detective from down under with a troubled past and an unerring taste for unreliable men. In season one, set in the idyllic New Zealand countryside, she got sucked into a case about a missing girl, child abuse and macho cops, who may or may not be corrupt.

As season two starts, it's four years later. And Robin has moved back to Sydney, where testosterone still runs high in the police force. When an unknown Asian woman's body is found in a suitcase on Bondi Beach, she's assigned to the case, along with the warm, goofy officer Miranda, played by Gwendoline Christie, beloved as the noble Brienne of Tarth on "Game Of Thrones." It all sounds simple enough, but before you know it, the story expands to follow Robin's seeking out the daughter, Mary, she put up for adoption after being raped at 16.

Now a teenager herself, Mary, played by Campion's real-life daughter, Alice Englert, was brought up by a married couple, Pyke and Julia. They're now getting divorced because Julia - that's Nicole Kidman, complete with frizzy gray hair - has moved in with another woman. Meanwhile, Mary has gotten involved with a dodgy German named Puss, who claims to be an ex-professor, but actually works at a brothel. Kidman's Julia is freaked out by her daughter's rebellious behavior. And here, she fights about it with her husband.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOP OF THE LAKE: CHINA GIRL")

NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Julia) I know you blame me. I just wish you would say it. It's in the freaking head, Pyke. It's bloody unhealthy.

EWEN LESLIE: (As Pyke) I don't blame you. We've got a situation, and I just want to deal with it.

KIDMAN: (As Julia) Yeah, we sure do. What's happened to our baby? What's happened to her? I honestly think she would kill me if I got in her way. She'd kill me.

LESLIE: (As Pyke) She's a kid. She's confused. That is normal. We just need to...

KIDMAN: (As Julia) That is not normal. I'm not going to stop. Don't tell me to stop.

POWERS: Now, unless you've never seen a mystery before, you realize that it's Robin's mission to pull together the story's diverse strands - the dead body, the adoptive daughter, the brothel, the argument you just heard, et cetera - which may make "Top Of The Lake: China Girl" sound like business as usual. And it might be in other hands, but Campion is a fierce, cussedly inventive artist who's still the only woman filmmaker ever to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

Rather like David Lynch in "Twin Peaks," she uses the expansive freedom of TV storytelling to create something that's visceral, off-kilter and obsessive, with occasional moments of clunky acting that may or may not be deliberate. Rather than serve up straight-ahead action, Campion braids together a murder mystery, cultural sociology, offbeat comedy, family psycho drama and striking imagery.

Her highly personal, deeply ingrained feminism shapes everything from Robin's tricky relationship to men, to the handling of police force sexual politics, to the digressive satirical moments when young men sit around reading prostitutes. In fact, alone among the world's major filmmakers, Campion's work is all about women and their psychosexual lives, the torment of the teen years, the struggle to become an artist, the price of a bad marriage, the allure of dangerous men.

This new season digs deep into a theme unusable for a cop show - motherhood. Robin's hunt for a killer becomes an exploration of mothering in its many aspects - maternal instinct, genetic inheritance, adoption, the yearning for children, the hiring of surrogates, even the choice not to be a mother. Talking about the dearth of women directors, Campion once remarked how strange it is that we aren't getting the point of view of half the world, especially when that half gave birth to the whole world. In "Top Of The Lake: China Girl," we do get that point of view, and the result is the mother of all cop shows.

DAVIES: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com. "Top Of The Lake: China Girl" begins Sunday on SundanceTV. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "The Unknown Girl." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "SOUL STOMP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.