In the third episode of Sundance Channel’s mini-series Top of the Lake (2013), Detective Robin Griffin, (Elisabeth Moss), uncovers video of the pregnant and missing, twelve-year-old girl, Tui. The footage shows Tui, happy and playful, singing for an unknown person.
For fans of the television detective series, this video may invoke nostalgia for another example of evidentiary footage: Laura Palmer at her hilltop picnic in Twin Peaks (1990-1991). Unlike Special Agent Dale Cooper of Twin Peaks, who sees this footage solely as a tool and therefore objectifies Laura, Robin, allows herself to identify with the missing Tui, seeing herself as not just detective, but also as the victim.
Unlike Cooper who maintains a steadfast and focused character throughout the series, Robin begins to unravel during the investigation, in a similar vein to her male antihero contemporaries, Don Draper or Tony Soprano—getting uncontrollably drunk, having inappropriate sexual liaisons, and provoking violent conflicts. Like these men, Robin experiences her emotional breakdown, as a direct result of the collision between her personal and professional life; her work arousing lingering traumas she seeks to mask.
Typically shows focused on “unraveling women” are considered soap operas while shows about male characters facing the same turmoil are considered “quality” programming. Tara McPherson cites the show 24, as an example of using, in part, genre as a means of masculinizing the show’s content and distancing the viewer from its serial structure, one that mimics the feminized soap opera. The current wave of “quality” programming, similarly relies on genre to differentiate itself from the soap opera, as does Top of the Lake, which exploits the masculinized detective genre, to mask its melodramatic and serial structure.
Although Twin Peaks, too, is a detective show, it is openly transparent of its soap opera roots, utilizing the serial structure to weave a complex mystery; however, Agent Cooper fails to indulge in the excessive emotional fallout that Robin experiences. Robin’s emotional breakdown, not only connects the show to the melodramatic influences of the soap opera, but invokes the traumatized detective, a trope of the genre. Top of the Lake, maintains its emotional exploits while maintaining its recognition as “quality.”
Work Referenced: Tara McPherson, "'The End of TV as We Know It': Convergence, Anxiety, Generic Innovation, and The Case of 24"