Issue 62 (2018)

Aleksei Smirnov: The Garden Ring (Sadovoe kol’tso, TV 2017)

reviewed by Tatiana Efremova © 2018

GardenRing Before TV screens were overtaken by football fever in the summer of 2018, Russia found itself hate-watching The Garden Ring, a new Channel One detective drama produced by Valerii Todorovskii and directed by Aleksei Smirnov. The plot revolves around an upper-middle class family living inside the Garden Ring, an affluent neighborhood of historic Moscow. The strange disappearance of the teenage son disrupts their comfortable lifestyle and exposes family skeletons carefully hidden from their own sight. The genre of the production oscillates between family drama, satire, thriller, and a detective story, yet even more intriguing than the show’s continuous code-switching is the ambivalence of the audience’s response.

Positive reviews of the show emphasize a refreshing focus on the contemporary moment, a rare exception for the current prime-time scene framed by predominantly Soviet settings. Featuring streams of bleeped curse words and emotional discussions of cunnilingus, the show seems to both break the Russian airtime taboos and unravel the codes of the common TV genres. Advocates of the series, however, find it difficult to definitively praise it considering the total absence of likable characters. Thus, Dmitrii Bykov found The Garden Ring “infuriating,” while claiming that it was indeed “meant to be infuriating, disturbing, and agitating” (Bykov 2018). The adversaries, however, are disturbed both emotionally and aesthetically. In a FaceBook post widely quoted in media, journalist and professor of Higher School of Economics Sergei Medvedev described the production as “catastrophically poor, false, and provincial,” comparing it to the quality of “Russian cheese, Russian degree, Russian smartphone, Russian Duma session” (Medvedev 24 June 2018). While most comments in the thread shared Medvedev’s affect, it was clear that like the show’s enthusiasts, the haters, too, could hardly stop watching.

Why has a disturbing show proved to be so addictive? Can Russian cheese be something more than a poor derivative product? The Garden Ring urges viewers to ask these questions, regardless of our stance on the aesthetic value of the show.

Centered around yet another lost child, the series seems to consciously evoke Andrei Zviagintsev’s Loveless (Neliubov’, 2017), yet the parallel between the two is a symptomatic coincidence rather than a keen reference (Smirnov started shooting in 2014, several months before Zviagintsev). Though the scene of a corpse identification at the morgue featuring the crying father feels like a poignant cinematic déjà vu, settings of The Garden Ring differ from those of Tushino in Loveless.

GardenRingIn the first episode, we see the Smolin family enjoying the lifestyle of business elite in a beautiful two-storey apartment in the heart of Moscow. The husband, Andrei (Anatolii Belyi), owns a company which is about to sign a contract with German investors; the wife, Vera (Maria Mironova), is busy holding therapy sessions for rich wives and charity fundraisers for victims of family violence. Their son, Il’iusha (Viktor Grudev), is about to go abroad for an internship when the plan is derailed. After Il’ia disappears, Vera starts realizing that the family’s happiness was a performance. Her husband has been cheating with her younger sister Ania (Evgeniia Brik), whom he molested when she was 14. Her mother knew about the affair and has been blackmailing Andrei for years. Il’ia dropped out of university and has been leading a secret life with Lida (Aleksandra Rebenok), a mysterious ex-lover of Andrei’s friend Boris (Maksim Vitorgan), later proved to be the schizophrenic daughter of Vera’s housekeeper. Although delusionally unaware of these details, Vera, too is far from a beacon of light in the darkness. Spoilt and artificial in the beginning, she remains cold and contemptuous even undergoing a transformation. Indeed, a positive character in the show is hard to find. The police inspector, traditionally virtuous in detective TV series, in The Garden Ring appears to be excessively violent, hitting an old sick man in the stomach. Still, inspector Kogtev is the show’s best bet for “the good guy,” mainly by contrast to those involved in the sexual assault and later on in the murder he is trying to investigate. From corruption in a charity house to gangsters and a contract killing, to women locked in a psychiatric clinic—the show has it all.

Despite the sensational plot, the series offers much more than a melodramatic overkill. Without much faith in a possibility of justice within the narrative, it opens up uneasy conversations about gender and physical violence, sexual consent and abuse, the division between social strata and exacerbated class hatred. As characters fail to fulfill their social roles, accusations of “You are not a mother!” alternate with indignant reproaches of “Aren’t you a man?” While sexual harassment remains a reality, we see characters both complicating and manipulating the idea of consent. Scheming behind employers’ backs, the poor consider themselves “better and more honest” than the rich while the privileged scornfully call the former “bastards” and dramatically fear having to go to a state clinic.

GardenRing Synthesis of melodrama and satire in The Garden Ring is a signature of Anna Kozlova’s express playwriting. Kozlova, known for her work on Valeria Gai Germanika’s Brief Guide to a Happy Life (Kratkii kurs schastlivoi zhizni, 2011) and Vera Storozheva’s The Divorce (Razvod, 2012), is a master of the genre Smirnov defines as “everyone goes crazy,” the affect framing the last few episodes of the show. Strong acting of the cast makes Kozlova’s balance between the terrible and the absurd shine. The tragicomic role of Vera’s mother Rita, played by Irina Rozanova, is particularly convincing. A cougar woman dressed in bright tights and a turquoise fur coat, Rozanova’s character masterfully combines dramatic appeal with elements of farce. Indeed, the show has everyone from Maria Mironova and Evgeniia Brik as female leads to Maria Golubkina and Iuliia Aug in the supporting roles.

Another feature that drew the audience’s attention was the tandem of a reputed producer and a young director, the youngest son of Andrei Smirnov. Aleksei Smirnov, who was 23 when the production started, in fact, embraced the association with his prominent family and cast his mother, father, and three sisters in episodic roles. Playwright and director Avdot’ia Smirnova made a remarkable appearance as a corrupted director of the charity house.

Yet the popularity of the show was not fully determined by the casting choices. Smirnov and Todorovskii managed to produce a show that fits the contemporary context in an interesting way. Valerii Todorovskii’s most famous TV project The Thaw (Ottepel’, 2013) was often characterized as “the Russian Madmen,” and rightfully so: the show conspicuously referenced Matthew Weiner’s renowned TV series. The Garden Ring prompts a comparison with another American drama, Big Little Lies (2017) but, as it was with Zviagintsev’s Loveless, any connection between the shows is purely accidental (Big Little Lies premiered on HBO in 2017, three years after Smirnov’s TV project was started). Both series, however, engage in symptomatic conversations about gender, domestic violence, and class in an emphatically neoliberal setting. If The Garden Ring looks more kitschy, rowdy, and catastrophically poor the reason might be that contemporary Russian neoliberalism is more gaudy and turbulent than its Western counterpart.

In The Garden Ring everything is determined by the logic of capital—from shopping and eating out to therapy sessions and building relationships. When (after a brief price negotiation) Vera offers counseling help to Artem, who is in love with her sister Ania, she uses the language of business to make her point clear: “Everything in life requires resources—emotional, temporal, financial… You cannot develop a relationship with a woman when you are bankrupt in a spiritual sense.” This is the way Artem himself treats the matter when he tells Ania earlier: “I might seem like an accountant but I want to sort it all out. Are we together, with future prospects?” After getting a positive response, he demands that the girl quit drinking and smoking. In a world where a relationship is an investment, care becomes a form of insistent biopolitics. The neoliberal environment of the show emphasizes immaterial labor (doing charity, providing therapy, leaking secret information, etc.) and merges distinctions between work and leisure (business talk during dinner, a tennis game, and sex). The characters of The Garden Ring move from restaurants to offices, from offices to gyms, from gyms to other restaurants. They navigate space in the comfortable bubbles of their cars and are never seen in the street.

GardenRingThis neoliberal existence is impossible without the digital. Not only are the characters obsessed with sharing polished representations of their messy lives, but their Instagram shots are also used to transition from one sequence to another. At the level of the aesthetics, the show is immersed in what Steven Shaviro (2010) calls the “post cinematic affect”. As Shaviro claims, both film and television have recently given way to digitally generated new media—a surrender that, nevertheless, involves a constant cinematic play with the digital at the level of the image. The opening sequence featuring Vera talking for camera as part of a fundraiser promo gives a good example of how the post cinematic image operates. First, the focus is on Vera fixing her hair and putting on lipstick as she gets ready for her interview. Soon the shooting begins and a rack focus shift takes us to a computer screen featuring the image captured by the diegetic camera. The shot is layered: Vera’s body is presented in shallow focus while the mediated representation on the screen dominates the frame. Here the digital is clearly charged with the logic of neoliberal commodification, reducing embodied experience and producing a marketable image.

GardenRing In fact, Vera’s transformation in the show is presented through her engagement with the digital. In the last episode, Vera and family take a final status-quo selfie. While everyone looks into the camera of an iPhone, Vera does not. Instead, she looks directly into the movie camera, at the viewer. Thus, a critique of the simulated nature of the digitized reality comes through the rejection of the post cinematic image.

Although it looks like the residents of the Garden Ring live the same life elites are enjoying in any other major city of the world, there is definitely a local flavor to both the content and the aesthetics of their neoliberal experience. A rare scene shot in the street captures Lida screaming at Il’ia for giving some change to a beggar with a baby. She snatches the baby from the woman’s hands and vigorously shakes it, showing how the baby won’t wake up. The baby is likely drugged or dead, she claims, and the reason for this is that people like Il’ia willingly give money to women with babies in the street. While begging turned into a business model is probably not unique for any neoliberal context, it is the starkness of the local example that makes the scene so disturbing.

One more feature of the series that deserves mentioning is the narrative frame of psychoanalysis. Not only does the series show characters in therapy (Vera, Boris, Artem, Lida), but it also features digressive casual conversations that aim at discussing the mysteries of human behavior. In fact, the secret of Il’ia’s whereabouts is finally solved thanks to a sentence randomly repeated by a secondary character. When deduction exercises and material evidence fail, it is language that holds the clues to the mystery.

When it comes to Russia, psychoanalysis is arguably the least local framework of all possible, yet the way it is used in The Garden Ring is peculiar. Curiously, in the show it allows for reflective conversations about justice, suffering, and deceit sounding like they came straight from Dostoevsky’s novels. Although inspector Kogtev in no way looks like Porfirii Petrovich from Crime and Punishment, in The Garden Ring we do see him stopping by to discuss societal expectations and identity crisis.

Tellingly, the sentence that helps to solve the mystery is a statement about suffering: “The suffering does not go away when its source is eliminated,” the characters repeat, drawing our attention to a claim that a pragmatic neoliberal subject cannot fathom. In different ways, contemporary films like Zviagintsev’s Loveless and Grigorii Konstantinopolskii’s Russian Psycho (Russkii bes, 2018) have been recently looking for a local accent in critiquing neoliberalism. Aleksei Smirnov’s TV project The Garden Ring should be certainly regarded within this context. Although Russian cheese might taste less refined, sometimes it can tell us something new about cheese.

Tatiana Efremova
New York University

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Bykov, Dmitrii. 2018. “Odin.” Ekho Moskvy 22 June.

Shaviro, Steven. 2010. Post Cinematic Affect. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.

The Garden Ring, Russia, 2017
12 episodes, Channel One
Director: Aleksei Smirnov
Script: Anna Kozlova
Cinematography: Sergei Medvedev
Production Design: Eduard Galkin
Costume Design: Aleksandr Osipov, Tat’iana Ubeivolk
Music: Anna Drubich
Cast: Maria Mironova, Anatolii Belyi, Evgeniia Brik, Irina Rozanova, Iuliia Aug, Maria Golubkina, Maksim Vitorgan, Aleksandra Rebenok, Viktor Grudev, Fedor Lavrov, Il’ia Miroshnikov, Kseniia Shcherbakova, Petar Zekavica, Nikolai Shraiber
Producer: Valerii Todorovskii
Production Company: Marmot Film, Producer’s Company of Valerii Todorovskii

Aleksei Smirnov: The Garden Ring (Sadovoe kol’tso, TV 2017)

reviewed by Tatiana Efremova © 2018

Updated: 2018