by Ron Wynn
Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion hasn't worked in television since 1990, something that makes the March 18 debut of the Sundance Channel miniseries Top of the Lake (8 p.m.) even more of an event. She has both cowritten and codirected this seven-episode drama that follows the case of a pregnant 12-year-old girl who steps into a freezing lake, then disappears.
Filmed over five weeks in New Zealand and co-financed by the Sundance Channel and the BBC, Top of the Lake promises to avoid the conceptual problems that have hindered similarly themed productions like The Killing. First, as a limited-run show, there are no worries about audiences watching the entire run before discovering the solution isn't coming until next season. Second, Campion and others involved with the show have promised far less emphasis on procedure and lab work and more on characterization.
Third and most important, Campion has made a pair of casting coups. The first involves a prominent role for Holly Hunter, who won an Oscar for their 1993 collaboration The Piano. The second is Mad Men breakout player Elisabeth Moss, who plays the lead detective investigating the case.
Given the pedigree of everyone involved, it's a good bet that Top of the Lake will be at minimum a cut above most network and cable mystery/crime shows. Hopefully, it may also mark a regular return for Jane Campion to television, if only for specialty shows or films. The medium can always use someone with her skills, especially when operating outside the creatively restricted, corporate-controlled network universe.
Since it's doubtful anyone was clamoring for another Psycho spinoff, the folks at A&E are going a different route — they're offering a prequel. Bates Motel debuts March 18 at 9 p.m., courtesy of producers Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrins (Friday Night Lights).
Cuse and Ehrins have told TV Guide and others they are deliberately veering afield from the classic 1960 film. They've introduced a new character in Norman Bates' half-brother Dylan, while shining the spotlight on Norman's (Freddie Highmore) earlier life, relationship with his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga), and eventual descent into the wacko killer Hitchcock's original made famous.
This ranks as the ultimate long shot. Not only does it follow a long line of failures, but it's banking on capturing a new audience unfamilar with the vintage movie while hoping it doesn't alienate legions of Hitchcock fans who know every inch of its predecessor. Horror spinoffs have enough problems already without that initial hurdle to overcome.
The overwhelming majority of TV critics pronounced Seth MacFarlane's sole stint as Oscar host a disaster (to put it kindly), but ABC got what it wanted from a ratings standpoint. The Academy Awards show attracted more than 40 million people, giving ABC a rare No. 1 finish. The total count was 41.4 million when DVR viewership was added.
The only other ABC show in the Top 10 was the Oscars Red Carpet presentation, which finished fourth. CBS once more ruled the roost, with its entire Thursday night lineup outrating every other network presentation for the week — except one. While not getting the numbers it did in its glory years, Fox's American Idol still had an audience of 14.4 millon for Wednesday and 13.7 million for Thursday (16. 1 and 15. 3 with DVR adjustments), though it is now clearly behind CBS' The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men.
CBS is also not going to shift Golden Boy to Fridays after all. While it didn't do that much better than Vegas, it posted enough of an increase in the 18-49 demo (about a million viewers in its second episode) for the network to leave it in the 9 p.m. slot (airing locally on WTVF-Channel 5).
Vegas will move to 8 p.m. Fridays on April 5. Some observers feel that's actually not a bad pairing, since both programs have substantial followings among older audiences. But whether Vegas returns for a second season remains in question.