Two series: A lake vs. a motel

Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga star in "Bates Motel."
Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga star in "Bates Motel." (JOE LEDERER)
Posted: March 17, 2013

In the hands of a true artist, a simple crime story can be used as a vehicle to explore deeper questions about our humanity - to show how communal bonds are formed and how easily they can be undone.

Oscar-winning writer-director Jane Campion does just that in her new masterwork, Top of the Lake, a seven-part miniseries starring Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss and the prolific Scottish master-thesp Peter Mullan.

A stunning, richly textured, feminist existential epic, it premieres with a two-hour episode at 9 p.m. Monday on the Sundance Channel.

Top of the Lake may have some competition, at least for ratings. It goes up against another new series, A&E's thriller, Bates Motel, a prequel of sorts to Hitchcock's Psycho, starring Vera Farmiga ( Up in the Air) and Freddie Highmore ( Finding Neverland). The 10-episode first season premieres at 10 p.m. Monday

Top of the Lake opens on a breathtaking landscape - an alpine lake bounded by snow-capped mountains in a remote corner of New Zealand. It's pristine, too unearthly to have been spoiled by humans.

But we're not alone. In a poetic yet jarring moment, a young girl walks into the freezing water. A suicide?

The girl, 12-year-old Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe), stops when the water reaches her chest. We find out later her walkabout is a failed attempt to induce an abortion.

Rescued by police - a tiny police department in a tiny, rural town - Tui is interrogated by a young officer, Robin Griffin (Moss), but she refuses to identify the father. It's no wonder: Her father is Matt Mitcham (Mullan), a violent drug dealer with a short fuse.

Then Tui disappears.

Top of the Lake follows Robin's search for Tui, and, more important, the truth about her pregnancy.

The series isn't a run-of-the mill procedural, but a moody, deeply disturbing study of the human character - and how it's shaped, or more often twisted - by family and social ties.

Robin grew up locally, but she fled to the big city for good - or so she thought - after a failed romance with one of Matt's three sons, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright).

Urbane, educated, and an accomplished detective, she meets with sexism and out-and-out hostility when she comes back to town to care for her dying mother. Even her only friend, Detective Al Parker (David Wenham), is happy to mock her in her absence.

Campion takes us through the looking glass when, out of nowhere, a group of middle-aged women show up in Paradise - as the locals call the lake area - and establish a commune.

Led by an American New Age guru named GJ (Holly Hunter), the women are runaways from bad marriages and violent families. Damaged, emotionally scarred, they've come to the edge of the world to find themselves.

Campion creates in Top of the Lake a social pressure cooker, a place where self-enclosed tribes - Matt's violent criminal gang; the equally misogynistic, gun-toting gang called the police force; and the women's therapeutic commune - collide and tear at one another.

Stuck in the middle is Robin, whose hunt for Tui begins to uncover deep, dark secrets about her family she'd rather not know.

Hi, I'm Norman Bates

Bates Motel is a violent, creepy thriller that trades on the notoriety of Hitchock's classic yet fails to deliver.

The concept seems compelling: We all know how Norman Bates' story ends. Now, imagine a show that delves deep into the seething cesspool of emotional goop that made up his character.

Series creators made a fatal error by setting the story in the present era. Psycho worked because it was a brilliant expression of the repressive 1950s. But a world where Norman has an iPhone and WiFi? It's all wrong.

Farmiga and Highmore give solid performances as Norma and Norman Bates. But they're working with inferior material.

The series is filled with ironic in-jokes and visual gags out of a bad David Lynch movie. It's hard to tell whether we're supposed to be terrified or laughing, as in a scene in which Norman serenades his mother with a declaration of romantic love out of Jane Eyre - as he helps her dispose of a body.

Is this meant to be a satire? It sure isn't thrilling.


Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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