Planet TV: In Russia, TV watches you
A tour of the Motherland's smallscreen offerings23
Despite the internet’s limitless reach, for the most part American audiences watch American shows — until, that is, they’re bought up and remade a la
Despite the internet’s limitless reach, for the most part American audiences watch American shows — until, that is, they’re bought up and remade a laThe Office or House of Cards. But with the growing popularity of, say, Scandinavian crime shows or British black comedies it’s becoming exceedingly clear just how much TV talent is hiding overseas. To give you a peek at what’s out there, we’re taking an international tour of television’s best and weirdest. This time around, we’re headed to Russia.
When Putin came to power in 2000, most Russians watched Brazilian and Mexican soaps, or cheap rip-offs of old American serials. Thanks in part to the country’s economic growth, today much of Russia’s entertainment television is homemade — but just as gaudy and absurd as the imported fare: on Jeopardy (aka Своя Игра), contestants wear wizard robes, and The Kitchen illustrates its protagonist’s emotions with kitschy, lewd animations. Despite the very serious geopolitical situation the country finds itself in, these shows portray a flourishing — if garden-variety dramatic — Russia.
Recently, Russian TV shows have begun selling to other markets. A few months ago, Hulu partnered with the global video-on-demand studio Digital Media Rights to stream a handful of its Russian shows with (pretty horrendous) subtitles for English-language viewers. The shows stick tightly to their genres: comedies rely on slapstick humor and dramas revolve around age-old subjects like adultery and alcoholism. Thanks to mandatory military conscription, there are more army uniforms and plotlines involving PTSD than you find in American television. And parental advice — as well as characters living with their aging parents — figures prominently. Regardless, this batch of shows brings you some characters you’re probably well-acquainted with (corporate villains, spurned lovers, oblivious millennials) and some you aren’t — like a vigilante child support debt collector named Natasha.
Best Sci-fi Pastiche: The Day After
Watch if you: Like Fringe and X-files but yearned for more skinheads and smartphone-addicted ravers.
The Day After — not to be confused with the doom-laden made-for-TV tale of nuclear winter of the same name — is the kind of show that immediately inspires you to take bets on who’ll bite the dust first. From the moment when a group of strangers awaken in a cavernous and dimly lit bunker with no memory of how they arrived there, it’s essentially a race to see whose character traits will prove fatal first. This show’s got a truly committed spectrum of fully fledged stock caricatures: the terrified girl in a lacy dress tottering around on buckled knees, the pale creepy nerd who knows more than he’s letting on, and the foolish EDM-flavored millennial (a near shoe-in for Jesse Eisenberg) constantly training his phone’s camera on the action and narrating it as if he were a Big Brother contestant. Oh, then there’s the full-on skinhead tramping around the shady bunker like he’s in a circle pit. Elsewhere, diabolical bad guys — part-David Bowie, part-Donald Trump — finger-colored crystals and slowly leak their plans for world domination and / or salvation from behind the front of their mega-corporation (in the subtitles, Acme Corp). If you’re into shows like Fringe, the blend of mysticism and pseudoscience here will feel super familiar—the first few episodes alone feature chemical warfare, abandoned surgical equipment, inexplicably appearing mute children, and a scene from the afterlife.
Most Inventive Twist on a Cop Show: The Ex-Wife
Watch if: You want a CSI experience where deadbeat dads replace sex criminals.
In 2010, Moscow officials reported that 98 percent of alimony in the city goes unpaid, which perhaps explains why a show about a vigilante child support debt collector makes sense in Russia. Natasha is the eponymous ex-wife struggling to care for her child on a lounge singer’s salary; when her former husband reappears after a few years only to dodge a court-ordered property seizure, she goes, understandably, a little bananas. Enraged, Natasha scribbles a manifesto disguised as a job application to federal services that declares, in rough translation, "Fathers will pay for every single tear you shed." She is immediately given a job on the strength of her punchy hand-written rant. In The Ex-Wife, the Russian federal services office is a fun-loving and deeply honorable place, which seems like a stretch. Then again, in Andy Sandberg’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the NYPD come off looking like a bunch of harmless and jovial pranksters. I was hoping justice might come in a swifter and bloodier form for the ex-husbands in this show, but unfortunately Natasha’s weapon of choice is talking gentle sense into deadbeat dads and repossessing their TVs, even as they train shotguns at her in vodka-soaked stupors.
Most Inexplicable Popularity: The Kitchen
Watch if: You’d like a Top Chef-flavored office procedural where the main character has cartoon hallucinations and a top-notch sweater game.
This show is so popular that it’s been spun off into both a feature-length film and a documentary about the making of said feature-length film. In The Kitchen, Max is a young and boastful wannabe chef who gets his start cooking in the army. Thanks to a series of mishaps, he lands in "Claude Monet," one of the nicest restaurants in Moscow, only to be mercilessly hazed by his fellow cooks and the hulking alcoholic head chef. Dmitriy Nagiev, by all accounts a wildly popular actor in Russia, plays himself as the wealthy actor and owner of the restaurant: expect ample aviator sunglasses and miles of acid wash denim. This is a goofy slapstick sitcom, with extended comedic montages set to Western pop songs, emotive animated sequences, and lots of physical comedy with knives and pastry squeeze guns. Brace yourself for a painfully long and bizarre food-fetish sex scene in one of the first episodes.
Spookiest Setting: Pure Gold
Watch if: you liked Twin Peaks but thought it could do with fewer midgets, magic, red velvet, coffee, donuts, sex workers, and dream sequences.
It’s no Twin Peaks or Top of the Lake, but this atmospheric crime drama deals in a similar genre of misty small-town secrecy. Set among the epic snow drifts and ramshackle lodges of barely-settled Siberia, Pure Gold follows a scientist as she studies the area’s surrounding wilderness. When one of her soil samples is stolen and the thief who nicked it is brutally stabbed, she joins a local — played by Evgenij Pronin, basically Mother Russia’s Matt Damon — in tracking it down. Spoiler: the soil isn’t soil at all, but gold, of such purity as to be near-magical. As the scientist and her new friend race across snowdrifts and trade thinly veiled declarations of love, they’re alternately pursued and sweet-talked by the square-shouldered local sheriff and various crusty Siberian residents, all of whom know far more than they’re letting on. This show nails, if not the dramatic tension, at least the male lead: Matt Damonovsky plays the wounded small-town ex-con with a boy-band level of soulful eyebrow action.
Most Batshit Premise: Love Formula
Watch if: Orange is the New Black appealed to you but you’d prefer to think of prison as a hetero dating service.
If the shows on Hulu are a reliable sample group, Russian TV has no shortage of spurned and mistreated women. But no woman is more screwed over than Tatiana, who stars in Love Formula, a romance show about going to prison. Tatiana, devoted wife and mother, dotes on her wealthy husband and only child, the latter of whom harbors dreams of government work and is engaged to be married. But on the night of a celebration, he gets drunk and hits a woman with his car. In a veritable fit of martyrdom, Tatiana takes the fall for his crime and winds up in a penal colony—a prison which looks downright lovely, considering what we know about incarceration in Russia. The bulk of the show centers around the interpersonal dramas that plague Tatiana: her spoiled son’s wedding goes on without her; her husband shacks up with his mistress; and Tatiana, jealous and then enraged, finds herself going doe-eyed for a kind and handsome fellow prisoner.