NEW YORK — “Top of the Lake," which was co-written and partly directed by Jane Campion and began this week on the Sundance Channel, may be the best thing to air on television this year. A dark story of rape and birth and death and trauma, it stars “Mad Men’s" Elisabeth Moss as a detective who returns to her New Zealand hometown to care for her mother and investigate the case of a missing 12-year-old. It builds slowly, becomes terribly riveting, and holds you to the end.
It’s already been compared to “The Killing" and “Twin Peaks," two other shows about murder and detective work in chilly, wooded places. But in stark contrast to those two shows, which both started strong and wound up as train wrecks, “Top of the Lake" has a good, satisfying ending. Perhaps this is in part because Jane Campion is a more gifted storyteller than Veena Sud and more interested in narrative coherence than David Lynch. But it’s also because Campion began with the end in sight: She had the good sense to make her TV show a miniseries.
Why aren’t there more great American miniseries? Most of the best ones come from other countries. “Top of the Lake" is a joint production of Australian, British and New Zealand companies, and was partially funded by the Australian government. That Tom Stoppard-written, Benedict Cumberbatch-starring “Parade’s End," which just aired on HBO? It was made in the U.K. But here in the U.S., the History Channel is one of the only networks regularly attempting the format, with its decidedly old-fashioned “Hatfields & McCoys" and its historical take on the bible. Something a little trashy clings to the reputation of the American miniseries — or, on the other end of the spectrum, something a bit PBS-y, as though the format were only good for stuffy adaptations and the reenactments of historical episodes. A small handful of these (“John Adams," “Mildred Pierce") are terrific, but look over the nominees and winners of the Emmy Award for Outstanding Miniseries, and you’ll see a lot of British winners, a fair number of miscategorized programs — like the 118-minute-long “Game Change," which is really a TV movie — and quite a bit of dreck. The people who finance and produce American television seem to think that miniseries are not particularly worthwhile investments when it comes to original stories. Which is unfortunate, because the miniseries is probably the ideal form for creating great television art.
You might not think so to look over the short history of the form in this country. It doesn’t really begin until the 1970s, following the big PBS success in the late 1960s of the British import “The Forsyte Saga." U.S. miniseries really took off after “Rich Man, Poor Man," from 1976, which was followed by “Jesus of Nazareth" and the massively popular “Roots" in 1977. (The final episode of the latter is one of the highest rated American TV programs in history.) These series are obvious forerunners to the pay-cable dramas that arrived with “The Sopranos" a quarter century later. But David Chase and David Milch and David Simon and the other guys not named David shook off the network gloss and melodrama of “The Thorn Birds" and its ilk for something more gritty, violent and sweary.
With one notable exception, they also shook off the valuable aesthetic constraint of a fixed endpoint. Their shows are often called novelistic, but even the serial novels of the Victorian era generally traced one central story from beginning to end in a way that “The Sopranos" and “Mad Men" don’t quite do. “Breaking Bad," the last eight episodes of which could still top “Top of the Lake" for best TV programming of 2013, comes close, with its intense focus on Walter White’s fall and rise and fall. But the real exception is “The Wire" — still, of course, the best American TV drama ever made — for which Simon imagined each season as its own coherent story. Simon may have seemed overly peeved and curmudgeonly when he insisted that critics could only judge his shows after a complete season had aired, but his complaint reflected a real devotion to narrative structure. “It doesn’t mean anything," he said, “until there’s a beginning, middle and an end."
That may be slightly overstated, but there’s something to it. And it’s why the very best miniseries are better than shows that run on and on: Characters interesting enough to serve as engaging companions week after week for years are wonderful creations, but their stories lack the meaningful shape found in the best novels and movies and plays. We may get glorious moments, and terrific episodes, and occasionally excellent multi-episode arcs. But the need to leave the door open, to keep the story going a little bit longer, and then a little bit longer, is an artistic impediment. “Breaking Bad" aside, there are few if any shows which have run for more than a couple seasons that one can hold in one’s mind complete and consider as an artistic whole. Contrast that shapelessness with, say, “Scenes From a Marriage," or “The Best of Youth," or “The Decalogue," all limited-run TV programs from Europe that are better than just about anything American TV has ever made.