Binge & Cringe: Diving into 'Top of the Lake', by Stephanie Van Schilt

I inhaled the crisp scenery, foggy vistas and layered intrigue of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake in one solid, solitary six-hour sitting. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. From the chilling opening footage of 12-year old Tui (Jacqueline Joe) deliberately wandering into the icy titular lake, it draws you in. Dressed in a school uniform, Tui is silent and spectral, determined and alone as she steps into the water. We soon discover Tui is five months pregnant. Shortly after, she goes missing.

Upon returning home to visit her terminally ill mother, child protection specialist Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) is put on the delicate case. In the small town of Laketop, rife with criminal activity and misogynistic resistance, Robin is forced to face her own ghosts while solving the mystery at hand.

The odd appearance of a settlement of women led by a self-styled prophet, GJ (Holly Hunter) is added to this mysterious mix. GJ and her followers are looking to settle in Paradise – which is the name of the land they now inhabit in shipping containers.

Nominated for a trophy cabinet of Emmys and topping critics’ lists worldwide, Top of the Lake has been revered locally and internationally. And yet while I was watching I was unable to shake a niggling sensation I couldn’t quite comprehend; I wasn’t sure I liked Top of the Lake as much as I wanted to. I was totally willing, but unable. So I pondered this personal mystery: if I was sufficiently intrigued and captured and entertained and satisfied, why was I feeling this way? If I wasn’t any more perturbed by the dark content than I should have been, what was this niggling feeling?

Eventually I worked it out and when I did I wasn’t particularly proud. Because I discovered that, at my core, I was cringing. Culturally.

Nuts. I don’t want to be that guy.

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The cultural cringe has been a quintessentially Australian phenomenon since A.A. Phillips coined the term in an issue of Meanjin back in 1950. In his Sydney Review of Books essay published in March, Emmett Stinson refuted contemporary suggestions that the cultural cringe is no longer relevant. In proposing the presence of a cringe-thinking narrative in our “diffuse, neo-imperial (or post-colonial), globally networked cultural economy,” Stinson offers some helpful—and inescapably paradoxical—insights into my reaction to Top of the Lake.

In her 2010 article ‘Measuring the cultural cringe’, Susan Johnson argued that the “cultural cringe has disappeared” for her X-Box playing teen sons. Like Stinson, I contest that. The democratisation of culture and varied distribution avenues for television (even within gaming’s virtual economy) means that we are constantly critically engaging—comparing, contrasting—global content side by side. The cultural cringe may have shifted to accommodate the climate, but it’s no less present. As Stinson puts it: “the cringe is a phenomenon that actually represents the anxiety that Australians feel about their own cultural products in relation to foreign culture.”

Stinson also notes a condition of the cringe is how “overseas impact” and exposure is more significant to Australians’ recognised success than any local impact. This global-based value system feeds our appreciation of a local artists and their work, thus informing our tendency to cringe toward locally generated product. Paradoxically, we’re proud of ‘our’ many cultural exports that succeed on a global stage – Nick Bryant dubs this the “cultural creep” of Australian arts. Yet we establish this value through our comparative lesser stance. Whether we like it or not, we’re still comparing our local stage to an international one. I’m sad to say that involuntarily, this is how I watched Top of the Lake and it came out lacking.

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This is not an exercise in cutting down Campion’s tall poppy. While TPS is the close, bitter cousin of the cultural cringe, I like my highly skilled poppies blossoming and my arts evaluations measured.

I’ve really liked Campion’s film work in the past; I’m enamoured with her lush signature style. I was familiar with the talented creative team working on the Top of the Lake and while I understand why ABC pulled their funding, the inclusion of Peggy Olson was a win! On the whole I enjoyed Top of the Lake so was really perplexed as to why this was even a thing for me.

Let me clarify: I’m not contending that Top of the Lake is wholly Australian or NZ fare (as it’s been marketed). Top of the Lake is an Australian/New Zealand/United Kingdom/United States co-production: as a mixed bag of international funding it’s definitively a product of the current global milieu. Such a monetary melange is not unusual in the film and television industry (it’s common practice for movies), however it is rare that locally created television content is distributed and aired on such a prominent and publicised international scale. Top of the Lake was very much An Original Series Event By Jane Campion, critically discussed and praised worldwide.

Beyond prominent funding streams, Top of the Lake does have a large Australian creative contingent: the lead cast and crew includes David Wenham and Thomas M. Wright, acclaimed art director Adam Arkapaw and long-time Campion collaborator, music producer Mark Bradshaw. Similarly, Emile Sherman serves at executive producer and most importantly Garth Davis co-directed the mini-series while Gerard Lee was the co-creator/co-writer.

However it’s Jane Campion whose name is branded into the heart of this work; she’s a modern auteur par excellence. Campion currently resides in Sydney and is highly regarded internationally, having won an Oscar and Palme D'Or at Cannes for The Piano (1993). It is widely acknowledged that Campion is a New Zealander, born and raised, who attended film school in Australia and worked with the local film industry for years.

I’m not putting together numbers for a turf war; Top of the Lake is very much a Kiwi product too. I hugely enjoyed its strong NZ elements, particularly how the rural South Island—it’s majestic, chilly peaks and haunting water and woodlands—features as an imposing presence in its own right. In merely six episodes, Top of the Lake alludes to sexual, post-colonial and socio-economic issues that are at once universal and unique to such an isolated, New Zealand setting.

Yes, Top of the Lake was broadcast on the Sundance Channel in the States and BBC2 in the UK. It featured Mad Men’s Moss in the lead role and Scotland’s Peter Mullan as Laketop’s villain, so there’s also creative input from international sources. However Top of the Lake is a largely antipodean affair.

I’m not so naïve as to lump Australian and New Zealand in one limited,  cultural cross section from south of the equator generally. But for a discussion of Top of the Lake I don’t think it’s a reach to mix the Australian oats with New Zealand flour while I take a bite out of this delicious (but undercooked) televisual ANZAC cookie.

Reviewers have commented on this distinct flavouring, noting how Top of the Lake offers “the type of savage, misogynistic, lawlessness we’ve seen in other Antipodean work such as Warrior, Underbelly, Jack Irish and … Lawless.” A proud moment for our collective selves and our tarnished colonial histories, I’m sure.

However every appraisal of Top of the Lake makes references to three specific shows: The Killing (USA), The Killing (Forbrydelsen, Denmark) and David Lynch’s incomparable Twin Peaks.

I can trace my Australian cringe-thinking ways to these ubiquitous comparisons and this school of television and I’m taking our New Zealand neighbours along for the ride. How kind. But come on, as if Robin’s failed, lilting Kiwi-based-in-Australia accent didn’t bug nationals of both countries (Moss is otherwise captivating though).

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I should really be a giant bedsore given how much TV I watch. I look upon the eye-prying machinery from A Clockwork Orange with the same adoration that others espy jewellery. I mainly binge watch US shows with a smattering of UK and European fare. Occasionally I’ll watch Australian or New Zealand work. This is as much a matter of taste and time as it is access, variety and volume.

Contrary to how I look when I emerge from my bedroom for a stale corn thin and cup of tea, I’m not a passive, brainwashed consumer. I’m always critically engaged with what I’m watching and particularly enjoy freefalling down review/recap/commentary-conspiracy wormholes for hours. What I don’t like is casting limiting value judgements via rigid star rating systems; I much prefer getting lost in my thoughts about a show while negotiating the thoughts of others.

No matter how far I dive into my generally positive feelings toward Top of the Lake, through the lingering presence of The Killing, Forbrydelsen and Twin Peaks, my antipodean anxiety resurfaces.

Many of the comparisons between these programs are superficial: they’re all crime dramas featuring a similar driving questions (“Who Killed Rosie Larsen/Nanna Birk Larsen/Laura Palmer/Where is Tui Mitchum?”). They centre centred around young girls with dark, sexual histories in towns where things aren’t what they seem. The shows utilise typical techniques and motifs to create a haunting imprint around the brutal and violent souring of innocents. These programs heightening emotional response through the likes of: overt use of photographs, bodies of water, politics of place and familial relations.

There are definitely sub-genre distinctions between the shows though. Comparing the scores subtly draws out both these similarities and style distinctions. I’d recommend jumping online to hear the synth-based melodrama of Twin Peaks’ opening track‘Falling’ or how the classically rapid police procedural pings that connote suspense in theme for The Killing and be sure to check out the minimal, cool and humourless piano of ‘Curious’ for Forbrydelsen. (Both these US and Danish versions were scored by Frans Bak.)

Likewise, be sure to listen to the tinny sounds of Top of the Lake’s haunting opening. I love how this particular opening theme reverberates like it was recorded in an empty weatherboard house; it’s an ordinary and minimal tune that reflects the wide-open spaces of Laketop and the terrifying truths that quiver below the surface.

These musical themes do quietly echo with a similar sadness and longing. Regardless of whether they’re truly similar or distinctive these shows are inevitably threaded together – from Top of the Lake’s opening themes to its characterisation or the central premise, I was affected.

I recalled both renditions of The Killing through the use of Robin as a typical female detective alongside detectives Sarah Lund and Sarah Linden. All three women are played as cold, earnest types, dedicated to casework and prone to jogging. Forbrydelsen is much stronger than The Killing (US) and by way of gravity Top of the Lake felt somewhat tempered next to it – partially like an artsy retelling.

Yet is all this merely conditional to the form? Television—more than any artistic medium—is fed by regurgitated tropes. I will watch the same joke retold in a slightly varied iteration over a number of sitcoms and I still laugh at each. And as this is Campion, Top of the Lake was never going to be a straight up procedural crime drama like The Killing or Forbrydelsen. Top of the Lake is far from a cop badge wielding genre piece.

Herein lie the Twin Peaks allusions: the surrealistic universe, the absurdities and oddities of an isolated small town with questionable foundations, Robin’s romantic melodrama and the Freudian sexual politics.

As the AV Club noted, “Top Of The Lake functions partly as a catalog [sic.] of references to gender-war pop culture.” These references are both subtle and overt – characters even reference “reading” Blue Velvet for “book club”. However rather than building on Tui and Robin’s world, these references created a distancing fission, a gap where I contemplated the place of Top of the Lake beside Twin Peaks and others. I compared the antipodean product against the international to judge it.

Without declining into a trivial “who wore it better” appraisal, Twin Peaks is a seminal show with a specific and integral place carved out in television history. I respect Top of the Lake as a partial pastiche with resounding humour, however Campion’s vision was never going to transcend the original handling of a film auteur working within a beautifully shot, genre-bending TV show. Lynch holds that prize. Twin Peaks informed all that followed – it’s impossible to surpass.

Consequently I felt uneasy, like Top of the Lake was both undercooked and overwrought; it was missing something. Take GJ and her band of menopausal misfits, subtly residing on land called ‘Paradise’. Where Lynch was directly present in Twin Peaks—as comedic hearing aid clad character FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole—Campion is present through her proxy, GJ. Floating around in a long grey wig mirroring Campion’s own hair, GJ utters near incoherent wisdoms and felt affected rather than affecting. Here, the densely implied matter of spirituality outweighs what is meant to be humorous. According to Holly Hunter, the godlike character of GJ is not Jane Campion’s surrogate rather represents a philosophical guru Campion had met. In the same interview, Hunter admits that ‘GJ’ stands for the initials of the creators – Gerard and Jane. It all seems like forced intrigue and absurdity where Lynch’s oddities are puzzling yet whole.

However Campion’s authorial presence is both a strength and weakness in Top of the Lake. The subtle, aesthetically pleasing elements of Campion’s oeuvre present in Top of the Lake were exceptionally fulfilling and rewarding. Campion’s distinct vision and ability to have the camera linger on characters tends toward Brechtian estrangement; her use of the lush woodland environment is breathtaking; the sense of female empowerment alongside the mystical and gothic tone helped make Top of the Lake beguiling at times.

In Stinson’s piece about Nam Le and cringe-thinking, he acknowledges that while his “ventriloquism is impressive, Le’s stories often feel like a set of genre exercises that precisely imitate their sources without transcending them.” Campion isn’t “precisely” imitating genres because, as television scholar Tom O’Regan states “imitation by emulation and incremental adjustment” is inherent to the art, particularly the likes of police procedurals. But for me, as an antipodean citizen with a firm grasp on international pop culture, Lynch looms too brightly here. Accordingly I wouldn’t assess Campion as harshly as Stinson does Le because it’s a different field and discussion, yet I would agree that Top of the Lake doesn’t “transcend” the genres it’s working within either as much as it longs to. It felt less like Top of the Lake was joining an international club than attempting to join it and it made me anxious.

However I do make concessions for Top of the Lake; hence my initial confusion. I am aware that Twin Peaks, The Killing or Forbrydelsen are serials—ongoing shows with end dates dictated by studios and spectator stats—while Top of the Lake is a mini-series, straddling the film and televisual forms. This is where Top of the Lake’s true strength lies: it may not transcend Twin Peaks in the collective memory by any measure, but it does provide a neatly structured narrative that after six episodes offers a climax and resolution. Unlike The Killing, Forbrydelsen and Twin Peaks there’s no room to become unwieldy in questionable expanse. There’s no spiralling while chasing the rabbit here – there’s a distinct pace and definite closure.

This also meant that peripheral characters were thin at times, verging on caricature. For instance, we know Peter Mullan’s character—Tui’s dad Matt—is the bad guy, but just to be sure he shoots a dog in the first episode. Initially this irked me – ‘kicking the dog’ is the most overhanded ‘baddie’ trope in the pop culture bible.  However, once I got into the rhythm of the mini-series format, I could forgive these failings because everything was inevitably a little truncated, limited and extreme.

What couldn’t be forgiven were glossed over plot holes, in particular the unspoken deus ex machina that permits Robin jurisdiction as a detective in NZ, even though she’s usually based in Sydney. I may be placing Australian and New Zealand under one antipodean umbrella in a critical conversation, but I’m pretty sure law enforcement doesn’t work like that.

Essentially, I enjoyed Top of the Lake. To ruminate on it like this is testament to its power. However the anxiety of comparing it to these international series left me feeling uneasy and cringing because the viewing experience felt diluted. That I was subconsciously seeking some form of antipodean inferiority demonstrates the existence of cringe-thinking. Or maybe this is just my personal reaction as a citizen of the antipodean Commonwealth who binges on far too much international TV? Uneasy is the head that wears the cringe crown.

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Stephanie Van Schilt is Deputy Editor of The Lifted Brow and a freelance writer. She’s been published in CrikeyKill Your Darlings and Metro. Follow her on Twitter: @steph_adele.

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This piece is from our most recent print issue, TLB20. You can grab a copy for yourself, if you like.