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; ANE's Bates Motel and the superb Top of the Lake on the Sundance channel. Both are set in small rural towns where the citizens are menacing and off kilter. Like Twin Peaks except everyone has a smart phone, and half the folks are crazier than a burlap bag full of poly-dactyl cats. Both series also have big name talent in their casts. And both have plenty of sex and violence, in keeping with the first law of cable TV which is that all bets are off except for full frontal naked dudes (and HBO even gets away with that from time to time). Let's take a look at both of them, starting with the good and working our way up to the sublime.
Bates Motel airs on ANE 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.
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 last night 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
All of this would keep me coming back for more, but I'm a sucker for odd-ball secondary characters and this series has plenty. One of GJ's acolytes is recovering from a tragic friendship with a chimpanzee. Another is a corpulent sex addict. Underneath all the odd, is Campion's trademark tightly crafted rage against the patriarchy. Ticking like a bomb, and ready to go off.
Hunt for these series as fast as you can. I'll see you in the woods, or down by the lake!