“Maybe it’s me,” ponders Phil Rosenthal. “Maybe I need a better sense of current Russian culture.” It’s a concept.
Remarkably, it’s a concept that comes to Rosenthal when he’s already in Moscow, and already at work on producing a version of Everybody Loves Raymond for Russian TV. Until this moment of seeming revelation in Exporting Raymond, Rosenthal has sounded much surer of his sitcom and his worldview. He grew up loving TV over a montage of familiar sitcom family kitchens, and believes that his own show is something of a landmark. “My job,” Rosenthal phrases it, “was to create a family, a very specific family,” which would reach a broad audience. “We wrote about what really happened to us at home,” he explains, “It wasn’t hip and edgy, it wasn’t young and sexy.” Instead, he concludes, it was “relatable.” For Rosenthal, the show’s nine-year run “was a dream come true. And then the Russians called.”
While it’s not entirely clear who called or who expected what from whom, the rest of Exporting Raymond traces Rosenthal’s experience producing the pilot for Everybody Loves Kostya. That this experience is structured as its own sort of sitcom, with a hammy lead character and antic encounters, makes the process of such American exporting look myopic and simplistic.
This representation begins with Rosenthal’s preparations for his trip, rendered in a series of ba-dum-bump gags. First, he pays a visit to his parents, still living in the old New City, New York neighborhood where, he says, “I was rejected by many, many women.” Here he lived out circumstances that were retooled for Raymond: “These situations were fairly depicted,” he notes, “But some of the characterization was not. In other words, it was exaggerated.” When he asks his mother and father for a look at the photos they took during a trip to Moscow in 2005, they must first go through the jokes about dad using his laptop’s slideshow function (“Did you put the music on?” “No, it just comes on”), and then glimpse a series of speeding images: “This is Moscow at 80 miles an hour!” If they’re not Marie and Frank Barone—a point made by clips showing the sitcom’s exaggerations—they are, as Rosenthal says, an “inspiration.”
Following hugs and good luck wishes, Rosenthal leaves the security of his parents’ home and enters into his own fearful speculations, based on the polonium poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko (“I’m just a little nervous, I mean, I’ve seen the news!”) and other stereotypes (say, a clanging sound to denote the Iron Curtain). On arriving in Moscow, Rosenthal looks for his “driver-slash-security man,” Eldar. “I’m told he’s very nice,” he mugs, as he meets a tall, burly fellow who with memories of serving on a security team for Condoleezza Rice during one of her trips to Russia. Settling into the car, Rosenthal can’t help himself: “Isn’t this the scene when the mafia comes and clocks me on the head and that’s it?”
Eldar proves to be “very nice” indeed, as does Rosenthal’s personal translator, Marina. She helps him through meetings with English-speaking Sony executives as well as Aleksandr Zhigalkin, the director of Everybody Loves Kostya and a costume designer, Elena, who wants the characters to wear the latest fashions. Rosenthal insists, “Everything from the costumes to the sets to the hair and makeup has to be 100% believable.” It doesn’t occur to him that “believable” might mean something different in a different place, or even that his new colleagues don’t share his ambitions. “I don’t know if you want to change the show to fit fashion,” he tells Elena, as she appears in close-up, in carefully wrought makeup and outfit. On their way out, they stop to talk again in a grey-toned stairwell, where Elena’s pink coat seems especially vibrant. “You look very nice, by the way,” offers Rosenthal, redeploying his favorite phrasing.
Rosenthal’s descriptions of the casting process and decisions concerning sets and scripts—as well as the live audience he especially wants to have—are similarly patronizing. He explains that he thinks Kostya needs to have “an everyman quality,” without paying much attention to how this might translate in another country, with another political, social, and economic history. He also learns that some bases for jokes—say, the Fruit of the Month Club—are unknown here, so maybe he needs to rethink them. The head writer, Sasha, has a particular problem with Kostya, because “he seems to be a weakling,” far from a popular type in Russia (this point is followed by an obligatory montage of husky Russian men on snowy sidewalks).
As the contentions persist, Rosenthal decides that they’re based not on cultural differences but on a difference between men who are single and men who are—or have been, in Rosenthal’s case—married. Singles can’t appreciate the general appeals of the marriage jokes, he guesses, and so sets upon explaining them. But as he’s faced again and again by blank looks, he begins to wonder about his assumptions. “I thought it was universal,” he sighs, “I thought it was. It may not be.”
In pursuit of “a better sense of current Russian culture,” Rosenthal visits a contemporary art gallery, where, he’s apparently hocked to find that some Russians appreciate Britney Spears—not to mention a “deconstruction” of one of her video performances, an aesthetic and political next step that Rosenthal doesn’t actually take. “She is representing some trends in culture,” the gallery owner explains, “The selling of it is actually more important that what you’re selling.” Rosenthal appears stunned to hear Russian consumers value “superficial trappings” instead of “the themes of the characters.” (You know, like American consumers or Britney Spears.) Yes, he gapes, “I’m shocked because I think it’s the exact opposite.”
His thinking is tested further when he develops something like a relationship with Eldar. Though this relationship appears frankly superficial, premised on what Rosenthal does not know about Eldar’s hospitalization for 12 days of “tests,” Exporting Raymond uses it to illustrate his changing perspective. Maybe his experience isn’t universal. Maybe other concerns are as important as his own. And maybe his version of “reality,” which he insists is the basis for Raymond, what makes it so “relatable,” is not the same as someone else’s. And so you see: exporting is ever circular.