Critics I respect have called Top of the Lake one of the best things on TV this year. It's a seven-part miniseries co-produced by channels in Britain, Australia and the US. It aired in the states on the Sundance Channel through March and April and is now a "new arrival" on Netflix Instant.
Set in small-town New Zealand, Top of the Lake follows detective Robin Griffin (played by Mad Men's Elizabeth Moss with an on-again off-again down-under accent) as she investigates the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old girl. In the whodunnit vein of Twin Peaks, Top of the Lake creates an insular world of mysterious characters, all of whom represent potential suspects with plausible motives. Things are complicated by the friendliness (and collusion?) of the police force with the townsfolk and a network of haphazard organized crime. The trappings of a riveting mystery are in place here, but a few key hitches persist.
The first is that the story simply moves too slowly. A successful mystery relies on the calculated release of critical information or misinformation, and through three 50-minute episodes, the pieces just aren't congealing with enough force or speed. There aren't even obvious red herrings to speak of. So much of the series' first half is building up the unusual world, and though the world's quirks and novelties are interesting -- e.g. there's a commune of emotionally untethered women living in empty freight cars led by a wackadoo Shaman-psycho played by Holly Hunter -- you're left jonesin' for more detective work. The second central hitch is that murders make much better investigations than rapes. The motives are more diverse. The stakes are frankly much higher. And here, not only the circumstances of the crime but the crime itself remains a question mark. Aussie heartthrob David Wenham (300, Australia) co-stars.
Another TV mystery inspired by Twin Peaks with a not-conventionally-attractive lead female detective is available for your viewing pleasure on Netlix: AMC's The Killing. This one got flak from viewers who watched it religiously week to week and felt betrayed when the season one finale didn't answer the Big Question.
That's a fair complaint, and the second season's ratings suffered for it. But on Netflix, which not only enables but basically necessitates binging, this one's a winner. The architecture and choreography of the first season's investigation -- finale notwithstanding -- is one of the most elegant murder mysteries you'll ever see play out on TV. The misdirects are endlessly compelling. The characters (none of whom are played by big-name celebs) are realistic and relatable. Detective Sarah Holden's problems are more complex and more complete than Top of the Lake's Robin Griffin's. And here's what the thrills are: NON. STOP.
Critics I respect have called the second season a train wreck, but despite an ambling few episodes, The Killing regains its traction and concludes almost perfectly. Every last detail checks out. The various strands of smaller storylines are tidily accounted for. What's most impressive is that the creators managed to extend a single case's investigation over 26 episodes without grasping too much, and ultimately found a balance between the addictive procedural elements and the grief of the family who lost a child. Set in the rainy, wooded climes of Seattle and based on the Danish Forbrydelsen, this show is worth a devoted weekend.
But if you only have 90 minutes to spare, you can always watch Clue, the 1985 campy comedy based on the whodunnit board game starring Tim Curry and Christopher Lloyd. Critics I respect haven't said much about Clue, but the tagline's pretty catchy: "It's not just a game anymore..."