Top of the Lake, which was co-written and partly directed by Jane Campion and begins tonight on the Sundance Channel, may be the best thing to air on television this year. A dark story of rape and birth and death and trauma, it stars Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as a detective who returns to her New Zealand hometown to care for her mother and investigate the case of a missing 12-year-old. It builds slowly, becomes terribly riveting, and holds you to the end.
It’s already been compared to The Killing and Twin Peaks, two other shows about murder and detective work in chilly, wooded places. (The latter’s creator gets a shout-out from Campion when some women tell Robin they’re off to discuss the “book version” of Blue Velvet.) But in stark contrast to those two shows, which both started strong and wound up as train wrecks, Top of the Lake has a good, satisfying ending. Perhaps this is in part because Jane Campion is a more gifted storyteller than Veena Sud and more interested in narrative coherence than David Lynch. But it’s also because Campion began with the end in sight: She had the good sense to make her TV show a miniseries.
Why aren’t there more great American miniseries? Most of the best ones come from other countries. Top of the Lake is a joint production of Australian, British, and New Zealand companies, and was partially funded by the Australian government. That Tom Stoppard-written, Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Parade’s End, which just aired on HBO? Made in the U.K. Here in the U.S. the History Channel is one of the only networks regularly attempting the format, with its decidedly old-fashioned Hatfields & McCoys and its flagrantly ahistorical take on The Bible both killing in the ratings. Something a little trashy clings to the reputation of the American miniseries—or, on the other end of the spectrum, something a bit PBS-y, as though the format were only good for stuffy adaptations and the reenactments of important historical episodes. A small handful of these (John Adams, Mildred Pierce) are terrific, but look over the nominees and winners of the Emmy Award for Outstanding Miniseries, and you’ll see a lot of British winners, a fair number of miscategorized programs—like the 118-minute-long Game Change, which is really a TV movie—and quite a bit of dreck. The people who finance and produce American television seem to think that miniseries are not particularly worthwhile investments when it comes to original stories. Which is unfortunate, because the miniseries is probably the ideal form for creating great television art.
You might not think so to look over the history of the form in this country. But then that history is pretty short. It doesn’t really begin until the 1970s, following the big PBS success in the late 1960s of the British import The Forsyte Saga. U.S. miniseries really took off after Rich Man, Poor Man, from 1976, which was followed by Jesus of Nazareth and the massively popular Roots in 1977. (The final episode of the latter is one of the highest rated American TV programs in history.) For a while, the networks invested heavily and regularly in this sort of prestige programming, trumpeting “the lavish film-style production values” of limited-run programs that were meant to be bigger and grander than regular television. These series are obvious forerunners to the pay-cable dramas that arrived with The Sopranos a quarter century later. But David Chase and David Milch and David Simon and the other guys (they’re mostly guys) not named David shook off the network gloss and melodrama of The Thorn Birds and its ilk for something more gritty, violent, and sweary.
With one notable exception, they also shook off the valuable aesthetic constraint of a fixed endpoint. Their shows are often called novelistic, but even the serial novels of the Victorian era generally traced one central story from beginning to end in a way that The Sopranos and Mad Men don’t quite do. Breaking Bad, the last eight episodes of which could still top Top of the Lake for best TV programming of 2013, comes close, with its intense focus on Walter White’s fall and rise and fall. But the real exception is The Wire—still, of course, the best American TV drama ever made—for which Simon imagined each season as its own coherent story. In this way it’s more akin to the great British series Prime Suspect than to its more frequently cited American counterparts: The Wire is not one big novel about Baltimore, but five novels. They build on each other, but are essentially self-contained—one reason it doesn’t matter much that the fifth installment isn’t as good as the first four. Simon may have seemed overly peeved and curmudgeonly when he insisted that critics could only judge his shows after a complete season had aired, but his complaint reflected a real devotion to narrative structure. “It doesn’t mean anything,” he said, “until there’s a beginning, middle, and an end.”
That may be slightly overstated, but there’s something to it. And it’s why the very best miniseries are better than shows that run on and on: Characters interesting enough to serve as engaging companions week after week for years are wonderful creations, but their stories lack the meaningful shape found in the best novels and movies and plays. We may get glorious moments, and terrific episodes, and occasionally excellent multi-episode arcs. But the need to leave the door open, to keep the story going a little bit longer, and then a little bit longer, is an artistic impediment. Breaking Bad aside, there are few if any shows which have run for more than a couple seasons that one can hold in one’s mind complete and consider as an artistic whole. Contrast that shapelessness with, say, Scenes From a Marriage, or The Best of Youth, or The Decalogue, all limited-run TV programs from Europe that are better than just about anything American TV has ever made.
Many viewers are fine with baggy imperfection in exchange for more of their favorite shows, of course. Why ask for less of something as good as The Sopranos? But perhaps if David Chase had been able to tell The Sopranos in 12 or 15 hours of perfect television, he could have then moved on to another epic story—instead of stretching it out for 86 rather up-and-down installments and then leaving TV behind to make a movie. And really, if The Sopranos had to be an uneven, six-season show, then fine. But can’t we have great miniseries, too? Given how much quality TV the U.S. churns out, why does Europe have better miniseries than we do?
The answer surely has something to do with money: American TV is a higher-stakes game, financially speaking, with no government funding, PBS aside, and beholden to stockholders, not the public. So if a network is going to invest serious resources into a project, they want it to be a franchise they can depend on for years. Contrast that with the U.K. When the British Film Institute put together a list of the 100 best British TV shows, a huge number of them were what we would call miniseries, while a comparable list of American shows has only a few. (Though Brits don’t use that term as much: Prime Suspect is typically called a series, while the six-part show The Singing Detective, say—a wilder project, by the way, than just about any American TV show—is usually called a serial.)
And it’s not like American viewers—or critics—have been clamoring for the networks to change in this respect. Even the few great American miniseries seem underappreciated. Todd Haynes’ Kate Winslet-starring Mildred Pierce was probably the best thing American TV had to offer in 2011—if you want to see what “novelistic” really looks like in televised form, watch that—but it was overshadowed by series that people knew were coming back the next year. It even lost the miniseries Emmy—to Downton Abbey. Like the people who finance the programs, American viewers don’t like to invest in characters who are going to leave us after six or eight or 12 hours. TV is something we like to depend on.
And that’s understandable. But it’s holding back the potential glories of this so-called Golden Age of television. Watch Top of the Lake all the way to the end. Then remember how you felt as Twin Peaks dissipated from its original brilliance, or when you reached the end of Season 1 of The Killing. It’s time to stop asking only for dependable companionship from American television, and to ask also for great stories with beginnings, middles, and—sad as they may sometimes be—endings that come in their time.