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‘Top of the Lake’ more than just another crime story

“Top of the Lake” opens with the striking scene of a girl riding her bike through the woods, stopping to take off her jacket, and then calmly and methodically walking into a lake, right up to her shoulders still dressed in her school uniform.

It turns out Tui, the 12-year-old girl in the lake, is pregnant. She’s taken down to the police station where a visiting detective who specializes in sexual assault questions her, and asks her who did this to her.

Tui writes down a cryptic note to the detective and thus the first of a number of mysteries arise in the seven-hour miniseries “Top of the Lake,” set in the gorgeous landscape of rural New Zealand.

It’s a prestige project. Although made for TV, the entire series was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. It’s written and directed by Jane Campion, the award-winning director of “The Piano” and reunites her with her Oscar winning star of “The Piano,” Holly Hunter. But the real buzz is around Elisabeth Moss who is best known for her breakout performance on Mad Men where she plays the mousey but ambitious Peggy Olson. In “Top of the Lake,” she’s a no-nonsense detective who’s quite comfortable around guns and men who underestimate her.

The series pits the outsider detective Robin Griffin (Moss’ character) against practically the entire small town, male-dominated community. The character is reminiscent of both Helen Mirren in “Prime Suspect” and Mireille Enos in “The Killing” – female detectives in a man’s world.

Griffin’s primary foil is a a kind of rustic crime lord, Matt Mitchum. Tui happens to be his daughter and he doesn’t appreciate cops sniffing around his heavily barricaded property.

As the mystery surrounding his daughter deepens (Tui goes missing after the first episode,) Mitchum finds himself in conflict with a group of displaced women from abused marriages and other painful backgrounds, who pitch camp on land dubbed Paradise without his permission.

Although secondary to the actual mystery being investigated, this gender conflict, this quiet battle between men and women, both its light side and dark side, is really what propels this series. And all the characters, from major to minor, are inevitably drawn into this cultural tug-of war. Differing worldviews make the world go-round and keep “Top of the Lake” from becoming just another crime story.

“Top of the Lake” airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. on the Sundance Channel.

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