Russian Dolls

August 10, 2011
Television Review

Left the Volga, Kept the Vulgar

If the Soviet authorities had wanted to torture Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn beyond endurance, they would have forced him to watch “Russian Dolls.”

And if wives want to scare the pants back on their errant husbands, they will show them “Russian Dolls.”

To traditional, or let’s say puritanical, Russians, a certain part of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, is the consummate capitalist fleshpot: a decadent eyesore where flashy, nouveau riche Russian immigrants flaunt their wealth and desecrate their culture.

And for women who wonder why immigration officers can’t put stricter quotas on tall, high-cheekboned beauties from the republics of the former Soviet Union, “Russian Dolls” provides some solace.

On this new borscht-and-bling reality show, starting Thursday on Lifetime, even the really young and sexy heroines have sour dispositions and interfering mothers. There are a few husbands and boyfriends, but most of the show’s time is spent on women, including bossy, middle-aged housewives and their mothers. Thanks to collagen and Restylane, these are living matryoshkas: open one nesting doll and there is a smaller, identically unnatural one inside. The show opens with an old Russian proverb, “God can’t be everywhere, so he created Russian mothers.” It’s meant to be sarcastic.

It was only a matter of time before some cable network tried to expand the Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise to more exotic places than Orange County or Atlanta.

There seem to be plenty of Russian-Americans who fit the niche; the producers didn’t have any difficulty recruiting a gaggle of vain, vulgar spendthrifts willing to hiss, preen and cry on cue for the camera. (Somehow the Pushkin-reciting violinists and math prodigies of Brighton Beach didn’t make the audition.)

With crystal chandeliers, huge, sparkling jewels and animal-print everything, these Russian dolls are very much like the housewives of New Jersey on Bravo, only with Slavic soullessness.

Diana, 23, complains that her parents are more strict than most. Hers is not the usual cultural rift dividing old Russians and new. If anything, Diana’s generational clash is closer to the kind satirized by Gary Shteyngart, the Russian-American author.

“Like, I believe in plastic surgery, I believe in Botox,” Diana explains. “I believe in all these things that maybe the way they were raised, they don’t understand it.”

Some of the action takes place in a Brighton Beach supper club, Rasputin, owned by Marina, who is one of the alpha-housewives, but there are also steam baths and vodka at a Russian banya, shopping sprees and lots of arguing in garish living rooms and expensive cafes. The dialogue is a little stilted, either because some of the older women are not fully fluent in English or because many of their lips are frozen with filler.

No matter how stiffly, there is plenty to fight about. Marina, who has jewels, furs and matching attitude, is livid that her mother-in-law, Eva, has entered a grandma pageant in Brighton Beach, telling anyone who will listen that Eva will humiliate herself and the family. Eva explains that she was trained as an engineer in Russia and never had a chance to pursue her passion for song and dance. “I am an artist inside,” she says.

When Marina instructs her not to wear anything too revealing, Eva paws through her pile of filmy belly dancing outfits. “All my costumes are sexy,” Eva says. “What to do?”

Younger women have problems of their own. Diana is determined to be married and have a baby at 25. “I want to be a hot mom,” she tells her roommate, Anastasia. Diana has a boyfriend, Paul, whom she likes. He drives a Maserati and, as she puts it, “takes care of me.” But he isn’t Russian. Her parents would never accept a non-Russian son-in-law. When Diana asks hypothetically, her mother replies, “Please, don’t hurt me.”

Over sushi at an expensive Brighton Beach restaurant Diana tells Paul that her parents would never accept him because he’s not Russian. “My parents came to America for a reason,” she explains. Paul doesn’t get it: “To look for Russians?”

But Diana’s mind is made up, and she lets him know the romance is over by telling the waiter to bring the check. “Can we have it wrapped up too?” she asks. “ Individually.”

Some Russian-Americans may be offended by “Russian Dolls,” and they can get in line behind the Italian-Americans still fuming over “Jersey Shore” or African-Americans appalled by “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” Stereotypes are to reality shows what nuclear fusion is to the hydrogen bomb: you simply can’t have one without the other.

“Russian Dolls” may be a mass of Volga clichés, but it’s still an experiment of a more cosmopolitan, if hilariously narrow and parochial sort. It should be only a matter of time before some cable network comes up with “Real Housewives of the Kremlin” or “Valets of the Vatican.”

 

RUSSIAN DOLLS

Lifetime, Thursday nights at 10:30, Eastern and Pacific times; 9:30, Central time.

Produced by Left/Right. Banks Tarver, Ken Druckerman, Rob Sharenow, Gena McCarthy and Colleen Conway, executive producers; Elina Miller, Alina Dizik and Edward Simpson, co-executive producers.

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Louis Sheehan
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