The isolated New Zealand landscape of “Top of the Lake” is magnificent — cottony fog hovering over a crystalline body of water in the midst of an eternity of heavenly mountains. But the human presence in this seven-part miniseries is a lot less majestic. All of the locals appear to be either brutal, twisted men or the women who’ve been wrecked by them. Tragedy consumes the women here, heart by broken heart, and the glorious mountains are unmoved.
The first hour of “Top of the Lake,” Monday at 9 p.m. on Sundance Channel, comes on like a relentless firestorm of bad news and depravity. It puts the suffocation in “breathtaking.” A pregnant 12-year-old named Tui (Jacqueline Joe) disappears, possibly murdered by the man who raped her, who may be her father, the menacing drug lord Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), whose thugs have just drowned a businessman. The detective who tries to find Tui, Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), is dealing with a dying, abused mother and her own history of sexual abuse. That spectacularly clean lake? Robin’s father died in it. Also in episode 1: A dog is shot to death.
I was tempted to drop the six-hour miniseries, co-directed by Jane Campion and Garth Davis, after that first hour. The story seemed to be flaunting its bleak worldview, competing to be the darkest, most art-housey take on mankind ever made. But I’m extremely glad that I stayed with “Top of the Lake,” which, after the forced setup, evolves into a rich portrait of hard lives and the possibility of healing. By episode 3, the miniseries feels like a smart crime novel, steeped in very specific locales and individuals. As Robin’s personal history emerges, you understand her desperation to find Tui, and her own journey becomes the centerpiece of the story. “The Killing” had a similar aim, but was ultimately far less successful.
Moss is quite up to the role, both commanding and subtle. She has some of the same grit, vulnerability, and denial she brings to Peggy on “Mad Men,” but here with a raw undercurrent of pent-up anger and sexual desire. Her New Zealand accent, at least to American ears, is just right, or at least not distracting, as Robin struggles with a fiance waiting in Sydney, her renewed interest in a childhood boyfriend, and intimacy with a co-worker.
Moss is matched by the rest of the cast, most notably Mullan, who adds unexpected notes to the familiar role of anarchic, macho hooligan. In episode 3, his Matt and a woman take ecstasy and their love fest is revealing; so is the psychodynamic end to that trip. When he learns of Tui’s pregnancy, he says, “She’s a slut, like her dad was a slut!” — and yet Mullan also lets you wonder if Matt is just hiding pain behind brusqueness.
There is a subplot in “Top of the Lake” that, in the three episodes sent for review, doesn’t take off. Holly Hunter, who worked with Campion on “The Piano,” plays the guru of a commune (called Paradise) of abused women who’ve come to the area to repair. With silver hair, Hunter is compelling as she delivers bits of mystical wisdom. But the little collective just sits there, an obvious manifestation of themes that are so much more gripping elsewhere in this miniseries.