chapter  6
Laughter at the threshold: My Fair Nanny, television sitcoms and the post-Soviet struggle over taste
Pages 21

If epic military dramas like Penal Battalion found a natural (albeit awkward) place within the Putinesque patriotic environment, and if deeply Russian, light-hearted semi-comedies such as Soldiers reinforced television’s potential for authenticating that environment’s ideological underpinnings, it would be difficult to say the same for the alien format of the western sitcom. The television sitcom has, indeed, been a long time in coming to post-Soviet Russian television. The reasons for this form part of the subject of the current chapter, but suffice it to say for the time being that those attempts at a homegrown, native version of this distinctly foreign format which did appear on Russian television prior to 2004 proved in the main to be short-lived failures. Whilst American and British imports such as Friends, Cheers, Fawlty Towers, I Love Lucy and Grace under Fire had enjoyed considerable success throughout the 1990s, the genre did not, as Dana Heller points out, have an established lineage in Russia.1 Early attempts at Russian versions of the sitcom were, perhaps not surprisingly, short-lived. The first two – Family Business, Funny Business (Semeinoe delo, smeshnoe delo) and Strawberry Café (Klubnichnoe kafe) – aired in 1997. The former centred on a family which had lost all of its savings in a pyramid scheme and included an array of social types from the New Russia. The latter, something of a cross between a sitcom and a soap opera, focused on the tribulations of several generations of a family of café proprietors. Each opened to great interest both at home and in the west but, despite efforts to tailor the format to Russian tastes and cultural traditions (efforts which Heller analyses in detail), failed to secure a loyal audience and were removed from the schedules after less than a year. A second, concerted effort to establish the sitcom in the Russian viewing

consciousness was made in 2002 with Friendly Family (Druzhnaia semeika), based on the US show, Married with Children, and involving a successful Moscow family with materialistic aspirations to improve their lot still further. Again, despite the domesticating features, which included a highly mannered acting style inappropriate to the genre, but familiar to Russian audiences, it lasted only a few months. Two years later, an NTV show called

FM and the Guys (FM i rebiata), centred around a radio station set up by a group of fashionable young Muscovites whose petty disputes, trials and tribulations, amorous relationships and subversive attitudes to their superiors, provided material well suited to the sitcom format. It aired in 2004 but, owing largely to its restricted target audience (young, 20-something urban sophisticates), it, too, was removed after a few months. The Channel 1 show, Simple Truths (Prostye istiny), shown in 2004 and 2005, was likewise targeted at a youth audience (this time, teenaged schoolchildren), and though it also embraced many of the key features of the sitcom genre (a defined locale, an open-ended structure capable of generating an infinite number of new narratives, a focus on comedy of character and situation), it failed to establish sufficient momentum to acquire a permanent place in the schedules. These failures are in one sense hardly surprising. Other than news pro-

grammes, a very restricted number of talk shows and the odd enduring game show success, such as Field of Miracles (Pole chudes), Russian television has, since the fall of communism, been characterised by a complete lack of stability; channels have repeatedly changed hands; shows have switched channels, along with stars, with an alarming alacrity;2 few programmes of any genre have lasted much beyond a year; the inability of the sitcom to take root in post-Soviet television culture is matched by that of the soap opera (in its British, rather than Latin American, manifestation) and the fact that the two genres share the same emphasis on open-ended narrative structures involving ordinary people in stable, everyday, family environments – neither at a premium in Russia’s period of emergence from the ravages of communism and robber capitalism – is hardly coincidental. Russian television culture, moreover, lacks a tradition in situation comedy, which is not the case with the game show and the quiz, preceded in Soviet times by the popularity of the viktorina. Irina Petrovskaia’s comments in Izvestiia on the failure of Strawberry Café seem pertinent: ‘I don’t think the sitcom is organic to the Russian mentality. And the laugh track is absolutely horrific. I think even the Americans must hate it’ (quoted in Stanley 1997: 1). Television humour in Russia has meant primarily comedy of the virtuoso, stand-up variety, as exemplified in the legendary status achieved in Soviet times by Arkadii Raikin, and more recently, Dmitrii Khazanov and Mikhail Zhvanetskii, as well as by the annual youth variety quiz show KVN. Political satire has a long and noble lineage in Russian culture, as does the puppet show, which helps explain why NTV’s Puppets (Kukly), an adaptation of the British Spitting Images, enjoyed considerable success until the political environment became too oppressive to sustain either NTV in its path-breaking, independent manifestation, or political satire of the savage kind practised by the makers of Puppets.3