While American and some European TV shows have been outdoing films for years, Russian channels have been slowly playing catch up. TNT was the trailblazer, with shows like Chernobyl and Izmeni (Infidelity) while Channel One followed with The Thaw, which many believe to be the best Russian language TV series to date. But recently another channel, STS, started expanding its horizons. Two shows came out last autumn tackling themes never before explored by Russian TV. First, in September 2015, there was Londongrad, about a “fixer” agency helping out Russians in London. And then a couple of months later, How I Became Russian came out, about the adventures of an American journalist in Russia.
Londongrad follows Misha (Nikita Yefremov), a Russian Oxford drop-out and Alisa (Ingrid Olerinskaya) the daughter of a Moscow oligarch, who together decide to start an agency called Londongrad to help out Russians who find themselves in dire straits in the British capital. What ensues is a series of picaresque adventures with elements of a mystery, as the Londongrad team tackles a new case in each episode. As each plot develops there’s an occasional interlude in which Misha explains one British phenomenon or the other, for example how the tabloids or the penitentiary system works.
Michael Idov, the head writer, thinks that Londongrad is “the first Russian TV series to feature globally integrated Russians and not to make a big deal out of it one way or another: it's not about being homesick, or trying to find one's way in a strange place. No one here is wholly defined by the circumstance of living outside of Russia — it's just a circumstance, like any other. In that sense, the series is quietly revolutionary, since the Russian culture still tends to treat emigration as a soul-mangling calamity.”
The people Misha and Alisa work for are essentially a catalogue of various types of Russians living in London: a lawyer, a lazy good for nothing rich kid, a chef who started his own restaurant, a taxi driver with hardly any English, the list goes on. Some characters based on real people like a wine store owner (exiled entrepreneur Yevgeny Chichvarkin) or a famous model with marriage gone bad (Natalia Vodianova). “The characters and situations have no more, or less, in common with reality than The Good Wife's ChumHum has with Google,” says Idov. “Which is to say, we took some superficially recognisable tropes of Russian London and then twisted them and jacked them up whichever way we saw fit.”
One theme that is sorely missing from the show are the tensions between UK and Russia. Michael Idov explains that the show “was written in 2012 and filmed largely in 2013, so the topic was far less pressing than it is now. And we were hardly interested in doing a political show. The only imperative was to place it in a recognisable world. So you can find passing references to everything from Litvinenko's murder to even such arcane things as the tension between the Russian Orthodox Church and its Western offshoot — but I'm not ashamed to say that these things are used rather flippantly, as joke material or plot-twist fodder. I'm of the mind that the author's values and politics seep through any text even when they're not addressed in that text per se — and so there's plenty of my worldview in Londongrad; it just happens not to be the point.”
How I Became Russian is about New Yorker Alex Wilson (played by the Polish actor Mateusz Damiecki) who comes to work at the Moscow office of a fictional newspaper, the American Post. The possibilities for such a show are considerable: the complex politics of reporting on Russia for the US audience, anti-Americanism, the culture shock, wooing Russian women, etc. Unfortunately, the show has plenty of wooing Russian women (mainly Anna, played by Svetlana Ivanova), but hardly a drop of politics.
Sangadzhi Tarbaev, one of the show’s creators and screenwriters, explains why: “We made the main character a journalist, but we didn’t try to objectively depict the world of journalism. We just made up the American Post office so that they could send Alex there. We wanted to leave the politics out of the show; it doesn’t really fit the STS format. We wanted to show that everyone is the same inside. Americans and Russians just use different terms to describe the same things, which leads to misunderstanding.” Mateusz Damiecki adds that the script “never specified what exactly Alex is supposed to be reporting on. The main thing was to show the differences between a foreigner and a Russian. That is why such a character was chosen — someone who lives on the other side of the planet, who can show these differences in the most interesting way. Journalism is just an original medium that Wilson’s story is told through.”
According to Tarbaev the reason for picking an American as the main character was rather accidental: “When we were making this decision we didn’t think about the political subtext, mainly because at that moment there was none of the current tensions. Our idea, to put it bluntly, was to dump ‘a civilised person’ into ‘a tribe of savages’. And then with time this person realises that the savages are not so uncivilised after all. So we wanted our character to be as removed as possible from Russian society. But at the same time his country had to be similar and America is basically Russia in twenty years.”
Instead of politics there’s a very unlikely subplot involving a gangster-like oligarch trying to hit it off with Alex’s boss at the newspaper’s Moscow office, while the office driver tries to get the oligarch’s daughter, pretending he’s sitting on the newspaper’s board of directors.
The show does a lot to demystify stereotypes about Russians, while sticking to stereotypes about Americans. All the bizarre Russian traditions, like storing plastic bags from a supermarket for future use are explained away by Russian resourcefulness. At the same time, American peculiarities verge on being ridiculous. In one of the key moments of the show, when Alex and Anna finally get it on, Alex asks whether Anna can show him her HIV-free card. He then goes on to explain that it’s what everyone does in the US.
The show does a lot to demystify stereotypes about Russians, while sticking to stereotypes about Americans
There’s quite a bit of anti-Americanism. Alex is called “pindos” (a derogatory term for Americans) more than once, while “Yankee Go Home” is a regular call to action. Tarbaev explains: “We tried to keep it real, so there is a little confrontation here and there. But there are also characters that just love America. We kept a healthy balance.”
In all fairness, the show does touch upon some of the thorny issues facing contemporary Russia, such as its ubiquitous corruption. This is shown in various situations: bribing the local housing official to get the door fixed, greasing a doctor’s palm to get treatment without the necessary papers, etc. There’s even an episode sadly representative of today’s Moscow in which a historic building gets torn down despite protests from local residents. Alex has an ambiguous attitude towards corruption. He gets upset and tries to fight it every time he encounters it, but eventually gives up and learns that this is another long-standing Russian tradition that he just has to deal with.
Although Russian TV has definitely become more entertaining in the past couple of years, it still has a long way to go before it produces a Russian Newsroom or Homeland.