Top of the Lake: Feminist Masterpiece or Revenge-Fantasy Reimagined?

Illustration for article titled iTop of the Lake/i: Feminist Masterpiece or Revenge-Fantasy Reimagined?

When a certain detective drama became a water cooler hit earlier this year, it didn't take long before people noticed its glaring lack of three-dimensional women. The girl-in-a-bodybag trope has been around for as long as detective genre itself, but it's only recently that viewers have begun to object to the cliché.


Jane Campion's 7-episode miniseriesTop of the Lake is an exploration of men's crimes against women, but in addition to making the primary investigator a woman, it features an entire spectrum of dynamic, esoteric, and compelling female characters in the service of exploring the central mystery. Are Top of the Lake's strong heroines and genre twists the final nail in the coffin of woman-as-victim-only or is comparing this odd show to anything else like comparing apples to kiwis?

Top of the Lake follows Detective Robin Griffin (Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss), a woman with a past who returns to her lakeside New Zealand hometown to help locate a missing girl. But what begins as a simple missing persons case expands into a lurid journey into the heart of small-town evil. Adding to the town's Twin Peaks-ian vibe is a roster of sinister eccentrics, including Holly Hunter as G.J., an ash-white guru whose cult of damaged women settle into storage containers on the lakeshore and make the town, in particular its men, uncomfortable.

The Netflix Debate Club is a weekly Kinja where writers face off about the most polarizing aspects of their favorite shows — and want you to join in.


THIS WEEK'S TV SERIES: Top of the Lake (2013)

THE DEBATERS: Price Peterson (TV.com, Vulture) & Lily Sparks (TV.com)

Price: I think we both agree that Top of the Lake deserves much more attention than it received during its brief run on Sundance Channel, and especially with other hit detective series basking in the zeitgeist, it's time to give this show its due. In a genre where women are mostly just murder victims, fraught housewives, or bar flies, it's so excellent seeing a female detective face down a town full of hateful men and get things done. As it turns out, putting a woman front and center does a lot to humanize any female victims. Compare that to shows about male detectives who are more likely to empathize with and understand killers. Plus, for what it's worth, G.J. is the only character I want to hear philosophizing from now on. Holly Hunter is truly a national treasure.


Lily: Top of the Lake succeeds far better than other detective shows in linking its protagonist to the developments of the case. Robin undergoes a catharsis directly related to unraveling the crime because she's been there, done that. AND YET. Part of me wonders if audiences want to see a woman solve a sex crime against another female as some kind of feel-good twist on the rape-revenge device—all I Spit On Your Grave at one remove with a soupçonne of social conscience. I am trying to remember the last time I saw a long-form series dedicated to a female detective solving a gritty murder case that just involved a dead guy or, like, embezzlement. A female detective is a nice improvement, but Top of the Lake's real strength is in how it moves past the girl-in-a-bodybag trope altogether.

What does everybody else think? Does Top of the Lake succeed where so many other crime shows fall short? Let's get into it in the comments.


(To stream Top of the Lake, head here. And get more Netflix at netflix.kinja.com.)

This post is a sponsored collaboration between Netflix and Studio@Gawker.

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