When television historians write about the historic impact of ABC’s Twin Peaks, the peculiar murder-mystery series that was briefly a national sensation in 1990, they concentrate on its nonlinear story storytelling. Since Twin Peaks, it has become commonplace for TV scripts to resemble a literary version of the old party game Twister, full of flashbacks and flashforwards, plots unfolding backwards or sideways to the point that Albert Einstein, gazing down — or maybe up — from the quantum-physics hereafter, probably regretted ever revealing the existence of a time-space continuum.
But Twin Peaks made another lasting contribution to TV culture: the Sinister Little Town. The dwarf-dancing, demon-dwelling little burg of Twin Peaks begat an endless spawn of rural hellholes, ranging from Buffy’s vampire-riddled Sunnydale to the distressing tendency toward spontaneous combustion of the citizens in Picket Fence’s Rome, Wis., to the rampaging Amish mafiosi of Cinemax’s Banshee.
On Monday, post-Mayberry America gets two new entries. Sundance’s Top Of The Lake is set in an isolated New Zealand town where something very ugly is going on beneath the hardscrabble surface, while Bates Motel returns to the scene of the many Psycho crimes to show the troubled teenage years (not that his adult years were a barrel of laughs) of Norman Bates, the guy who gave the phrase “mama’s boy” a malevolent new twist.
Top Of The Lake is written, produced and directed by Jane Campion, who won an Oscar for her 1993 film The Piano, a disturbing tale of eroticism, power and sadomasochism. Top Of The Lake explores some of the same Freudian-goth territory; Elisabeth Moss ( Mad Men) plays detective Robin Moss, a detective sent to the remote town of Laketop to investigate the possibility of rape charges when a 12-year-old girl turns up pregnant.
The pregnancy and the girl’s eerie attempt to commit suicide by walking into a lake are clearly only the tip of an evil iceberg in Lakeside, a gorgeous little mountain town that looks like a resort but is populated mostly with rednecks and loons. The spectrum of social deviancy runs from the nutball inhabitants of a feminist commune full of women fleeing everything from abusive husbands to killer chimpanzees on one end, to murderous pedophiles on the other.
It’s impossible to imagine a cop less psychologically fit to investigate the town than Robin, driven bats by the sexist condescension of her police colleagues and seething with anger against a dying mother who sympathizes, if anything, with the guys. “You’re a long way from any help,” the mother warns as Robin goes out to interview a victim. “I am the help,” snaps the furious Robin.
The emotionally repressed, psychologically raw Robin, given to spasms of fascism in her pursuit of the case (to find the man who impregnated the 12-year-old, she orders DNA swabs of every male in the entire town), bears a strong resemblance to the cop played by Mireille Enos in AMC’s crime noir The Killing, and indeed there are a lot of similarities between the two shows. Moss offers a stunning performance, all the more satisfying because Australia’s idiotically chauvinist national TV network pulled its financing for Top Of The Lake because Campion chose an American actress for the lead.
Creepy and cockeyed, unholy and unnerving, Top Of The Lake is riveting stuff. Alas, the only way in which the word “riveting” might be employed in connection with Bates Motel is if you decide to do it to your head after watching an hour. After three sequels and a mind-bogglingly pointless shot-for-shot remake by Gus Van Sant, I didn’t think any further indignity could be inflicted on Alfred Hitchcock’s squirmy masterpiece Psycho. But I stand corrected.
Freddie Highmore ( The Art Of Getting By) haplessly stars as budding sociopath Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga ( Up In The Air) as his smothering mother Norma in this bit of exploitation blather that is perhaps the ultimate statement on nonlinear storytelling, a prequel set in 2013 to a film set in 1960.
Having started with a bad premise, producers Carlton Cuse ( Lost) and Kerry Ehrin ( Friday Night Lights) then made it infinitely worse by rejecting the loneliness and isolation that were the nucleus of Hitchcock’s film. In his telling, the Bates Motel, the murderous lair in which weary and unwary travelers lost their lives in Psycho, wasn’t even located in a town.
But Cuse and Ehrin have invented one for their show and turned into a Twin Peaks-style wormhole from which pops up every worldly matter of evil, and unlike Top Of The Lake, nothing is subtle. Top Of The Lake gives away its dire secrets only under pressure and after considerable misdirection; Bates Motel is like an Easter parade of slasher-flick villainy. Rapist goons! Narcotraffickers! Sex-slavers! Pray that we can stop this before season two, Bates Motel: Hitler & The Kardashians.