Though it began in the mid-90s, Russian sitcom production remains pretty new. Although in its early stages, producers have tended to refer largely to an American experience, more recently though truly Russian sitcoms have emerged, free of American inspiration, the new sitcom breed is giving space for the expression of domestic social issues.
All around the world sitcoms like Friends, The Nanny, or more recently How I Met Your Mother have enthusiastic fans and attract a large share of the television audience. Regular characters in situation comedies are put into environments circumstances that resonate with the audience’s reality. They show within 20-30 minutes a short and humorous story following the everyday-lives of the main characters.
Such a genre was absent from the Soviet TV landscape. Elena Prokhorova, associate professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, said to the ‘Voice of Russia’ that sitcoms are a post-Soviet genre. “There was an attempt to create Soviet sitcoms in the 70s with the film13 Chairs. Nevertheless, in the Soviet Union, there were police shows and melodramas, but no sitcoms. There was no such cultural tradition. It’s rather a post Soviet phenomenon, especially since 2000.”
This situation has both political and economic roots, in the opinion of David MacFadyen, Professor and Chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of California. According to this specialist in Russian cinema and television: “There was no sitcom on Soviet television. Probably one reason is that the structure of a sitcom is very good for advertising. It is a commercial structure.” In the Soviet era, state-run television had no place for ad-oriented sitcoms.
The first attempts to introduce sitcoms to Russian TV screens started in the early 90s. Professor MacFadyen continued in an interview for the ‘Voice of Russia’: “There was a Russian attempt to make some sitcoms in the early 90s on domestic TV; but the big change was the creation of the company Amedia… probably the most important company for creating legal versions of American sitcoms. They were legally buying the right to create Russian versions.”
Social uncertainty and economic difficulties in the 1990s provided a favorable context for the development of sitcoms in the country. Indeed, MacFadyen stated that “the sitcoms are being used to look at a lot of social problems of the 1990s and the 2000s: problems of class differences, about differences between the provinces and the big cities, the importance of money, etc. But every thirty minutes a sitcom gives a solution. That is why the sitcom has been so incredibly successful in Russia: they create problems but they solve them very quickly.” Nevertheless, that multidimensional crisis, combined with an arduous reorganization of the TV industry, and the lack of qualified scriptwriters, directors, and technicians, during the 90s did not allow the full development of a new TV genre. Its real expansion took place in the 2000s, thanks to that new company, Amedia, and to the Russian TV channels TNT and STS, which largely broadcast sitcoms.
The first situation comedies to be aired in Russia were adapted versions of successful American TV productions such as The Nanny, Everybody Loves Raymond or Grace Under Fire. The decision had been made not to broadcast the original versions of American sitcoms but to create Russian remakes. David MacFadyen explained that initially; “Russian producers borrowed series from overseas. It is almost as if domestic television were learning how to do them. They borrowed the model from American television.” It was pretty convenient for a rebirthed Russian television industry: the characters were already well developed, along with the scripts and settings for each episode.
The need to remake American sitcoms for the Russian audience is explained by the strong cultural differences between the US and Russia; “Sitcoms have to happen in really typical places. It has to be a place that is permanently busy, like a hospital, a hotel, an airport, or a school”,explained MacFadyen. “It is a place where people are always coming and going. It is a place that everybody knows.” To address the domestic Russian public, typical American places have to be turned into Russian ones. For instance, in the Russian adaption of the American sitcom The Nanny, the Jewish jokes of the original version have been adjusted to target the differences between Ukrainians and Russians, added MacFadyen.
However, the results of such remakes are relatively disappointing for those who have already seen the American originals: poor settings, dull actors, and unrealistic situations. Among the young generation, a lot of sitcom fans prefer to use the Internet to watch original versions rather than see Russian adaptations on TV. The social network ‘VKontakte’ (a Russian version of ‘Facebook’) lets its users watch streamed American sitcoms with amateur Russian subtitles; having taken a quick look at the recent adaptation of
Most of the remakes are concerned with sitcoms from the 80 and 90s. Indeed, it’s quite difficult, or at least really expensive, to remake more recent sitcoms due to their higher quality and more sophisticated themes. Consequently, we observe the emergence and development of local creations. These Russian sitcoms may have topics that remind us of American ones, but they are produced by local companies with local scripts and mirror the reality and humor of contemporary Russia. Elena Prokhorova commented: “There are already Russian sitcoms, they use the American formula, but the format is pretty much international. They treat typical Russian problems or situations.”
The sitcom Internye (Interns) is a good illustration of this new breed of
Interny is only one example of the current development of new Russian TV series, built on Russian cultural styles, values, physical environments and behavioral patterns. In an interview with the ‘Voice of Russia’, Dana Heller, professor at Old Dominion University observed, “Russia could become an innovator in developing sitcoms with a very specific type of humor.” Beyond humor, sitcoms also provide an opportunity to denounce social issues. The TV series Shkola (School), for instance, is directed as a documentary film, and brings viewers into the crude and trivial everyday-life of