By Karen Valby
March 15, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT
Parisa Taghizadeh
  • TV Show

In the opening of Top of the Lake, a terrifically moody miniseries from The Piano director Jane Campion, we see a fully clothed 12-year-old girl walk up to her neck in a New Zealand lake. From that bracing first plunge, this is heady, dark material: The child is five months pregnant, and she’s not giving up the father.

Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss plays a Sydney detective who grew up in the backwater town and wants justice for the girl, who goes missing by the end of episode 1. Moss — steely and vulnerable, at home in her accent and jeans-and-boots detective wear — is astoundingly good. Her Robin, bearing deep childhood scars from this pockmark of a drug- and gun-addled community, would partner nicely with The Silence of the Lambs‘ Clarice Starling.

It’s trite to call the seven-part series a murder mystery, though there is a brutally offhand murder in the premiere. Campion has created something more deeply weird, starting by putting her Piano star Holly Hunter in men’s chinos and a long sheath of white hair to play the enlightened leader of a women’s support group. (This sounds potentially awful, but go with it — Hunter is marvelous and offers needed humor.) Then there’s the ferocious War Horse star Peter Mullan, who portrays the missing girl’s father and town drug overlord with festering rage and startling wit. The mystery of just what happened to the child unspools almost languidly against the backdrop of wild and gorgeous New Zealand country. The ugliness of humans amid such beauty resounds like a cold slap. A-

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