Compelling characters drive 'Top of the Lake'

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Sundance's new seven-hour miniseries "Top of the Lake," starring "Mad Men" regular Elisabeth Moss, plays like a low-fi version of "The Killing" in its first two hours that debut Monday at 9 p.m.

Like "The Killing," "Top of the Lake" is a crime drama focused on a single mystery, the disappearance of 12-year-old Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe). Both projects focus on an engaged female detective on a dogged pursuit to solve a case even at the expense of her relationship. In addition, "Top of the Lake" investigating detective Robin Griffin (Ms. Moss) has a mother with cancer vying for her attention.

"The Killing" started strong with an evocative pilot and then devolved into a series of red herrings. With just seven episodes, "Top of the Lake" may avoid that misstep. Ultimately the story is less about the case and the missing girl and more about the characters and their twisty relationships.

Set in New Zealand and written and directed in part by Oscar winner Jane Campion ("The Piano"), "Top of the Lake" moves at a deliberate but rarely boring pace and has characters who run the gamut from enigmatic to hardscrabble to pathetic.

As "Top of the Lake" begins, Robin is visiting her sick mother when Tui walks into a lake, only to be stopped from drowning herself. Later Tui sets out on a horse and visits a women's camp headed by G.J., a mysterious American guru (Carnegie Mellon University grad Holly Hunter). G.J. doesn't say a lot, but the women around her, who suffer from low self-esteem, sure do as they recover from assorted personal problems. One woman tells another about eating a whole bag of potato chips as a coping mechanism. Her compatriot suggests another approach: "You ever try masturbating? It's very relaxing and it's not fattening."

It's not initially clear how "Top of the Lake" wants the audience to view the dwellers of this paradise compound -- damaged? deluded? desperate? -- but they do offer welcome, mild comic relief from the show's heavy, nasty bully Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), Tui's father and a local drug lord who terrorizes the lake area with the help of his mook sons.

Robin partners with a local detective, Al Parker (David Wenham), for the investigation of Tui's disappearance into the vast New Zealand wilderness after her appearance at the women's camp. Al clearly knows more about the locals and their criminal doings than he lets on to Robin, but he takes her more seriously than other men on the local police force, who mock her for her determination, her gender or both.

Taken altogether -- the determined detective, the drug lord, the kooky encampment, the mystery of Tui's disappearance -- "Top of the Lake" makes for a compelling mix of moody, character-driven drama.

After Monday's premiere, one episode will air weekly on Monday nights until the two-hour finale on April 15. Read more about "Top of the Lake," including an interview with Ms. Hunter, next week in Tuned In Journal.

Sundance is carried on Comcast's Channel 165 (or 164 on former Adelphia systems), Verizon Fios TV's Channel 392, DirecTV's Channel 558 and DISH Network's Channel 358. Armstrong does not carry Sundance.

NBC gives up on 'Smash'

On Wednesday, NBC executives announced a slew of schedule changes, most notably the sidelining of "Smash," which will finish out its 17-episode second season at 9 p.m. Saturday beginning April 6. "Smash" will continue to air on Tuesdays through April 2.

NBC will give "Go On" a Thursday night tryout, airing the season's final two episodes at 9:30 p.m. April 4 and 11. "The New Normal" will have a one-hour season finale at 9 p.m. April 2. "Whitney" will air a one-hour season finale at 8 p.m. March 27.

"Celebrity Apprentice" will shift to 10 p.m. Sunday for its March 31 and April 7 episodes following encores of "The Voice" and will then air 9-11 p.m. Sunday beginning April 14.

New "Bachelor"-like reality show "Ready for Love," which was to debut later this month," will now premiere and air 9-11 p.m. Tuesday, beginning April 9.

Mister Rogers and Target

Target has started running a TV ad in Canada that uses a new recording of the famous "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" theme from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

It's an innocuous, feel-good, upbeat advertisement, but for some who hear it -- myself included -- it seems to be at odds with the late Fred Rogers' unwillingness to license an abundance of products associated with the "Neighborhood."

Sure, there were books and records -- and a ride at Idlewild park -- but comparatively few merchandise tie-ins.

Fred Rogers Company president Bill Isler said an ad agency doing work for Target's entry into the Canadian market came to FRC seeking permission to use the song.

"We were really not interested but they came back and gave legitimate reasons, the fact that the 'Neighborhood' started in Canada and they were introducing Target to Canada and it was an introduction only in Canada and the ad would never be shown in America," Mr. Isler said. "It is on YouTube, and we had extensive conversations about usage. It's not Fred [singing], they're doing their own interpretation of the music, and we agreed."

Mr. Isler said there was no dissent within FRC on the decision.

"Once we realized how they valued Fred and valued the 'Neighborhood' and valued his work and saw the way it was going to be used, there wasn't any negative conversation," he said, pointing out past merchandising of puppets, a wooden trolley and T-shirts. "It's not that we didn't do things, it's that Fred himself did not want to be a salesman or spokesperson for a line of toys or clothes or anything."

Mr. Isler said it's difficult to judge what Mr. Rogers would have done if approached about this particular licensing opportunity.

"I think people are digging into this and seeing things that may not exist," he said. "It's not fair to Fred or Fred's legacy to try to think how he may have done something."

Channel surfing

"Sherlock" star Benedict Cumberbatch said this week that he has signed on for two more three-episode seasons of PBS's "Masterpiece" hit series. Season three begins production in England next week. ... Variety reports 1987 Carnegie Mellon University graduate and Titusville native Andy Forssell will be interim CEO at Hulu following the departure of Murrysville native Jason Kilar at the end of the quarter. ... CBS announced a new app for iPhone and iPad that offers full-episode streaming of some CBS shows. ... MSNBC's "The Ed Show" will move to weekends, airing 5-7 p.m., beginning next month. In its place weeknights at 8 starting April 1, MSNBC will debut a new show hosted by Chris Hayes, who's been host of "Up With Chris Hayes" on weekend mornings. ... Netflix will get exclusive streaming rights to the third season of "The Killing" three months after the third season finale airs on AMC. ... Lucasfilm announced this week that "Star Wars: Clone Wars" has ended its five-season run on Cartoon Network although the promise of new "Clone Wars" story arcs suggests a revival on a Disney-owned network following Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm. In addition, the animated "Star Wars" comedy series "Star Wars: Detours," from the producers of "Robot Chicken," is indefinitely postponed. ... TNT's "Dallas" said farewell to J.R. Ewing and got a ratings boost in the process, drawing 3.5 million viewers Monday, 28 percent above the prior week's episode, according to Variety. ... The creator and stars of the late "Veronica Mars" launched on Wednesday morning a Kickstarter campaign to raise $2 million in pledges to fund production of a "Veronica Mars" movie and reached their goal by Wednesday evening. ... BET renewed "Real Husbands of Hollywood" for a 12-episode second season, and the network will premiere new seasons of "The Game" (10 p.m.) and "Let's Stay Together" (11 p.m.) on March 26. ... Pittsburgh native Antoine Fuqua, who had been attached to direct a proposed big-screen "24" movie, says he's no longer working on that project and he doesn't think it will happen at all, according to a report at

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Sullivan & Son," "The Mentalist" and "Rizzoli & Isles." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Dallas," "Preachers' Daughters," the Target ad using the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" theme and a Comcast on-demand extravaganza. Read online-only TV content at

On the web

See the Target "Neighborhood" ad at

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A portion of this column first appeared online in Tuned In Journal. TV writer Rob Owen: or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news. First Published March 15, 2013 4:00 AM


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