The show opens with a woman and two grubby men exchanging dark looks in a kitchen as they prepare to dispose of a heavy suitcase – easy to guess there's a corpse inside. As the woman and one of the men eventually head out, she stops in a hallway and opens the door to a tiny bedroom, giving us an eyeful of four scantily clad women piled into bed together. She admonishes two of them, who are still awake, watching TV: "Sleep!"
Yep, two minutes in, we've already hit the most overused trope on TV crime shows: a brothel run by a tart-tongued madam and filled with young, beautiful, half-naked hookers.
It's a scene that would usually have me switching channels, but this time I'm willing to see where it goes. Admittedly, it's because this is Top of the Lake: China Girl (CBC, Wednesday, Oct. 25), from Jane Campion (Academy Award-winning director of The Piano), whose first season of the series in 2013 won critical raves, multiple awards and an audience rating of 86 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes.
This time out, after busting up a ring of local pederasts, shooting her rapist boss and dealing with memories of her own rape at 16 in her native New Zealand, detective Robin Griffin, played by Elisabeth Moss, is back with the Sydney Police Force, ready to take on the dead "China girl" case.
But even if I weren't a Campion fan, I'd still watch because, right off the bat, that opening brothel scene feels different. The girls are comfortably sleeping or loafing on the bed. The only person looking at them is another woman. No one is performing for men, either on the show or in the audience. Through Campion's lens, they appear as actual, non-objectified human beings, and I'm curious about them in a way I'm not about the grinding, writhing stripper-hookers used as scenic wallpaper for the menfolk in conventional TV.
"Usually scenes like this are supposed to turn you on and be hot," Campion says, but she and co-writer Gerard Lee wanted to portray the "normal life of the place" instead. They found a Thai brothel in Sydney, where prostitution is legal, she explains, and paid some of the sex workers half of what a real session costs to talk about themselves, "and they were absolutely kind and generous with their life stories." Later, during shooting, "they came out and helped us and the actors who were playing the sex workers."
It seems a small thing – doing extensive off-screen research on female characters, then treating them like real people on-screen. But the effect is potent in a genre that has become increasingly misogynistic and was never particularly female-friendly in the first place.
Lady detectives in mystery novels tended to be earnest virgins such as Nancy Drew or sexless spinsters such as Miss Marple, and their arid lifestyles remained pretty much intacta when they made it to the screen. Things supposedly improved in the 1970s with Angie Dickinson on Police Woman, except she spent most of her time undercover as a stripper or prostitute (the titillating, poorly researched kind) or posing as bait for an endless series of rapists. Finally, in 1981, two women created Cagney & Lacey, about two female buddy cops, but, as Helen Mirren of Prime Suspect later commented, it ultimately "developed into a kind of soap opera."
By 1984, it was back to sexless sleuthing on Murder, She Wrote, with Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, a childless widow who couldn't drive.
Male detectives, meanwhile, tended to come out of the film noir tradition, which was basically romance novels for men – except the love object was themselves, because dames could never be trusted and marriage was for chumps. On TV, these clever dicks translated into a wide range of colourful characters: congenial Rockford, sly Columbo, lollipop-addicted Kojak, the magnificently mustachioed Magnum, earnestly deadpan Agent Dale Cooper and OCD-afflicted Monk to, more recently, depressive Wallander, angry Luther, sulky Bosch, ultra-charming mentalist Patrick Jane and mad genius Sherlock.
Female detectives finally broke through the cliché barrier in 1991's Prime Suspect, a British procedural conceived and originally written by Lynda La Plante, with Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. No virgin she, and with no buddies neither, Tennison drank her way through doomed relationships, a sexist work environment, at least one lonely abortion and many crimes solved. So marked was the show's deviation from female-cop type that when another brash lady detective showed up on American TV, Kyra Sedgwick on The Closer, that vastly different, male-created show was accused of copying the British series.
One reason Prime Suspect was so groundbreaking was because the show "got it right – it was the first time a police drama also used proper police procedure," says Sally Wainwright, who repeated the trick to create two other stellar series: Scott & Bailey, co-created with Manchester Police Detective Inspector Diane Taylor, and Happy Valley, based on experiences of Wainwright's childhood friend, police constable Lisa Ferrand. Along with the workplace authenticity came a fidelity to what working women really look like: seeing Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp on Scott & Bailey and Sarah Lancashire on Happy Valley charge around with flat shoes, unwieldy purses, messy hair and bra straps in regular need of adjustment was intensely gratifying.
There's another aspect to the authenticity of shows about women made by women: humour. "It's true," Wainwright says. "In Scott and Bailey, when they're not talking about work, they're making each other laugh."
Wainwright's favourite example is from the second season of Happy Valley, when Lancashire's Sergeant Catherine Cawood smokes a fag in the garden with her sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran), and describes her day: arrestin' some kids off their 'eds on acid, beating an injured sheep to death with a rock, finding a corpse so rotten it made her gag. Flashbacks intercut with Lancashire's laconic delivery and perfect comic timing make the scene laugh-out-loud funny, even though we know the main story is a dark tale of murder and revenge.
"It's true to life," Wainwright says, unlike shows with female characters written by men. "I find them all a bit po-faced. Like if you write a dark drama about a serial killer, it has to be dead serious and nobody laughs. I just find that very unreal." Women don't get to be funny in shows written by men, she says, for two reasons: "I think men have a very different sense of humour. And they don't think women can be funny. So women written by men, particularly in cop dramas, aren't meant to be funny as well. It's not on the men's agenda. We of course know that women are extraordinarily funny."
The evidence would seem to bear this out. I wouldn't say Top of the Lake: China Girl is a barrel of laughs. Robin has a painful reunion with the biological daughter she gave up for adoption (played by Campion's own daughter Alice Englert) and faces disruptive relationships with the girl's adoptive mother, played by Nicole Kidman (with mounds of grey hair and makeup-free freckles), and Gwendoline Christie (Brienne from Game of Thrones) as an over-enthusiastic constable.
But genuinely funny moments occur. Robin overhears a male cop in the office brag that he hasn't shed a tear in seven years, and we share her take – that he has no idea what he's really revealing by thinking that's something to be proud of. Later, we laugh with Robin when Christie's character tries to cheer her up by wearing a space helmet and talking like an alien. In a surreal flashback that's both comedic and tragic, Robin's wedding dress is fed to a giant bonfire, with her approval, by a bunch of Kiwi yahoos, all beautifully silhouetted against a vista of snow-capped mountains.
The humour in women-made shows highlights its absence in female cops created by men: They're "vulnerable" and "likeable" and "relatable," but their personalities are one-dimensional. The most egregious example is Gillian Anderson as the quivering, tormented, humourless "feminist" obsessed with a hot serial killer on Allan Cubitt's The Fall. She'd last five minutes in a real cop shop, where humour is the main tool for staying sane.
My point is that simply putting females on screen and making them "kickass" and "whipsmart" isn't good enough if the story is not being told – i.e., created, written, directed – by a woman. Why would anyone, male or female, want to watch women's stories of identity, love, friendship and motherhood – or pregnancy, rape and abortion – being told by men? It's misguided at best, cynical at worst.
It also contributes to rape culture. It's not just the constant barrage of beaten, raped, dead, beautiful girls we're used to seeing on-screen, making it seem "normal" for women to end up that way. It's the minutiae of how female heroes are portrayed: Anderson's perfect hair and makeup on The Fall, even when her face is artfully bruised and bloody, her gay kiss in a bar as a supposedly empowering move to ward off male attention, her shower scene that looks like a shampoo commercial before her oh-so-sad solo swimming – it's all through the male gaze. She's not real. Translation: No woman is real. They are objects that exist for our pleasure.
Because procedural TV dramas are the most in-demand genre in the world, and because studies and, alas, life (e.g., Trump in the White House) show that what people watch influences their behaviour, and because no one post-Harvey Weinstein can claim ignorance about rampant sexual assault, isn't it obvious we should stop perpetuating false stereotypes on TV that desensitize men and diminish women?
While we're at it, let's address another lie TV tells about women: We're not all white. Women of colour in leading roles on cop shows are almost non-existent, and where they do exist – e.g., Priyanka Chopra on Quantico – they spring from the imagination of white male showrunners such as Joshua Safran. They're glossy as hell, but they don't feel real – and they certainly aren't funny. Nor are all non-men even women – the whole non-binary gender needs to have their stories told as well.
Meanwhile, as we wait for non-men, of all stripes, to run more shows, Top of the Lake: China Girl marks a significant contribution to the genre – even though, as other reviewers have noted, there are plotting issues: Too much of the story depends on coincidence, such as Robin's daughter's connection to the people in the brothel, and an unconventional ending to the murder mystery. It's also true that Campion lays on the feminism pretty thick – not as thick as the blithe misogyny of the first season of True Detective perhaps, but definitely more than will be to some viewers' taste.
To fans, this smacks of "but her e-mails" – denigrators carping about craft because they dislike or feel alienated by the unfamiliar female gaze. One might further argue that perfect plotting isn't always a priority for men either – not even Raymond Chandler could figure out who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep.
But craft is not the point of China Girl, as Campion cheerfully admits, saying she and Lee struggled with "the problems of the genre – things such as having scenes to explain things, which were just boring and hideous to do." She concentrated instead on what really interested her: "Issues to do with getting pregnant – the pain of miscarriage, of not managing to fulfill your hopes of having a family – all these issues are very real for women and are very rarely discussed." Because women haven't traditionally been in charge of storytelling, she says, "we've come to think of that as just private stuff."
Campion's work has been called "female noir," a term open to interpretation, but one scene may help define it: Robin – off balance in her personal life, rattled by male doubters on the job – arrives at Bondi Beach to examine the body washed ashore in the suitcase. She leans over the dead girl with palpable tenderness, murmuring: "Hello darling, you wanna tell me what you saw?"
The girl's body is unfetishized and off camera. Our attention is on Robin as her agitation evaporates, her expression settles into calm resolve and her clear blue eyes focus on the job ahead of her: finding the killer.
"Thank you for noticing that," Campion says when I ask her about it. "That's the moment she gets her agency, when she knows how to live her life. Everything that's forgotten, misused and unhappy in her, she gets to make right in these cases – where she's standing up for the women and girls who have nobody on their side."