To The Lake (Original title: Epidemiya) is scarily prescient, given the fact that it debuted in Russia last year. Is our current pandemic as scary as the one predicted in the show? Sure, but the symptoms of the TV pandemic are more of the horror variety; we know that it doesn’t take blank irises to be a scary-as-shit illness. But, like most series that have to do with outbreaks, To The Lake is more concerned with how much more dangerous desperate humans can be than the outbreak itself.
TO THE LAKE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: As we zoom in on a snowy landscape, we see a scraggly man stumbling along, white irises in his eyes. He collapses, coughing up blood, in a creek. A woman wakes up.
The Gist: The woman dreaming is a psychologist named Anna (Viktoriya Isakova), who is consoled by her boyfriend Sergey (Kirill Käro). Sergey gets called away from their wealthy suburb to go into Moscow; he says it’s business, but it’s to meet his son Anton (Saveliy Kudryashov); his ex-wife Irina (Maryana Spivak) is severely restricting visitation for seemingly spiteful reasons. While in the park, they encounter someone who collapses of some unknown malady.
We then see Lyonya (Aleksandr Robak) paying for the damage his daughter Polina (Viktoriya Agalakova) created in rehab. The counselor says she’s sober, but Polina’s actions say otherwise. Let’s also say she’s not a fan of her boorish father’s young pregnant new bride Marina (Natalya Zemtsova). On the way back to their house, they see their neighbor Sergey, who is flying a new drone with Anna’s son Misha (Eldar Kalimulin). Eldar has been diagnosed with ASD, specifically Asperger syndrome, and he still calls his soon-to-be-stepfather “Sir”. He also likes Polina.
Lyonya invites Sergey and his new family to dinner, where he’s completely inappropriate to Anna and Misha; Misha gets hit on by Polina, who also shows his drone camera her boobs. After that disaster of a dinner, they hear about the pandemic that has been running through Moscow, causing people to spit up blood, make their irises white and other maladies, shortly before killing them.
Irina makes her way to her son’s school which has already been quarantined because a girl was infected; Anton somehow manages to escape. The city is cordoned off, but Sergey is determined to go back and get his son and ex, while his estranged father Boris (Yuriy Kuznetsov) shows up to tell them to get the hell out of town. As they wait for Sergey to come back, though, both families have to worry about a whole lot more than a virus; criminals posing as military are busy going through the wealthy neighborhood, looting houses and sexually attacking women.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Um, maybe the entire situation we’re in in real life? The escape part, though, reminds us more of The Walking Dead and its many offshoots.
Our Take: To The Lake tells its story effectively, though it does start off slowly. We have very few clues about the pandemic during the first 30 minutes of the 55-minute first episode, except for an interview with an expert that calls the media reports of only a few hundred infections absurd, then gets cut off and, of course, the gentleman who gets sick in the park.
At first, we were scratching our head trying to figure out what the story was about. But, considering we complain a lot about writers who don’t give their characters enough of a backstory before sending them on the adventure that will carry them through the series, writers Yana Vagner and Roman Kantor establish more than enough backstory for the characters, especially Polina and Misha.
Anna, for instance, gives as thorough a description about ASD as she describes her son to Lyonya, who insensitively calls him “special,” and Kalimulin does a great job of playing Misha as a multidimensional person who happens to be on the spectrum. He even manages to hold his own with Polina, who’s established to be spoiled and depressed, and so wants to take Misha’s supposed virginity it hurts. But she’s a fighter, too, as we see when she stabs one of the looters in the neck, then how she finishes him off for good.
The rest of the season will be seeing these two families, with all sorts of internal issues — Sergey apparently left Irina for Anna, and Irina hasn’t forgiven either of them for that — on the run from the virus, from the thieves and from general human shittiness. Because we have a good picture of almost all of these characters from this first episode, though, we’ll be better able to root for or against people as they try to survive.
Sex and Skin: Like we said, Polina flirts with Misha via his drone camera, including taking off her already sheer top and showing him her breasts.
Parting Shot: Anna and Sergey run down a snowy street, while the criminals, who came back to get revenge on their dead associates, shoot at them.
Sleeper Star: Aleksandr Robak plays a perfect boorish jerk as Lyonya. He laughs at his own insensitive jokes, likes eating moose meat, and has an general attitude about his fellow man that makes Vladimir Putin look like a bleeding-heart by comparison.
Most Pilot-y Line: It’s amazing how immediately Sergey trusts his father Boris about the approaching pandemic, despite the fact that it’s established that the two of them are estranged. Then again, Boris is pretty damn good with a rifle, given that he’s a mathematician.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Well-written characters and a non-zombie outbreak make To The Lake standout from other apocalyptic dramas. Too bad all of us pandemic-fatigued viewers will be too scared to watch.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.
Stream To The Lake On Netflix