Spelled out, the premise for Prime Video’s The Lake sounds a lot like a 1980s/1990s comedy. Justin (Jordan Gavaris) decides to spend the summer with his birth daughter Billie (Madison Shamoun) at the lake he used to frequent with his family. (She was adopted as a baby after teenage Justin impregnated his best friend before coming out and moving to Australia.) There, old blood feuds resurface, prompting a battle of wills between him and his uptight, picture-perfect stepsister Maisy-May (Julia Stiles). As the stepsiblings start one-upping one another in their fight over the property that had once belonged to Justin’s father, The Lake starts to look like The War Of The Roses but with siblings. Or like Death Becomes Her but at a lake house. Heck, even like Mean Girls (a film Justin loves and believes to be his Bible) but set amidst local elections and building permits.
There’s plenty to mine in the rivalry between wayward Justin and Type-A Maisy-May. For starters, both Gavaris and (especially) Stiles seem to be having a great time playing these adults who find themselves reduced to warring teenagers all over again. She may not be telling his father that Justin has syphilis and he may not be blaming her for shrinking his bathing suit to make him look fat, but the pranks and plans they concoct to trump one another have a similar deranged if tritely familiar pattern. Indeed, every episode feels like a constant retread of the central tension: Who’s gonna come out on top? The narrative and structural rhythms feel almost sitcom-y, with every new storyline either resetting or reshuffling the power dynamics before the next mini-upheaval in the quaint (and decidedly white) enclave where these fights over land take place.
In the periphery of Justin and Maisy-May’s escalating antics are a number of characters that, in perhaps way too subtle ways, comment on the homogenous makeup of this placid lakeside summer community. Billie, for instance, complains to her adoptive parents (Lisa Codrington’s Naomi and Milton Barnes’ Oliver, saddled with too many green screen FaceTime scenes) that she’s the only Black girl around—and thus the target of the three teen mean blonde girls who relish tormenting her. It’s why she’s naturally drawn to Killian (Jared Scott), the first Chinese-Canadian kid to make lifeguard at the lake, a stat his mother Maisy-May and his father Victor (Terry Chen) never let anyone forget. Billie and Killian find refuge in each other; their budding if complicated romance is a key subplot that plays beat for beat how you’d imagine. (And yes, you do sometimes wonder why no one makes more of the fact that, if not related by blood, they’re maybe sort of actually cousins.)
Add in a few kooky neighbors and friends—a very hot handyman-slash-general-store clerk named Riley (Travis Nelson) who’s clearly smitten with Justin, a neighboring couple who harbor their own love-hate relationship with Maisy-May and Victor (Natalie Lisinska and Jon Dore’s Jayne and Wayne), and an accented older woman named Ulrika (Carolyn Scott) whose European traditions add just a smidgen of off-kilter humor to the series—and you have warring tonal shifts that occasionally gel but just as often don’t. At points, a subplot involving a threesome can feel novel and fresh, and at others it can comes off like a discarded, raunchy B-storyline from a sitcom. The same goes for the election plotlines and will-they-won’t-they romantic arcs.
That said, with a banger of a soundtrack (with cuts by Big Wild, Fergie, SADBOI, and BENEE) and killer lines that mostly straddle the line between cringe and brill (sample: “I saw you drooling over that Aberzombie”), The Lake has plenty of enjoyable pieces. Indeed, the series makes for a breezy binge even if its repetitive nature, not to mention the one-note characterization of its main ensemble (Billie’s main personality detail is … she’s very into environmentalism?), can sometimes wear thin. But it is always a welcome delight to see Stiles dig into her comedic sensibility and offer us a truly delicious portrayal that should remind everyone why her career deserves plenty more 10 Things I Hate About You-like material for her to shine in.
And so, even with some questionable (not to mention geography illiterate) lines like one about a nephew getting kidnapped in “Cartagenia” which I have to imagine was a nod to kidnappings in my native Colombia’s tourist go-to spot, Cartagena, The Lake is very watchable. Powered by its more than capable cast, the series is perhaps the only show you’ll watch this season with storylines around fish herpes and canoe tilting competitions, season-long arcs about home renovations and family estates, and recurring jokes about Mean Girls and gays’ love-hate relationship with carbs. Which, in a way, makes a perfect summer TV distraction.