Dangerous Liaisons
Damon Smith on Top of the Lake (episode: Series Finale) and Hardcore

Despite the merits of today’s emergent class of mass-cult dramatic series, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad, television overall rarely thinks outside the idiot box. When cable isn’t seducing us with travel and lifestyle porn, celebrity gossip, and Pawn Stars, crude, obnoxious programming is the norm. Competition is hypervalorized, even weaponized (Top Shot), and everyone from shout-show hosts to Iron Chefs seem to be engaged in mortal combat. Meanwhile, network TV is awash in brainless game shows, reality programs, wretched exercises in trashy schadenfreude (The Celebrity Apprentice), talk-show twaddle, and pop pabulum like Dancing with the Stars and American Idol. Even the ostensibly edifying nonfiction programs on Discovery or the History Channel, in their undying visual dullness and strait-jacket uniformity, are hardly evolutionary advances on PBS or the generic populist style of Ken Burns. Television’s accomplishments in the past quarter century, at least in the United States, are minimal at best.

If there has been a renaissance in made-for-TV drama, pace those who claim television has entered a new Golden Age, only a handful of serious-minded serials are presented as evidence of this transformational shift. Edgy, minor-key shows like Sons of Anarchy, Californication, Weeds, and Dexter might draw a significant weekly audience, but the finest offerings are the handiwork of a small coterie of writer-creators: Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan, Aaron Sorkin, and the Davids Chase, Milch, and Simon. Television, at least in their manly hands, has grown up. But if we’re going to question whether a narrow sampling of smartly written, ably acted ensemble productions of the New Television era are “better than movies,” then we first have to ask whether these highly addictive primetime story cycles are, in fact, cinematic.

Jane Campion’s seven-part Top of the Lake series, which she developed with Gerard Lee (Sweetie) and co-directed with Australian Garth Davis for BBC2 and the Sundance Channel, provides a limit case for disambiguating the presumed collapse of boundaries between television and cinema. It is also a sterling example of a relatively new (and still rare) television genre pioneered in the early ’90s by David Lynch: the auteur-driven series. Cowritten and co-directed by Campion—an Academy Award–winning filmmaker (The Piano) widely recognized to have a distinctive voice, vision, and set of concerns across work as disparate as Bright Star, The Portrait of a Lady, and In the Cut—Top of the Lake is either a 353-minute epic film worthy of its single-program world premiere at Sundance 2013 or a tightly focused crime drama explicitly structured and paced for serial small-screen viewing. Perhaps it is both. To tighten the reins on her project, Campion recruited DP Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom) and editor Alexandre de Franceschi, who had previously worked on Campion’s feature films. This intimacy already violates most conventions in television drama, where top-line crew varies from week to week and the overall consistency of tone and performance are supervised by an all-powerful creator-producer (or “show-runner”), limiting the signature of any given director to mostly technical matters. Team Campion approached Top of the Lake like an independent film production, further blurring the definition of “made for TV.” But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

The beguiling mystery at the heart of Top of the Lake concerns the fate of Tui (Jacqueline Joe), a twelve-year-old-girl who goes missing after police discover she’s five months pregnant. Child affairs investigator Robin Griffin (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, brandishing a wobbly accent), having returned home to reckon with her mother’s intransigent cancer, finds herself embroiled in the case. Confronting demons in her own past as she hunts for the child and the identity of Tui’s presumed rapist in their small New Zealand town, Robin is plunged into a world of personal treachery and ambient menace embodied by men, some of whom she has intimate connections to. Suspicion falls first on Tui’s father, Matt Mitcham (played with chesty gusto by Peter Mullan), an aggressively macho anarcho-hippie whose ramshackle rural compound harbors a meth-and-MDMA lab managed by a loyal support staff of survivalist types, including his heavily inked adult sons. Then there’s Mitcham’s estranged son, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), a long-faced ex-con living reclusively in the woods on the edge of town, with whom Robin has a checkered history. Even Robin’s supervisor, Sergeant Al Parker (David Wenham), is candid—and persistent—about wanting to get in her pants. As a counterpoint to the atmosphere of masculine threat and patriarchal authority in which Campion encloses her heroine, there’s grey-tressed GJ (The Piano’s Holly Hunter, in splendid seriocomic form), guru for a community of emotionally fragile women who have set up a makeshift community of healing on the idyllic lakeside property of Paradise. Flinty and far from touchy-feely, GJ has a way with arch aphorisms and matter-of-fact pronouncements, often dismissing her frolicsome middle-aged brood as “crazy bitches” when she deigns to speak to them at all. As the child-hunt gets underway, and Robin’s quest to pinpoint her man seems frustrated at every turn by Mitcham’s Mabuse-like control over the community, Campion weaves in enough intrigue and back-door twists to fill a James M. Cain novel.

Quiet and stately for much of its running time, the final episode of the series resolves the plot threads with a devastating clarity that illustrates Campion’s command over her storyline and central themes, which circle around questions of paternity, male privilege, and the trauma of rape. These tensions are periodically reinforced by gorgeously sullen shots of murky lake water and craggy mountain peaks where Tui, lost and alone, is about to give birth. The exotic, forbiddingly beautiful South Island landscape (Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth location for The Hobbit) lends Top of the Lake a distinctly melancholy tone, juxtaposing this peaceful emerald sublime with all the human ugliness beneath the surface of the town. True to television closers, Top of the Lake packs a lot into its finale: Mitcham turns the tables on Robin during his would-be taped “confession,” introducing a complicated wrinkle in her relationship with Johnno; there is a childbirth, a shooting, a death, a nervous breakdown, a reconciliation. When the dust settles, Sergeant Parker turns up at the Paradise refuge where Tui is now under the watchful care of GJ’s womenfolk, bearing conclusive evidence that Mitcham was the father of her child. Case closed. End of story. Except Campion has one more rather bizarre wild card to play: the discovery of a child-porno ring operating out of Sergeant Parker's basement.

After so much carefully modulated, chaptered storytelling, this last gambit feels needlessly punishing, as if the Twin Peaks model Campion had so cleverly evoked was jettisoned at the last moment for something cheaper, an ugly, audience-baiting shock worthy of “adult drama.” Although Campion’s erotic thriller In the Cut explored similar territory, and made the bad (sexual) behavior of men quite explicitly terrifying, the final disillusionment and brutalization of character here feels tawdry rather than gutsy or enlightening about sexual politics. Only the coda—Tui in the foreground, facing the camera and her future, GJ in the background, stomping away from sullied Paradise—recoups the ingenious spirit of suggestion.

Campion told the Telegraph she turned to the television format again because she was energized by Deadwood and felt cinema had grown “conservative.” Whatever the merit of that statement, Top of the Lake does not read strictly as “television,” even if Campion’s casting of Moss, an actor so inseparable from her Peggy persona on Mad Men, inadvertently references a hugely popular sector of New Television. It is an ambitious, long-format work, as worthy of scrutiny by film scholars as Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, or Olivier Assayas’s Carlos, which were all made for television. Campion’s adherence to cinematic imagination is admirable, even if the final episode of her long-form mystery thriller, abundant in sharp dramatic turns, bends too far in the direction of manufactured shock.

If Top of the Lake is a special case of television accommodating cinema, is there still a meaningful distinction to be made between them? Cinema is, unlike most television, about concepts. It traffics in narrative pauses and silences (the films of Ozu), renders potent details of time and place with great swaths of duration (Tarkovsky) that supersede plot and character, action and movement. Characters in cinema may have one life-defining conflict that it takes the entirety of the film to unfold and resolve, which is what edges the story closer to life as it is lived. (So does narrative cinema's frequent use of nonprofessional actors and real locations, and its mixing of scripted elements with documentary technique, still rare in TV dramas.) But cinema also dreams, thinks, and meanders. Sometimes character is not important at all, or completely blunted (see the films of Bruno Dumont and Lisandro Alonso); other times characters proliferate like mushrooms after a rainfall (Jean Renoir, Robert Altman, Arnaud Desplechin).

Television, on the other hand, has designs on your allegiance. Absolutely everything depends on our familiarity with the characters, our investment in their fortune or misfortune. Television wants us to love (or hate) the people it invents, as long as we keep watching. The economics of television—the need for a sustained viewership, and advertisers—demands that intimacy, and partly governs the craft of television writing. Unlike people in real life (or cinema), TV characters who experience catharses always come back to themselves. Don Draper, in spite of his soulful self-exploration, must be Don Draper (i.e. restless, unfulfilled, mysterious to himself and others) all the time. This is the Law of Negative Transformation. Week after week, our favorite characters spring to life again, almost magically, to continue their journey into and out of emotional mayhem, states of grace and disgrace, physical danger, or the many varieties of love’s oddities and perversions. Layers of personality are continually revealed, inner truths uncovered—it is a striptease that never ends. But serial television, chained as it is to character-at-all-costs, must ignore or deemphasize other creative possibilities of the audiovisual medium.

Consider the central reveal in Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979), which, like Top of the Lake, delves into the underworld of sex and corrupted innocence, in this case through the eyes of a religiously strict businessman, Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott). Two months after his teenage daughter disappears without a trace on a West Coast bus tour with a Calvinist youth convention, Jake is visited by sleazy L.A. private investigator Andy Mast (Peter Boyle) in his sleepy hometown of Grand Rapids. Mast leads his client to an empty adult movie-house he has rented for the hour. (“Have you ever seen a pornographic film, Jake?” he asks cryptically. “It’s something you oughta see.”) Seated inside and centered in the frame, Jake shifts in his seat as Mast, offscreen, queues up a black-and-white 8mm film. Schrader then sets up a complex architecture of reaction shots to register Jake’s harrowing realization that the wan, pimple-breasted brunette in the ménage-a-trois is his daughter. In a matter of moments Scott’s face, illuminated by the screen, cycles from stunned disbelief to pure anguish.

The sound of the projector, the flickering white light, the camera panning back and forth behind Jake's silhouetted head all underscore the agony of a father watching his frail, barely pubescent daughter “act” in an X-rated scenario. Mast studies Jake’s response from the back of the theater with some mixture of disgust and poor-slob pity before Jake finally roars “Turn it off!” and releases a mammoth howl of grief, collapsing in sobs. Out of focus in the background, visible through a parted curtain, Mast darts out of the booth, leaving Jake to collect himself. This is cinema reflecting on itself, and the power of film Schrader emphasizes here is its ability to produce discomfort, to confuse real and imaginary realms, even to torture. It is a kind of thinking through images that's largely foreign to television, where technique, when it is deployed at all in unconventional ways, is mainly used to exaggerate the head space of a character (Tony Soprano’s “Big Pussy” dream; Roger Sterling’s LSD trip) or call attention to its own fleeting visual cleverness (remember Rian Johnson’s “fly-cam” conceit in season three of Breaking Bad?).

Released by Paramount in 1979, Hardcore dramatizes the tension between Jake’s Calvinist worldview and the moral decay he encounters on his Dantean odyssey through smutland, positioning him as a figure of rock-solid, incorruptible faith prone to frightening bursts of violence as he maneuvers through the adult video shops and strip clubs of L.A. and San Diego with the help of a bubbly sex worker named Niki (Season Hubley). For all the heady, freighted drama, Hardcore is not one of Schrader’s directorial triumphs, marred as it is by hammy acting from a support cast of (yes) mostly television actors; desultory, less-than-convincing exchanges between Niki and Jake about sex and religion; and a problematic, emotionally hollow finale. Scott also fought horribly with Schrader on set, nearly quitting the film, and his menefreghismo is palpable in some of the talkier scenes. He’s much better as an instrument of blunt force.

Nevertheless, Schrader’s exploration of the sacred and profane, the puritanical and pornographic, holds interest, harkening back to the concerns of Taxi Driver (which he wrote) and pointing the way forward to the moodier, more stylized hot mess of American Gigolo (which he wrote and directed). The cavernous, neon-lit interiors Jake ventures into speak of emptiness and exploitation, as well as danger. But odd flashes of humor leaven the ghoul-chamber horrors. At an early turning point, Jake poses as a well-heeled stag-film producer. Comically attired in a tie-dyed T-shirt, pooka necklace, fake moustache, and toupeé, he interviews cocky adult-movie actors looking for work, humoring one stud who wants to show him “my stuff.” When Jizm Jim, the hustler he’s looking for, finally enters the room, the mood of the film instantly pivots to black, as Jake bashes his face with a lamp, and then continues the assault in a shower stall, a brutal sequence Schrader shoots from multiple angles, Psycho-style. It’s a bipolar element in a film full of tonal and thematic dyads, whether Jake’s hot-and-cold treatment of Niki, or Jack Nitzsche’s score, which veers from cold shards of razor-synth electronica to sleazy blaxploitation bounce.

Cinema is self-referential. It speaks to itself in allusion and direct quotation, shot duplication and one-upmanship, echoes of form and framing, and many other types of homage. In the case of Hardcore, Schrader modeled his quest film after John Ford’s The Searchers (another film about safeguarding purity and an abducted girl who turns out to be a willing captive) and Chinatown, a modern classic he also admired. In fact, Schrader intended his protagonist, like Polanski’s own Jake, to be chewed up and ousted from a grotesquely twisted world he can’t hope to understand. But Paramount, a bit more vigilant on dystopian dramas in the late 1970s, made him change the ending. Other cinematic conceits proliferate in Hardcore, which satirizes the artistic pretensions and financial imperatives of the film industry. “This guy’s an artist,” says cheesy porn guru Bill Ramada during the filming of a hardcore scene, referring to his earnest, long-haired director. “Yeah,” an assistant says. “UCLA.” Film-as-commodity is never far from Schrader’s mind, and is even implicated in the debasement of human life that Hardcore angrily challenges: Ratan, the elusive sado-creep Jake hunts for by dropping his name in places he shouldn’t, believing he may have his daughter in tow, is a specialist in extreme pain who makes no-budget snuff films in Tijuana. The ultimate defiler, he is an artiste, a con man, a freak, a shadowy figure of black-market capitalism trafficking in illicit images. Cinema self-interrogates.

Television has certainly borrowed from cinema, sometimes ingeniously, certain devices, tones, and textures, and has benefited enormously from the creative banditry. The economics of television have changed, too: Netflix paid $100 million for two seasons of its original series House of Cards, enough to launch a hundred or more quirky medium-budget indie features (or roughly five thousand Bellflower sequels). Even AMC coughs up around $2.5 million to produce each weekly installment of Mad Men, paying star Jon Hamm $250,000 per episode, which makes him one of the highest-grossing earners on a cable drama. Gone are the financial constraints that once guaranteed a second-rate soundstage-restricted milieu and a C-list talent pool for serial dramas and made-for-TV movies. Sensing the sea change, filmmakers of distinction have shown an interest in episodic programming: Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire), David Fincher (House of Cards), Michael Mann (Luck), Gus Van Sant (Boss), and Neil Jordan (The Borgias) have all taken aim at television audiences, directing episodes of popular programs or (in the case of Jordan and Fincher) producing an entire series. Such dynamics have yielded television with cinematic aims and aesthetics, like Campion’s Top of the Lake, steering audiences away from short-fuse-propulsive plot contrivances and season finale hype, and providing a model for newer, single-author shows like True Detective.

The irony is that light years from the mainstream (or rather, the main “stream of content offerings”), numerous artists continue to revitalize and reinvent cinema, albeit for ever-diminishing audiences. Raya Martin, Miguel Gomes, Hong Sang-soo, Darezhan Omirbaev, Claire Denis, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and others continue to evolve the form and aesthetics of cinema, an art form that keeps giving, endlessly. What has television, thus far, given back?