People love watching pandemic-related content when there’s an actual pandemic. That’s probably what Netflix data showed early this year, when titles like Outbreak and Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak spiked in viewership as coronavirus lockdowns started outside China. It’s therefore no surprise that the notoriously data-driven Netflix quickly started buying pandemic-themed titles from around the world, for instance the wildly popular Korean zombie thriller #Alive.
Now, Netflix has another international pandemic hit on its hands: Russian television series To the Lake. Set amidst a mysterious viral outbreak around Moscow, To the Lake offers a suspenseful and action-packed story that easily caters to mainstream global audiences. Though it only offers veiled sociopolitical reflections, the series will at least hopefully open the doors to more international consumption of quality Russian content.
Off to the Lake House
Loosely based off a novel named Vongozero by Czech-Russian author Yana Vagner, To the Lake first introduces protagonist Sergey (Kirill Käro, who also stars in Russian Netflix original Better Than Us) and his girlfriend Anya, who reside in a wealthy suburb of Moscow with Anya’s aspergic teenage son Misha. The two live next door to Leonid, a pompous man who’s sleeping with a former stripper named Marina and has a rebellious teenage daughter named Polina. We also learn Sergey also has an ex-wife named Irina (Maryana Spivak from Andrey Zvyagintsev‘s Loveless) and a young biological son named Anton.
When a deadly zombie-esque illness breaks out in Moscow and leads to lockdowns and disorder, this motley cross-family crew realize they must flee to a safer haven. Their destination of choice? A lake hundreds of kilometers north in Karelia, where Sergey’s father Boris has a well-stocked shelter. Of course, our characters’ journey to safety won’t be easy or straightforward.
Approachable and Bingeable
To the Lake quickly establishes itself as an entertaining, suspenseful ride that audiences need not have any Russian cultural context to appreciate.
In the first episode, the show does an excellent job of establishing sufficient backstory for each character, and crafting relationships ripe for drama. For example, by the first half hour we already know that Anya hates Leonid, Irina hates Anya, Misha fancies Polina, and so forth. In every episode thereafter, To the Lake deftly exploits every character’s personality and selfish desires to create tension. Even if this tension occasionally feels contrived, on balance it rewardingly intensifies the obstacles our characters face en route to the lake shelter.
Atop this foundation of decently crafted and easily digestible characters, To the Lake layers ample action and suspense. Gunfights and armored vehicles quickly enter the equation; if the series swapped its Kalashnikovs for AR-15 derivatives and UAZ-452s for jeeps, it’d look indistinguishable from any generously financed American program. Violent danger lurks around every corner, and that makes the series extremely bingeable as you never know what might strike the characters next. While the show sometimes deploys deus ex machinas, they provide enough payoff to justify their existence.
Only Unintentionally Political
While To the Lake is highly approachable and bingeable, its universality means international audiences don’t get to learn as much about Russia while watching. Unlike Russian blockbusters like The Ninth Company or art films like Leviathan, To the Lake doesn’t actively encourage international audiences to learn more about Russian history or society. To us social science aficionados here at Cinema Escapist, this is somewhat of a letdown—but it shouldn’t discourage anyone from watching the series.
For example, actor Kirill Käro plays a divorced male protagonist in both To the Lake and Better than Us. This common characteristic across Netflix Russian originals might implicitly reflect Russia’s relatively high divorce rates, but To the Lake producer Evgeniy Nikishov told Cinema Escapist in an interview that this is more a “coincidence.”
To the Lake producer Valeriy Fedorovich also highlighted to Cinema Escapist how Sergey and Anya belong to Russia’s one percent, and that their journey to the lake is also an “odyssey” outside their cosmopolitan Muscovite bubble into a world of more “common” Russians. Hopefully some international audiences can draw parallels with “liberal elite” bubbles in their own countries, but Federovich doesn’t expect non-Russians to fully realize the nuances of how the show depicts this dynamic.
Interestingly though, To the Lake ran into a bit of trouble when it first streamed in December 2019 on Russian platform Premier, prior to Netflix’s acquisition. The series’ fifth episode depicts OMON officers killing civilians; Premier deleted that episode for “marketing reasons” shortly after its debut—leading To the Lake’s director to cry foul at censorship. The episode was soon restored, though with a disclaimer that the episode simply depicted individuals posing as security officers. Reports in Russian media indicate Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky may have played a role in the episode’s return. Despite this brouhaha, it doesn’t seem like To the Lake was trying to make any pointed political critique.
“To the Lake shouldn’t be considered as [a] critical social or political statement,” said producer Fedorovich. “[Rather, it’s a reflection] of what people are capable of [when] subjected to fear, when their lives are at stake. It’s our assumption of how people may react to the new order when social restrictions give way to chaos.”
More Russian Content on Netflix?
Even if global audiences can’t learn as much about Russia itself through the series, To the Lake will hopefully help more Russian content reach Netflix subscribers. The series garnered early praise from noted American author Stephen King, and quickly became one of the most popular titles on Netflix across numerous global markets in the week after its arrival on the platform. In terms of production value, To the Lake competes well alongside other international post-apocalyptic Netflix series like Belgium’s Into the Night and Denmark’s The Rain.
Netflix currently doesn’t have many Russian-language offerings, but To the Lake’s success might be a turning point in that regard. In a Russian-language interview, the show’s producers have indicated that they’re in talks with Netflix about other series. Further Russian media reports indicate that Netflix wants to bring “hundreds” of domestic Russian titles to the platform by the end of this year. We can only hope that the data-driven executives at Netflix realize from To the Lake’s precedent that global viewers appreciate quality Russian content, and that it’s therefore worth acquiring international rights for at least some of those titles.
At the very least, To the Lake’s producers seem optimistic.
“Almost every Russian producer I know called to congratulate me when To the Lake [flew] into the Top 10 most viewed Netflix projects worldwide,” said producer Fedorovich. “They all said how great it was that a project from Russia finally has been recognized by Western audiences, critics, and filmmakers. We all want to believe that this success will pave the way for Russian TV series—not only [on] Netflix, [but also on] other big streaming players as well. And we definitely have a lot to offer the international audience.”
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To the Lake is now streaming on Netflix.