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In 2013 Sundance arrived with three boundary-pushing series

For 2013’s best-of-TV list, The A.V. Club’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. We’re unveiling those shows, one per publication day, culminating in our picks for the top three of the year. Don’t forget to vote for your favorites of the year in our readers’ poll.

It’s rare to see a TV channel suddenly unleash an onslaught of great scripted programming, but Sundance did just that in 2013, a feat made all the more remarkable because it was the first year the network had developed and programmed its own scripted shows. Indeed, it might have been the best streak for a TV channel just breaking into the scripted game since AMC launched Mad Men and Breaking Bad in the same TV season. What’s more, the three shows the channel broadcast in 2013 took very different routes to the same basic idea: how hard it can be to return home after time away. Three of our writers consider those ideas of homecoming in individual scenes from Top Of The Lake, Rectify, and The Returned.

Top Of The Lake

For all the times the miniseries Top Of The Lake felt ambling and impressionistic and messy, its slow burn is deliberate. Robin Griffin’s (Elisabeth Moss) investigation into the rape of 12-year-old Tui is a frame for the series’ real purpose: the upheaval of a community. Characters and events are often unrelated but project into a thematic echo chamber, revealing the claustrophobia of director and writer Jane Campion’s design. This also lends small scenes a cumulative weight that doesn’t carry in isolation; turning points drag hours of baggage behind them. 

Indeed, the best scenes in Top Of The Lake might be grace notes, small and loaded: Robin wandering into the water is less as an echo of Tui than magical thinking to reach her; a funeral betrays the cracks in a community that can’t hold. But at heart, this is a series about the outsiders that tangled communities create, and whether it’s possible to come home again when home is toxic. As such, consider the preceding scene where Robin gets hit on at a bar by her own rapist.


Taken alone, the scene’s chilling: the horror stealing over Robin as she realizes the man who raped her as a teenager honestly doesn’t remember her, the almost absentminded burst of violence that precedes her rage, the wordless interference from her onetime boyfriend who drags her to the water and watches her sob.

But what’s going on beneath it, and what happens after, make it a defining moment of the series. Robin is an outsider twice over—a stranger in a town she left behind and a detective in a precinct that doesn’t want her. She’s had a suspicious blackout at an officer’s house. She’s more connected with a missing 12-year-old than with her dying mother and equally powerless in both cases. The blank look from her rapist, then, robs her of even this much closure. Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), an outsider maintaining neutrality through inaction, stands impotently nearby for the last time; after this, he chooses sides. Her reaction horrifies her as much as its object. In the water, she sobs, “What the fuck is happening to me?”


But this isn’t a scene of someone breaking; it’s a scene of someone shocked at the depth of her rage. It’s a discovery she’ll need to face the things Lake Top is hiding; this is where we start to believe she might make it out alive.


Early in “Sexual Peeling,” the second episode of Rectify, Daniel Holden (Aden Young) goes to the convenience store. It’s the most mundane, run-of-the-mill experience imaginable for most of us, but for Daniel, nothing is mundane anymore: He’s just spent 19 years on death row. With his sentence vacated due to the discovery of new DNA evidence, Daniel is out of prison but not off the hook; many in his small Georgia hometown still think he’s guilty, and a new trial seems inevitable.


But for the moment, Daniel is free, and everything is new and wondrous. As the twangy tones of “Trouble In Mind” by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and The Pine Valley Cosmonauts drift down from the overhead speaker, Daniel ponders such oddities as the 64-ounce soda cup and hot dogs rotating on a grill as if he’s an alien stranded on an unfamiliar planet or a time-traveler, which, in a sense, he is. Daniel loads up on such futuristic products as a PowerBar, a 5-Hour Energy Drink, and SmartWater. (About the latter, Daniel asks the clerk, “Does this work?” The response: “Not miracles, I would think.”)

This scene works because show creator Ray McKinnon and his team have so successfully placed the viewer within Daniel’s point of view without ever letting on precisely what makes him tick. There’s an opacity to Young’s performance, which is in part necessitated by the plot (we don’t know if Daniel is guilty of the crime he’s been charged with, the murder of a teenage girl), but is also part-and-parcel of Daniel’s character. He’s a different kind of cat, given to quasi-poetic musings alternating with near-catatonic silences. Yet we still identify with him because Rectify does such a good job of letting us see the world through his eyes, so that even the quotidian seems new and strange.


Rectify is not only about how Daniel reacts to his oddly transformed hometown, but also how the townspeople respond to his homecoming. We see that in the convenience-store scene, as a group of teenagers photobomb Daniel in the aisle, no doubt thinking a picture with the infamous killer will make for an amusing Facebook post. And we see it in the wary but respectful way the clerk, Mr. Patel, treats Daniel. An Indian man in the South probably knows a little something about feeling like a stranger in a strange land. The difference is, for Daniel, that strange land is home.

The Returned

Life has a natural order: People are born, live for an indeterminate amount of time, then die, leaving the loved ones who surrounded them to somehow fill the hole produced by their loss. The predictability in this natural order is what makes the sadness of dying bearable, the loss ultimately soothed by the monotonous repetition of human existence; all of this has happened before and will happen again. 


But what if the dead don’t stay that way? Popular fiction has long been obsessed with this idea; zombie stories represent the vulgar id of the human obsession by confronting our innate fear of death, by infusing it with snarling terror and the impending dread of being the next to die. The fantastic French import The Returned takes a more subdued, measured approach to the material, bringing the dead back to life as if they’ve been in some sort of stasis while the world went on without them, then watching as they attempt to integrate back into their completely obliterated lives.

The Returned’s best example of this is identical twin Camille, whose death in a bus crash left her sister Lena to grow up and move on without her. The premiere episode, “Camille,” is subtly set up to come to an emotional climax with the sisters’ first meeting, and the scene doesn’t disappoint, fully embracing the simultaneous wonder and horror of the situation. When Camille knocks on her sister’s wall, for Lena, it’s a remembrance of something they’ve done a million times before but also something that was lost forever after her sister’s death. Therein lays the horror. When Camille eventually stops knocking and opens the door to Lena’s room, expecting to see her mirror image, it’s a moment of realization for them both. For Lena, it’s as if she’s looking into a mirror to her past. For Camille, it’s the sudden realization that she missed out on her future.


When the sisters break down and the camera pulls back to reveal the entire broken family, framed like a Pietà of utter destruction and sadness, the series announces itself. The Returned simultaneously dabbles a bit in mystery, a bit in horror, and a bit in drama, but it’s never better than when it is quietly dealing with the complicated relationships people have with love, loss, letting things go, and the quiet dread of being left behind.

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