Those who have not visited Russia but have heard Russians arrogantly condemning American popular culture must find it surprising to learn the extent to which Russians shamelessly steal and copy such culture for their own TV. The always excellent Alex Rodriguez of the Chicago Tribune reports:
The suspicious girlfriend watches as her love life unravels on the screen. A hidden camera has caught her boyfriend in the throes of passion with an easy-on-the-eyes brunette. “That’s enough. I don’t want to see anymore,” says the girlfriend, her bright-blue eyes welling up, then narrowing with rage. “I’m going home. I need some time to think about what I’m going to tell him.”
The series resembles the U.S. cult hit Cheaters, a syndicated peep show involving infidelity. The difference: The men with hidden cameras stalk their philandering prey not in suburban America but in the flats and storefronts of Moscow, which has just as ravenous an appetite for voyeuristic television.
Gone are the days when Soviet television plodded through prime time with nonstop reruns of Swan Lake and dreary documentaries about the war years of Leonid Brezhnev.
Today, Russian television is as much about ratings as is American television — which explains why programmers in Russia frequently look to the United States for inspiration.
In the Russian analogue of Sex and the City — titled The Balzac Age, or All Men Are Bastards — four 30-something Moscow women meet in banyas, or bathhouses, and cafes to commiserate about their love lives.
Happy Together is a licensed version of Married With Children that puts Al Bundy and family into a claustrophobic big-city apartment and makes him Gena Bukin.
The Nanny, Who’s the Boss? and Weakest Link have been remolded into Russian versions, while the British Broadcasting Corp. has been working with Russia’s First Channel to remake the British version of The Office into a Russian series and its lead character, David Brent, into David Brentski.
“Everything that does well in the U.S. gets Russian networks thinking about acquiring that format and producing it here,” says Alexander Rodnyansky, president of the Russian network CTC, which worked with Sony Pictures Television International to make Russian versions of The Nanny and Who’s the Boss?
After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Russian television devolved into a rudderless free-for-all with boundaries as muddy as the Moscow River. A 2000 show called The Naked Truth was exactly that: Young Russian women wearing nothing but a grin delivered the day’s news and conducted one-on-one interviews with red-faced Russian politicians.
If there was one constant in the post-Soviet TV landscape, it was the thirst for Western programming. For years, Russian networks have been buying Western movies and crime shows and dubbing them. They still do, but, increasingly, network executives want a Russian revamp of ideas they glean from their U.S. and British counterparts.
“The modern Russian TV industry is very influenced by American TV shows,” says Maxim Stishov, writer of The Balzac Age, which aired from 2004 to ’07. “But it’s much more common now to produce a Russian version of an American show. Russian audiences prefer domestically made programs.”
Stishov acknowledges that he was inspired by the Sex and the City man-hunting foursome and the show’s crisp writing. But he says he didn’t want to simply mimic the American production. Moreover, he says, Russian audiences would turn away from a show about Russian women that seemed more like a show about American women.
“The only similarity is that we have four female characters,” Stishov says. “Everything else is different. My characters grew up in the Soviet Union. . . . And the family dynamic is different. Here it’s common for single Russian women to live with their mothers. So one of our characters, Vera, lives with her mother.”
Because The Balzac Age is such a departure from Sex and the City, Stishov says, the need to obtain licensing rights from the makers of Sex and the City never arose.
The producers of Russia’s latest look-alike program, Marriage Fiction, had no cultural-mismatch issues — infidelity is universal, from Seattle to Vladivostok.
They also say they don’t expect any licensing hassles, that it’s mere coincidence that their idea for a reality program happened to mirror Cheaters, which began airing in the United States in 2000.