KinoKultura: Issue 66 (2019)

Russian Television Series: Recent Trends

By Irina Efimova

The past couple of years have seen a considerable growth in the level of production and the quality of TV series in Russia. This was facilitated, above all, by the rise in the scale of production: according to the data of the KVG Research group, 478 TV series and films were put into production in 2016, as compared to only 304 projects in 2015. The number of original Russian projects has increased as well: in 2017 only 5 per cent of the total number of series were foreign adaptations (Zagorenko and Georgievskaia 2018).
This trend gave rise to Russia’s first festival of TV series, Pilot, which took place in the town of Ivanovo in September 2018 and where twenty projects for the new season were presented (Tokmasheva 2018), including both those by major TV channels—Channel One Russia, Russia-1, NTV—and those produced by internet streaming services.

Obviously, the quality of domestic TV series has improved, because the best theater and film directors started producing them. Konstantin Bogomolov (Gold Diggers [Soderzhanki, 2019]), Boris Khlebnikov (Ordinary Woman [Obychnaia zhenshchina, 2018]), Zhora Kryzhovnikov (Call DiCaprio! [Zvonite DiCaprio!, 2018]), Petr Buslov and Egor Baranov (House Arrest [Domashnii arest, 2018]), and Natal’ia Meshchaninova (Red Bracelets [Krasnye braslety, 2015, premiered in Russia in 2018]) contributed the best new releases of this season.

Such a growth in the quality, popularity, and investments in domestic TV series also stimulated the opening of new internet streaming services, where Russian users view domestic products through a paid subscription. In 2017 Gazprom Media Holding, together with Yellow, Black, and White Company, unveiled their streaming service Start, where the company premiers its new releases. In 2018 TNT created TNT-Premier streaming service, and in 2019 Yandex initiated production of its own content for its own streaming services.

Russia is gradually emerging on the international market as well. Netflix bought several Russian TV projects—Silver Spoon (Mazhor, 2014, dir. Konstantin Statskii), The Method (Metod, 2015, dir. Iurii Bykov), Trotsky (2017, dir. Aleksandr Kott and Konstantin Statskii). In 2019 Netflix purchased the TV series Better Than Us (Luchshe, chem liudi,dir. Аndrei Dzhunkovskii) produced by the online streaming service Start and bought for a record sum of $1 million, according to various sources (Afanas’eva 2019). Initially the plan was to release the series on Channel One, but the premiere was moved to the video platform. The producers worried that Russian television audiences would not sufficiently appreciate the project (Mitrofanov 2018).

better than usBetter Than Us is, indeed, different from the majority of Russian series, primarily in its visual quality and its setting, offering an attractive, glossy European picture. The action takes place in Moscow in the year 2029, but fantastic locations are absent; the only things that set this world apart from ours are more advanced gadgets and robots of the new generation—bots. Meanwhile, human actors play robotic characters, and only a few special effects shots are created with the help of high-quality CGI. European-style visual quality is achieved not only through the absence of drab social realia of Russia’s provincial life, but also through the use of truly beautiful interior and exterior settings and actors’ faces. Live actors playing robots add special charm and realism to the story about the relations of humans and machines.

In its themes the project follows traditions of Russian and world science fiction, examining the nature of artificial intelligence and interaction between robots and human beings—in what ways they differ from one another. In the series the robot often turns out to be more humane and has more reasons to be considered a human. The series tells a story of the gradual “humanization” of the bot Arisa (Paulina Andreeva) during her life in the Sofronov family. Changes in her identity, in turn, make an impact on humans: the Sofronovs become more humane as well, gradually get out of the vicious circle of mutual animosity and lack of understanding; they learn to hear each other and sacrifice for each other. Notably, the series does not end with the reintegration of the family: the spouses get separated and the male protagonist meets a new partner.

Better Than Us became the most successful Russian-made product on the global media market, perhaps because the story of the possible near-future proved convincing for audiences in other countries. The series deals with such topical matters as family conflicts and the development of new technologies that alter everyday life. The series sets up a new trend for the Russian motion picture industry: creating universally appealing characters, patterns of their interaction, settings and genres, without complicating them with the peculiarities of national identity. Those kinds of characters are in demand with international audiences because they understand such characters’ relations and conflicts with the new technology-driven environment.

This article examines new Russian TV projects as examples for creating a typology of contemporary series and features of the new type of productions that reflects some tendencies of today’s society. “[A]ny text (and especially a literary one) contains in itself what we should like to term the image of the audience and […] this image actively affects the real audience by becoming for it a kind of normalizing code. This is imposed on the consciousness of the audience and becomes the norm for its own image of itself, being transferred from the text into the sphere of the real behavior of the cultural collective” (Lotman 1982, 81). This quote by Yury Lotman allows us to clarify the process of interaction between the viewer and the new type of TV series. The latter creates the sense of immediacy through its extended narrative; accordingly, the viewer gets not clear-cut answers about him or herself, but rather a chance to examine and experience his/her own reality in fictional form.

As for novelistic discourse, Mikhail Bakhtin defines this mode of articulating artistic imagery as “a zone of maximally close contact between the represented object and contemporary reality in all its inconclusiveness—and consequently a similarly close contact between the object and the future” (Bakhtin 1981, 31). This mechanism of constructing reality appears both in Fedor Dostoevskii’s psychological novels to explore the inner world of a character, and in pulp fiction to replace the everyday world of the reader with made-up plots and make the reader identify with the character. A similar discourse defines the TV series, the discourse where serialization constitutes the distinctive feature. This feature allows TV series to represent reality as an unfinalized, open-ended universe. “Novelistic discourse constitutes such an agile, diverse and fluid phenomenon, so closely linked to the topical reality, that any attempts of examining the novel’s typology seem to be doomed to failure” (Lotman 1992, 91; our translation). A typological study of TV series faces a similar challenge. This article attempts to deal with this challenge by creating a classification of television series based on their main function.

The old type of TV series is an entertainment series, whose prevailing function is to distract the viewer from reality with the goal of shifting his/her attention away from his/her problems and towards the fictional world. In this case, the series inherits the interaction with the viewer from pulp fiction and the soap opera. This type uses the mechanism of serialization precisely to plunge the viewer into an endless illusory space of the story, which lacks any correspondence with the socio-cultural context of the audience. Therefore, the process of unfolding reality is substituted for the artificial stretching of the narrative through repetitions, recurring situations, and cardboard characters with predictable behavior and relations. The function of this type of series is to substitute fictional reality for the viewer’s actual life.

The new type of the TV series is what I call the socially-engaged series. Its distinctive features include: 1) topical themes that raise painful issues for present-day Russian society; 2) a complex protagonist, who does not trigger immediate emotional identification; 3) blurring genre boundaries via hybrid storylines. The ultimate function of such a series is the social critique through a focus on topical issues, although without calling for action, since this would go beyond the scope of an artistic text.

Moreover, the viewer’s observation of and immersion into characters of the socially-engaged series is akin to a psychotherapy session, when motives, hidden fears, desires and other unconventional features of heroes emerge gradually, and the viewer has a chance to become aware of his or her own hidden questions and conflicts. Thereby, the new type of TV series becomes a way of getting to know and to experience dramatic realities of the modern world, rather than an escape into an endless fictional seriality of the soap opera.
It is significant that at the present moment in Russia this process finds its fullest expression on internet streaming services, because television imposes many limitations on narrative themes and methods of their presentation. But it is equally important that a new type of viewer is emerging, ready for tough questions, for unconventional characters and narrative structures that challenge the viewer’s perception and that require work, heightened attention and story analysis on the part of the audience.

From the point of view of the protagonist and themes, the socially-engaged TV seriesis represented by the most significant new releases of the year 2018: Ordinary Woman, Call DiCaprio!, and House Arrest (Doroshevich 2018). They received the major 2019 prizes from the Association of Film and Television Producers of Russia.

In search of a new audience, Channel TV3 experimented with its programming and distribution practices. For example, Egor Baranov’s project Gogol was released in a new format: the episodes premiered in movie theaters and then were broadcast on TV. Boris Khlebnikov’s project set the new trend for the 2018 season—he shot the nine-episode drama Ordinary Woman with Anna Mikhalkova in the lead role of Marina Lavrova. The protagonist is a forty-year-old mother of two, pregnant with a third child and owner of a small flower shop, which serves as a front for her sexual services business. A mother of two and calculating pimp in one person is, undoubtedly, a new and controversial type for Russian TV series. Such a protagonist does not fit easily within the framework of stereotypical behavior characteristic of the two-dimensional heroes appearing in entertainment TV series. The new complex characters take Russian television drama outside the realm of soap operas, making them lifelike and interesting for contemporary viewers, who are ready for this change in the artistic quality of television productions.

ordinary womanOrdinary Woman is also a new type of series in terms of its genre. The detective storyline—who killed the girl and whether the protagonist will get caught because of the murdered prostitute—is not the focal point, but rather just the backdrop of the narrative. The detective line creates the initial motivation for the viewer to get interested in Mikhalkova’s character. But right away the series re-focuses on who Marina Lavrova is and how she became this way. This shift in the plot trajectory parallels the heroine’s own introspection. The story centers on her process of self-discovery, culminating in the final monologue: “I am a pimp. I sell prostitutes. And just now I conceded to the murder of a person in order to avoid prison. I am a bitch and I don’t know who I am at this point.”

The plot of the series deals with a topical problem—our contemporaries’ inability to understand who they and who their loved ones truly are. All the characters exist within the limits of stereotypical actions and ideas, until the unexpected events trigger their true identities to reveal themselves. Consequently, the story line breaks down, and the TV series offers situations beyond the expected narrative turns, thus telling us a lot about the characters involved in them. A banal situation of marital infidelity of a husband-surgeon Artem (Evgenii Grishkovets) with a young nurse Nika (Mariia Andreeva) avoids a predictable love triangle denouement. The mistress is unable to steal a husband after her and his wife’s eyes meet in a chance encounter. In this key scene no fighting or scandal occurs. Marina looks at her husband and his mistress through the restaurant window and then leaves. We assume that the mistress remains victorious in this scene, but in the next scene Nika kicks Artem out of her apartment because she cannot overcome her guilt, cannot do what seemed to her so simple and desirable before she ran into his wife.

The structure of the season also gets a twist: the entirety of episode eight is a flashback to the events several years earlier, which have brought the heroine to her current situation. The overwhelming pressure on Marina’s husband, who witnessed a traffic accident which killed his friend, reduces the family to poverty. This is when the heroine’s second life— sexual services business—begins, and this secret causes a rift between the spouses; the husband starts having an affair. The heroine’s tragic guilt is her sоwing discord in the family when she tries to solve common problems by herself in order to save the family at all costs, but this attempt backfires.

A completely new type of character in this project is Marina’s antagonist—police investigator Vera (Dаr’ia Savel’eva), who is in denial of her alcohol addiction and is suffering from her life with her mother sick with dementia. Vera’s story line examines the same theme—the disintegration of the family: the mother does not remember Vera; rather she remembers her second daughter, a rape-murder victim. Vera failed to catch her sister’s killer and is haunted by a feeling of guilt. The suspect and the police investigator, therefore, are not unlike each other in their loneliness, alienation from their families, and the secret lives they live. In the narrative arcs they come to a similar end: both characters fail to preserve their families, but in exchange get an opportunity for a new beginning. Marina frames another person who gets killed, and confesses to her husband that she makes a living as a pimp; Vera fails to catch the murderer, her mother stops recognizing her, and she goes on a bender. At the same time, Marina gives birth to a healthy baby, while Vera succeeds in uncovering a connection between Marina and a murdered prostitute. The protagonist and the antagonist follow the same narrative trajectory, which makes them simultaneously similar and different, not unlike the relatives from the same family, people who originate from the same root but in the course of their lives turn on each other.

call di caprioFamily problems offer a classic blueprint for the structure of TV series (Landau 2016, 131). There are always interactions among characters, and even if they are not closely related, they always rely on and develop along the lines of family roles. This method of plot construction is literally at play in the project Call DiCaprio!, which intertwines the stories of two brothers—the unsuccessful actor Leo (Andrei Burkovskii) and the dissolute movie star Egor (Aleksandr Petrov), who gets HIV. This project is a socially-engaged series, above all, because of its pressing topical theme and problematic characters. The series offers a striking, at times even kitschy, commentary on the problem of HIV, so dire for Russia—this is not just an entertaining or funny story, but a portrayal of contemporary life with its dark aspects. The series aired on the TNT-Premier streaming service; television broadcast was only possible after 11pm because of sexual scenes, age restrictions, and a provocative story. Besides a rather shocking (at least for the Russian audience) topic of HIV and the community’s hostility towards this disease, the project offers a scathingly cynical representation of the very process of making a TV series. Call DiCaprio! demystifies the profession of an actor as such, because the protagonists and their colleagues turn out to be egotistical, two-faced traitors. The idea of actors’ popularity is challenged as well—the heroes exhibit neither high professional competence nor personal qualities, while their stardom is just a matter of the audience’s passing fascination.

Meanwhile, the plot develops on several levels, and neither satirical nor dramatic collisions with the protagonist’s illness and his work as an actor become the core of the story; rather, they serve as a means to display characters’ false values and artificial relations. The core of the story are the relations of the two brothers, which turns into a paraphrase of the very first murder story—the murder of Abel by Cain. In our world, however, the story of the meek shepherd and his jealous brother is impossible, and they compete not for God’s love and attention. Nowadays, the brothers seem to vie for betraying each other in the worst way possible: Lev envies Egor’s successful film career, whereas Egor envies strong ties between members of Lev’s family. After Egor gets sick, Lev starts replacing him in film projects as well as in sexual liaisons with film producer Katia (Anna Nevskaia). Through her, Lev gets his brother’s HIV virus, which becomes the major reason for the murder. The murder scene is the final one in the series; the entire story moves towards this tragic point or, to be more precise, to a prolonged and painful conclusion. The tragedy is in the fact that such a finale does not become a denouement: after murdering his brother, Lev lifts his body and drags it for a long time. The death does not release him from a relationship with this character, nor does it resolve the conflict.

The themes of envy and animosity between two close people, of which they are not aware, is not new for cinema, but for Russian TV series it provides the next step in examining complex issues. Thus, socially-engaged TV series carry out their most important function—to motivate the viewers to learn about the world in which they live. Lev and Egor are new types of heroes, with whom the viewer cannot easily identify; their vile acts at times disgust us, but viewers’ interest is sustained by empathy, swinging from resentment to compassion; indeed, many of us understand the motives of these people, who are, at heart, not that bad but who have lost their way.

Satire of everyday and political aspects of Russian life in the TV series House Arrest is sharp and manifold. In many respects, the series continues traditions of the 19th century Russian novel, which critiqued and mocked the life of its contemporaries. The stories of civil servants’ greed and stupidity, as well as pictures of crushing poverty of the Russian people, continue to remain topical in the 21st century.

domashnii arestThe storyline of the project follows the comedic device of role reversal. The mayor of a town Anikeev (Pavel Derevianko), convicted for bribery, finds himself under house arrest in a room of a communal apartment where he used to live as a child. Meanwhile, his alcoholic neighbor, excavator operator Ivan (Aleksandr Robak), runs for an open seat at the city hall. FSB officers—too kind and honorable (Dmitrii Lysenkov and Anatolii Kot)—are the wrong men for the job, and so is their colleague, the midget Lev (Artem Bobtsov), who is absurdly fighting for a place in the team of security officers. A cowardly debt collector (Aleksandr Bashirov) is mistaken for a hired killer, while a stuttering romantic, an expert in martial arts, becomes the mayor’s lawyer Golovkin (Timofei Tribuntsev). Substitution involves not only the characters’ circumstances and temperaments, but their relationships as well. For example, Nina (Anna Ukolova) pleads with her husband to cheat on her in order to even out the family “score” and advises him in courting another woman. The corrupt mayor importunes a sick boy for money, which the mayor needs for his political shenanigans.

The development of the protagonist’s storyline goes through similar striking inversions: a children’s war game and his love for Marina (Marina Aleksandrova) turn the deceitful and corrupt mayor into a person capable of empathy and selfless help. The first part of the series shows Anikeev’s attempts to return to the major league politics, thereby hindering the FSB’s plans to fight corruption. The main focus here is the power of money as such, rather than the officials’ chicanery and their sarcastic exposure, such as fake Instagram pictures of the Governor (Roman Madianov), which show him practicing judo and hockey. Everything is for sale: public officials, university provosts, children, high school students, and old ladies in communal apartments. Money and the desire to live an affluent and lavish lifestyle hold real power over all the characters, and the main question is to what lengths they are ready to go to acquire those things. The spotlight, therefore, shifts from the conflict between government officials and regular people to universal human motivations and psychology: people turn out to be quintessentially the same.

Hence right in the middle, from episode six, the genre of the TV series changes: a love story replaces political satire—two love triangles develop parallel to each other. Anikeev and the Provost (Vladimir Simonov) compete for Marina’s attention, while Ivan, his wife, and their lawyer try to figure out their relations. The eternal human categories—love and betrayal—are the main themes; these are the essential values. But it takes the characters a while to figure this out.

The protagonists thus undergo a development in the series. They initially appear as caricatured, one-trait characters: a corrupt mayor, Ivan-the-Fool, a stuttering lawyer, Marina driven by her passion, Nina-the-meek creature, etc. With the change of main themes and genre, heroes become more complex, and the viewers can examine the characters’ psychological depth. The series unveils the inner conflicts and difficult choices the heroes make. This approach allows for the creation of multi-faceted, contemporary, and universally appealing characters. On the one hand, the series presents recognizable struggle for political power, chicanery, bribery, Russians’ poverty, etc. On the other hand, these are simply human beings, whose essential traits persist through the ages. To invoke the theme of continuity, the series includes two flashbacks: one from the WWII era, the other from the 12th century—in both the actors, who play characters from present-day Russia, appear as historical personages. The essence of the characters never changes, just as the nature of human conflicts remains the same.

A plot twist in the last episode best captures Russian reality: in order to protect the walls of an ancient monastery, Ivan uses his excavator to drive away the police, but in the process he accidentally hits and demolishes that very wall. Every cloud, however, has a silver lining: in the ruins they immediately find the original of the Old Russian manuscript Primary Chronicle. Thanks to this crazy happenstance, people elect Ivan as town mayor; after all he, indeed, is not as corrupt as the previous one was, and the conclusion of the story seems optimistic. All characters gather around Nina and her newborn baby—the symbol of hope for the future. But upon closer view, the absurdity of life in Russia as captured by the authors is striking: an alcoholic excavator operator, without any education, is elected mayor; the corrupt former mayor becomes his financial advisor; and a former stripper heads the public relations department. The key criterion for their appointments is that they are “Ivan’s people,” who accompanied Ivan on his long journey. But along the way their professional and personal qualities were questioned many times. The finale, therefore, only seems positive; in fact, it uncovers the deplorable condition of Russian society, without any promises for change. History follows its well-trodden path, and everything comes full circle, including human relationships: no one learns from his own mistakes.

Thus fictional characters mediate the inquiry not so much into joyful and positive aspects of life, as into negative and tragic ones. The socially-engaged series excels at this work, gradually and carefully introducing the viewer to this new, yet already familiar, scope of issues. The novelistic form of the series, with its long format and large volume of information, allows conflicts to unfold from all angles and allows the viewer to examine them, and recognize and accept them as facts of contemporary life. This is a necessary process; without it the daily clash with brutal reality leads to denial and withdrawal, which only builds up problems instead of solving them.

The main premieres of spring 2019, likewise, belong to the category of socially-engaged series. They appeared on the streaming services TNT-Premier and Start: Dead Lake (Mertvoe ozero dir. Roman Prygunov) and Gold Diggers respectively.

mertvoe ozeroDead Lake begins with the protagonist’s suicide attempt (Evgenii Tsyganov): a long panning shot of the protagonist’s apartment, accompanied by Mozart’s Requiem, takes us to the bathroom, where, after witnessing аn impassive phone conversation about the need to go on a business trip to investigate a murder, we see a man with slit veins lying in the bathtub full of his own blood. The same type of asocial protagonist with morbid reactions, symptomatic of a psychological disorder—police investigator Rodion Meglin (Konstantin Khabenskii)—appeared in the TV series Method (dir. Iurii Bykov), which Channel One broadcast after 11 pm. From the very beginning Bykov’s hero emerged as a marginal character, known for his devious and strange behavior. In contrast, in Dead Lake investigative officer Pokrovskii appears deliberately calm, passionless, excessively cold-blooded, attractive in his ambiguity—behind his polished fearlessness hides pain and darkness. A brain tumor and loneliness led Pokrovskii to attempt suicide, and then to the cold detachment from the life happening next to him. It seems that the protagonist is dead from the very beginning, despite him not finishing what he started in his bathtub and agreeing to go investigate a murder.

Pokrovskii “comes to life” in а paradoxical way—he starts seeing the dead victims from the case that he investigates. They do not visit him with hints about the case but rather seek empathy and compassion, and share their experiences of transitioning to another world. Those visions trigger in the protagonist the physical manifestations of his thirst for life, namely, his sexual desire—he starts his affair with Alina (Aleksandra Rebenok). Their relations do not turn into a romantic plotline, because they are just the beginning stage of Pokrovskii’s return to life. That is why Alina’s departure is not a dramatic event for him; rather, he uses it to extract new information in his investigation. The protagonist does not serve as a guide to the mystical world but he feels and sees more than the rest of the characters, beyond the everyday, although he does not want to acknowledge this even to himself. Revealed in his external circumstances and his inner life, the plotline of the protagonist hinges on the miracle that occurs in the course of the story: Pokrovskii’s brain tumor disappears while he learns to experience and show his emotions. This character also does not trigger the viewer’s sense of identification with him; rather, the viewer’s interest is driven by the protagonist’s mysterious nature, an incredible attraction of “woeful countenance,” and his selfless, almost sacrificial dedication to work. This is a very modern type of person, whose life is his profession, whose feelings are repressed into his unconscious, from where they occasionally erupt.
In its style and plot Dead Lake takes inspiration from David Lynch’s famous drama Twin Peaks (1991): a ritual killing of the daughter of a local business tycoon takes place in a small northern town. The setting and visual design, entirely new for Russian TV projects, offsets a certain derivativeness of the series. Long takes of snowy Russian expanses, forests and mountains, affectionately shot from drones, helicopters and cranes, contribute to a special atmosphere of a Russian thriller: it is an awesome place, which is utterly unsuitable for life; it is both mesmerizing and oppressive. Most Russian TV series are set in the capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg, or in southern towns on the Black Sea, while Russia’s heartland is missing from the screen. Dead Lake is particularly valuable in the way it captures the authentic atmosphere of the Russian North, by creating a distinctly Russian noir and a morally ambivalent protagonist.
The plot follows the murder and the investigation, but only on the surface. More profound and engaging is the mystery of the snowy town itself, the mystical abilities of its inhabitants—the Utochkins—Siamese twin sisters (Kseniia Kutepova and Polina Kutepova)—and the journalist Semenov (Timofei Tribuntsev), suffering from the “shamanic disease.” The filmmakers gradually invite us beyond the obvious, beyond the detective story and towards phenomena hidden from the habitual view, those that change the audience’s perception of reality. The girl’s death turns out to be the result of her own choices, such as drug addiction and prostitution, as well as a chance altercation, which leaves her alone in the forest. Semenov finds her half frozen but does not try to save her; to him, this seems like divine providence that sets things straight; he therefore arranges the girl’s death as a ritual. Indeed, this death becomes the turning point for the characters and the life of the entire town. Pokrovskii comes alive in every sense, Kobrin’s family acquires a second daughter, and the ties between drug dealers and the police chief become apparent. The girl’s death purges the town and the people involved from unresolved and hidden problems. Meanwhile, from the dramaturgical perspective the plot is replete with chance events, such as the capture of a serial killer, the death of the drug baron by icicle, a sudden earthquake, or the stuffed fox which suddenly begins to speak. Likewise, there is no rational explanation for the fatalities that propel the plot—the deaths of the shaman’s son and of the young policeman. But these events, crucial manifestations of the forces beyond human logic, are central to the examination of the influences of the Astral world on people. The socially-engaged TV series works here through a complex, problematic protagonist and the plot, which outwardly follows the conventions of a detective thriller, but in fact demands active work from its audience because in order to appreciate it one needs not logic but rather the ability to sense the minute changes in characters’ emotions and to take in the long panoramas of snowy emptiness.

Gold Diggers calls itself a thriller as well, but an erotic one, and it is this second characteristic that is more fitting, because it brings to light the main issue of the story, its critical aspect: sexual promiscuity as a false pleasure, which substitutes for true values and meaningful relationships. This is а topical issue, which requires artistic examination, because today’s society idolizes sensual pleasure, claiming it is vital for health. This paradox of replacing emotion with physical release surfaces in many sensual scenes, where characters abandon themselves to fleeting desires and wild passions, without thinking of consequences.

soderzhankiThe story has little to do with the genre of thriller; the focus of the viewer’s interest and of the plot is the detective line--the murder of one of the kept women. This event becomes the key to examining the relationships of a small circle of rich Muscovites. Criminal investigator Shirokova (Dar’ia Moroz) finds herself among these people and starts an affair with the oligarch Ol’khovskii (Vladimir Mishukov), leaving for his sake not only her young police partner and lover (Petr Skvortsov) but also her husband (Semen Shteinberg) and son. In the detective genre, the investigator is usually the moral compass of the story, even when experiencing inner conflict, because the investigator’s goal is to apprehend and punish the criminal. In Gold Diggers Shirokova not only undermines ethical norms in her private life, but also abandons the investigation and leaves her police work for the sake of her new relationship. Both the protagonist and the storyline cross genre boundaries: the murder is important only in the exposition; gradually the interest in the identity of the killer and the desire to punish him fade away from the narrative. Shirokova’s partner and her boss want nothing more than to close the case. Shirokova used to be the only person who was searching for truth but her encounter with Ol’khovskii drastically redirects her trajectory towards personal life; consequently both the detective genre and the detective protagonist disappear from the story. The viewer will find out the killer’s identity and the motive from a banal spousal argument in bed, and it becomes clear that the criminal will not be punished.

The main storyline centers on the relations between rich people and their kept men and women, while their catalysts are the intrigues of the provincial art critic Dasha (Sof’ia Ernst). This heroine is also a complex character—she combines taste and keen appreciation of art with absolute cynicism and harshness towards people. Dasha infiltrates this world of liars and surpasses them, resolutely stepping over betrayal, her friend’s death, and her husband’s arrest and suicide. Her goal is somewhat at odds with this circle of people—not just money but acquiring an art gallery, but the means to achieve it are exactly the same: sex and deception.

The style of acting is deliberately understated, somewhat chilly and emotionless; characters speak their lines in passing even when discussing dramatic events, including murders. What matters is that these events don’t disrupt their personal comfort; other people’s lives are worthless and do not merit emotions and empathy. The characters lead intense physical lives, seeking profit, money and passions, but they are dead inside because they can only experience bursts of feeling but not the full-range of sustained emotions. The series shows not only spiritual death, motivated by money, but emotional death as well, when hormonal release of the sexual act substitutes for the genuine life of a human soul. This theme finds literal expression in the funeral scene in the final episode, where Alisa’s (Ol’ga Sutulova) husband, who hated her, gathers around her coffin all the lovers of both sexes in order to show how he feels about the deceased and her circle of “friends.” The final scene of the season, likewise, suggests the heroine’s emotional death: when Shirokova hears from her former colleague and lover that Ol’khovskii is a suspect in Alisa’s death, Shirokova has no reaction, refuses to talk to him, and continues on her vacation trip with Ol’khovskii and her son. Neither police instinct nor а sense of justice stir in the investigator; hence there is no escape from the world of lies and spiritual death. At the very least such is the verdict of the first season; the series has been renewed for a second season. The characters do not elicit any sympathy; the viewer’s engagement teeters between the sensuality of erotic scenes and the cynicism and callousness of the character’s choices and behavior. The filmmakers get the audience to accompany the characters on their path of appalling moral degradation, making the most of our shared instincts and unconscious responses; it is as if we are looking in a magnifying mirror, which shows the distorted features of the one looking into it.

The arrival of internet streaming services, which freed TV series creators from the restrictions of broadcast television, allows for Russian projects to develop precisely in the direction of socially-engaged series, with complex protagonists and generic structures that deal with topical issues. Such a series builds a mechanism of engaging the viewer that is distinct from the one employed by entertainment-oriented series: not through an unequivocal identification and sympathy, but via shock, alienation and irony, which stimulate an insight into characters’ motivations. This mechanism is akin to personal self-discovery, realization and acceptance of one’s own unflattering and anomalous qualities. The socially-engaged TV series thus becomes at once a heuristic tool and a mirror for the contemporary audience, resulting in the increased interest in and demand for this format.

Translated by Alexander, Daria, and Elena Prokhorova


Irina Efimova
St Petersburg State Institute for Film and Television (GIKiT)

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Irina Efimova © 2019

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Updated: 2019