'Bates Motel' and 'Top of the Lake'; Twisted Tales Herald TV's Golden Age

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I've said it before and I'll say it again...we are living in a golden age of television viewing. Fantasy epic Game of Thrones just started its third season on HBO. Emmy award winning period piece Mad Men is returning to AMC this Sunday. And currently we have two dark and thrilling original mysteries on the air; A&E's Bates Motel and the superb Top of the Lake on the Sundance channel. Both are set in small country towns where the citizens are menacing and off kilter. They're somewhat like David Lynch’s ground breaking series from the 90’s Twin Peaks, except everyone has a smart phone, and half the characters are crazier than bats. Both series star A-list celebrities. And both have plenty of sex and violence, in keeping with the first law of cable TV which says that all bets are off except for full frontal naked dudes (and HBO even gets away with that from time to time). This is not children’s programming. Let's take a look at both shows, starting with the good and working our way up to the sublime.

Image courtesy of A&E

Bates Motel airs on A&E Monday nights at 10pm. Three episodes have already aired and if you missed them you can stream them all on their website for free. Based on the classic Hitchcock favorite Psycho, this series is a sort of prequel to the movie. Call it Norman and his mother...the early years. It stars the extremely talented Brit actor Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as our dear nut-ball Norman and the gorgeous and capable Vera Farmiga as his smother mother Norma. They just moved into the big house in a rural U.S. town (looks like northern California) and they're off to a rocky start. The cops are crooked, the former owner is enraged and something very bad is happening up in the woods. The characters are mildly quirky (I particularly love the high school nerd girl who has to wear an oxygen tank) and the writing is sharp. It has become appointment TV for me now, filling what was formerly a Monday night desert.

 

Image courtesy of Sundance Channel

Top of the Lake is the phenomenal new short series (alas only 7 episodes) from the Sundance Channel. If TV shows were boyfriends then Top of the Lake is my new boyfriend and I'm in love. I'm a late bloomer for the show, having just gotten around to watching my first episode this week on (cable) demand. You can also catch it on Sundance or download episodes from iTunes or Amazon.

Written and directed by Academy Award winner Jane Campion (The Piano), Top of the Lake is terribly disturbing and yet also darkly hilarious. It takes place in a backwater town in New Zealand, so when things seem off-the-charts odd you're not sure if it's nuts because that's the way things are in New Zealand or maybe this town sets a whole new high bar for weird. At the center of the tale is a woebegone 12 year old (Tui) who is five months pregnant. She's not saying how, and Detective

 Image courtesy of Sundance Channel

Griffin (the incredible Elisabeth Moss from Mad Men) is brought in to investigate. She seems the only one in this strange little town that is even remotely outraged by this poor child's terrible situation. Tui's father is one of the scariest, most unlikable characters I've seen in quite some time. He shoots dogs, he drowns real estate agents...and he's practically incomprehensible with a Scottish brogue thicker than mud. In fact, he is so despicable, my guess is that we are going to find out that there's a decent fellow buried under all his sputter and menace. Campion will try to surprise us, I'm sure of it. And speaking of surprise, I thought I would go the rest of my life not liking Holly Hunter but now it's not going to happen. I always found her off-putting...mostly because of that voice which has the metallic grate of a spoon caught in a garbage disposal. In this series, she is a revelation. She plays a new-age guru for abused women. She looks a bit like aging punk rocker and poet Patti Smith. Her character (GJ) is 82 pounds of androgynous woman and 42 pounds of long silver hair. Of course, one is captivated by her in every scene. Much of her appeal has to do with the writing which is insanely good. When she first meets the unfortunate Tui, her reaction is not concern or even anger. With great conviction she points to Tui and says, "You've got a time bomb in there...it's going to go off!".  Absolutely nothing in this series is predictable.

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