Elisabeth Moss is a vessel for cultural misogyny. Her TV characters have been harassed, sexually assaulted, threatened, degraded, lied to and betrayed. How much sexist abuse can befall one person? Oh, plenty. Between “Mad Men,” in which she played the ambitious but put-upon Peggy Olsen; “Top of the Lake,” in which she plays sex-crimes detective Robin Griffin; and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in which she plays the enslaved Offred, one can watch Ms. Moss survive sexist torture in stories set in the past, the present and the crypto future.
She has plenty more to endure in “Top of the Lake: China Girl,” which premieres Sunday on SundanceTV. In the first season — like this one, it was written and created in part by the filmmaker Jane Campion — Robin ventured to New Zealand to investigate the rape of a 12-year-old girl. That season’s woozy, misty atmosphere, fascinating landscape and poetic lens set it apart from other crime shows. It was still grisly, but it was beautiful, too; steady and special.
“China Girl” is a more hollow simulation of that style, a re-enactment of mood without the potency of an actual mood. The rural mystique and literary flare of Season 1 are replaced with urban brutality and sad nonsense. Robin is back in Sydney, investigating the murder of a sex worker whose body is found in a suitcase that washes up on Bondi Beach.
As in Season 1, the victim (“Cinnamon,” who is Thai, not Chinese) is barely in the story. The central investigation of the show isn’t into her murder, it’s into Robin’s psyche. But there’s less there than the show seems to realize, and the overreliance on coincidence makes everything feel like a contrivance, not a development. The just-soedness of the plot is too glaring to ignore, even as memorable images, such as a wedding dress on a funeral pyre, leave a strong impression.
Robin’s interest in solving sex crimes stems in part from being gang raped as a teenager. That assault resulted in a pregnancy, and Robin put the child up for adoption. In “China Girl,” that daughter — Mary (Alice Englert), now 17 — and Robin are finally in touch, and the two tentatively circle each other. Mary’s teenage-rebellion-phase bad boyfriend is a 45-year-old faux intellectual who has some kind of vague lounge-lecturer role at the very brothel where Cinnamon worked, a connection that’s distractingly ridiculous.
Fertility, gestation and the tense, primal maternal bond drive much of the series. We see Robin grapple with whether she considers herself a mother, and Mary’s adoptive mother, Julia (Nicole Kidman, ferocious), bristles at Robin’s entry into their lives. (There’s the added layer that Ms. Englert is Ms. Campion’s daughter.)
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