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What to Watch on Russian TV (with a bonus list of Russian TV series with English subtitles at Hatfield Library)

By Mariia Ulibegova

If you find yourself in Russia and want to have a pleasant evening with a slice of pizza in one hand and a remote control in the other, what do you do? For a really long time now Russian television has been used as a platform to push the ‘official’ political agenda in all of the talk shows and news broadcasts. The fact that major TV networks are state-owned probably has something to do with that. Many game shows and series are copies of foreign (mostly American and British) originals. Some earn impressive countrywide success and steady long-standing viewership, like “The Voice” (“Голос”) and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” (“Кто хочет стать миллионером?”); some are just pathetic attempts to copy something that should’ve been left untouched (like a remake of “How I Met Your Mother” ⎼ “Как я встретил вашу маму”. You want to cut your eyes out two minutes in).

Official logo of the Russian edition of “Who wants to be a millionaire?”

Original Russian TV-series, while at the same level as the US series in terms of quality, aren’t yet able to deliver in terms of the story most of the time. Notable exceptions are mainly historical dramas and adaptations of classical Russian literature. For example, “The Thaw,” 2013 (“Оттепель”) made by Valery Todorovsky, the director of “Hipsters,” 2008 (“Стиляги”), and “The First Circle,” 2006 (“В круге первом”) based on the novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn of the same name. They usually receive a ton of television awards, quite rightly, and are widely watched by all major audiences. But they are usually short mini-series that end too soon.

Younger people who are savvy both with technology and English are up to date with American TV hits and will impress you with their thorough knowledge of all the “Game of Thrones” kills and “Grey’s Anatomy” romantic twists and turns (if that’s something that you can be impressed by).

But what about recurring original content? Does it even exist on Russian television?

The answer is yes. But, in my opinion, there is only a handful of shows one can watch and feel like it’s entertainment well worth the time spent.

Among TV creations that are native exclusively (or almost exclusively) to Russia I want to briefly talk about three: a competitive version of SNL called “KVN” (“КВН” ⎼ “Клуб весёлых и находчивых” that translates as “Club of the Funny and Inventive People”); an intellectual game, that has inspired highschool-through-college-level clubs and competitions throughout the country, called “What? Where? When?” (“Что? Где? Когда?”); and an interview program with Vladimir Pozner (“Познер”), who has the gravitas of Larry King and the piercing eyes of Oprah Winfrey.

KVN is a televised game in which teams (usually representing universities from regions of Russia and former USSR republics) compete to prove they are the funniest and wittiest of all. “KVN” is played throughout each calendar years since 1960s. At the beginning of the year teams compete in ⅛ and move to ¼ and ½ to the final that’s usually broadcast around New Year’s. In each game, four teams present skits and sketches in different formats, like comedic stories, mini-musicals, joke shoot-outs, etc., and the jury picks the team that has displayed the best humor, theatricality, and musical talents. “KVN” became famous as a creative outlet for political satire and topical social commentary. In the recent years, though, it does not do that as much as it used to.

A shot of the KVN team called “Burnt by the Sun” performing a sketch about a lost girl who doesn’t remember her name

 

“What? Where? When?” is another program that was originally created in Russia and has been going strong since mid-70s. It is also broadcast throughout the year as the teams compete with the TV audience. It has grown into an elite club of intellectuals whose vast knowledge, intuition, and vehemence could impress anybody. Each game, a team of six people sit around a round table and try to answer questions that have been sent to the studio by any person in the country who wants to participate, and the questions can be on any subject (the game host pre-selects the most difficult and interesting questions). After the question is announced, the team has one minute to discuss it and arrive at an answer. They have to rely purely on their own expertise and logic, and the correct answer wins them a point. If the team fails to give the correct answer, the author of the question wins a certain sum of money (up to a 150 thousand rubles, or $2700 per question). The game is played until either “the experts” or “the audience” arrives at six points. It’s great fun to watch “What? Where? When?” and see how “the experts” arrive at a correct answer at second 59 when they had no clue of what it was at second 1, and to try and guess the answer yourself and see how you were right and they had overthought it. The TV game has inspired a worldwide movement with over 21 thousand teams playing in tournaments for different ages and levels of expertise.

Official logo of “What? Where? When?”

 

Finally, if you want to spend some time with a good conversationalist and his interviewee (who is usually a prominent figure in the world of arts or politics, both Russian and foreign. Hillary Clinton made her appearance on his talk show in 2010), tune in for “Pozner”. Vladimir Pozner will try to help you figure out who the person sitting across from him is in sixty minutes. And not just by asking about their biographical facts, but also by posing questions to understand the inner motivations, values and character of the guest. He likes to use the Proust Questionnaire at the end of each program, which helps to condense all of his findings into several short answers from guests. Mr Pozner is a French-born Russian-American journalist who, in 1970-80s, was a frequent guest on many American shows presenting (but not advocating) Soviet views and actions. He continues to be a go-to person both for US and Russian media when talking about serious political and cultural issues on both sides. If you want to have a person who will share a balanced, well-informed and thought-through view on major events, this is who you should be looking for.

Unfortunately, most of this content I’ve talked about isn’t accompanied by official English subtitles. Still, there are fansubbed episodes and excerpts online. Regardless of whether you speak any Russian or not, I hope you have a look at “KVN,” “What? Where? When?,” “Pozner,” or something else to see what Russian television is like, how it reflects Russian current affairs, and maybe even Russian mentality.

 

Bonus: Here’s a list of some official releases of Russian TV-series with English subtitles available at or through Hatfield Library. Use the DVD ID number to look it up at WU website

“Мастер и Маргарита” (Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”) 82962591

“Brigada” 56627934

“Seventeen moments of spring” 71253022

“Идиот” (Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”) 56360578

“Доктор Живаго” (Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago”) 70109237

 

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