'Top of the Lake: China Girl' is Great TV Gone Very Bad

Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin in Top Of The Lake: China Girl. See-Saw Films/Sundance TV

The second season of the art-house TV detective series Top of the Lake begins at the watery bottom. Through a crack in a suitcase pushed into the ocean, long black strands of human hair swirl in a delicate dance of horror. The image is eerie, beautiful, feminine and chilling—a hallmark of New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion, who, with series co-creator Gerard Lee, introduced viewers four years ago to an incandescent Elisabeth Moss as the damaged, undaunted woman-of-feminist-sorrow Detective Robin Griffin.

We quickly learn that the hair is attached to the body of a young Asian woman, a prostitute who worked in a brothel in Sydney, Australia, where sex work is legal. We learn, too, that she was being used as a pregnancy surrogate, managed by a singularly creepy man who goes by the singularly creepy name of Puss (actor David Dencik). This makes for the umpteenth creepy man in Griffin's life. In the first season, she faced down the drug-dealing patriarch of a clan of thugs in her native New Zealand while tracking the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old. Also, she shot a cop colleague who pimped young offenders. Also, she had been gang-raped as a teenager, so her affnity for young women in distress is acute.

Campion, the only female director to have won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or—for The Piano in 1993—has long been interested in the havoc wreaked by terrible men on vulnerable women. Into this all-too-fertile feminist territory, Top of the Lake: China Girl brings the psychology and biology of motherhood: It turns out Griffin's adolescent trauma resulted in a daughter given up for adoption at birth, and her investigation into the world of surrogacy adds guilt and maternal longing to her portfolio of melancholies now bulging nearly as much as that sad suitcase—a catchall metaphor, it seems, for all that is troubling in the lake of womanhood.

China Girl has moments of brilliance, in its stunning setting and cinematography, and in the performances of co-stars Nicole Kidman, Gwendoline Christie (of Game of Thrones) and the new young actor Alice Englert, who plays Griffin's lost daughter and is Campion's real daughter (a gift to armchair psychologists). But so much is madly, gyno-centrically cuckoo that the saga simultaneously implodes and spirals out of control. As Lynchian-nightmare-strange as Campion's vision can get, it's the heavy-handed gender politics and cartoonish demonstrations of male treachery and stupidity that do the story in. The male cops taunt and titter at Griffin with unrelenting sexist provocation, and even "good" men turn out to be cheaters. None are more pointless or idiotic than the dudes who hang out in a local coffee shop, sharing online ratings of prostitutes they claim to have banged, in a confederacy of Beavis and Butt-Head dunces. Meanwhile, the women weep or circle one another distrustfully, a spirit-draining ladies' misery litany. Had a man made this, he would have been womansplained into contrition.

Top of the Lake: China Girl debuts on Sundance September 10.