MOSCOW - The suspicious girlfriend sits in the back seat of an SUV and watches her love life unravel on the screen of Denis Grebenyuk’s camcorder. A hidden camera has caught her boyfriend in the throes of passion with an easy-on-the-eyes brunet.
The cheated-on girlfriend’s bright blue eyes well up, then narrow with rage.
“That’s enough. I don’t want to see any more,” she says, burying her head in her puffy silver parka. “I’m going home. I need some time to think about what I’m going to tell him.”
It looks, feels and secretly films just like America’s hit program “Cheaters,” a syndicated peep show into infidelity. But there’s a difference - the guys with hidden cameras stalk their philandering prey not in American suburbia but in the cramped flats and storefronts of Moscow, where the appetite for voyeur television is just as ravenous.
Gone are the days when Soviet television plodded through prime time with non-stop reruns of Swan Lake and dreary documentaries about Leonid Brezhnev’s war years. Today, Russian television is as much a rat race for ratings as is American television, which is why programmers here frequently look westward for inspiration.
“Sex and the City’s” Russian analog is “The Balzac Age, or All Men Are Bastards,” a sitcom with four 30-something Moscow women meeting in banyas, or bathhouses, and cafes to commiserate about their love lives. The Russian television network TNT’s “Happy Together” is a licensed version of “Married With Children” that puts Al Bundy and family into a claustrophobic Yekaterinburg 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 acclaimed “The Office” into a Russian series and 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 television network CTC, which worked with Sony Pictures Television International to produce 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 television landscape, it was the thirst for Western programming. For years, Russian television 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 television industry is very influenced by American TV shows,” says Maxim Stishov, writer of Russia’s “Sex and the City” look-alike, “The Balzac Age,” which aired from 2004 to 2007. (The title is an expression derived from a Balzac novel about women getting on in years.) “But it’s much more common now to produce a Russian version of an American show. Russian audiences prefer domestically made programs.”
Stishov acknowledges 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 felt 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, which was even more different from the U.S. than Russia is. 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,” didn’t have any cultural mismatch issues to cope with - infidelity is universal, from Seattle to Vladivostok.
They also say they don’t expect any licensing hassles. They say it’s mere coincidence that their idea for a reality program happened to mirror “Cheaters,” which began airing in the U.S. in 2000.
“I was really surprised to learn about the American show,” says “Marriage Fiction” producer Nikita Lysenko, an affable Russian with a graying ponytail. “I’ve seen their programs online, and I agree it’s very similar. ... I do admit they were the first.”
The show’s structure, however, hews closely to the “Cheaters” format. It begins with the aggrieved spouse or lover laying out a laundry list of the partner’s suspicious behavior and pleading for help. Then show staffers stalk and secretly film their quarry as he or she rendezvous with a secret lover.
Both the American and Russian versions conclude with the cheated-on exacting comeuppance on the cheater with cursing and roundhouses.
The girl in the silver parka, a 25-year-old ad agency worker named Anastasia Kryukova, finally settled on an ending. She belonged to a boxing club, as did her mullet-haired boyfriend, Alexei, and his new gal, Oleysa. Before an upcoming club tournament, she had the club’s manager tweak the fight card so that she would face Oleysa.
Once in the ring, she cathartically pummels Oleysa until her foe drops to the mat, then leaps onto the gym floor and pounces on Alexei.
“Look into my eyes!” she screams at a wide-eyed Alexei as she swings gloved lefts and rights at his head. “How could you do this to me!”
Moments later in the locker room, Anastasia sobs and crumbles into a heap in a corner. “I’ve no idea how to go on. Stop the camera!”
The camera zooms in even closer.