First things first: Russian Dolls, the show premiering tomorrow night on Lifetime, is not a Jersey Shore knockoff. It was merely shopped around as one, back when it was called Brighton Beach and held Vimeo auditions in search of monetizable goofballs. Well, the Situaciya wannabes can hold on to their abs. After a spin in the development blender, Russian Dolls has emerged as something more docile: It is The Real Housewives of Kings County.
The series’ main character and self-designated breakout star (a week before the premiere, she was already sending out solo press releases) is Marina Levitis, the co-owner, with her patient-looking husband, of the Rasputin nightclub. As shortcuts go, this is an impressively blunt one: It’s akin to making a show about Manhattan with Donald Trump as the hero. Marina is, at least for our purposes, BFFs with Diana, 23, a nominally blonde beauty who wears a large gold Star of David but whose religious leanings are better encapsulated by the phrase “I believe in Botox and plastic surgery,” which she actually utters in the pilot. Diana, in turn, hangs out with Anastasia, who’s largely the same make and model, but with a brunette finish. Fifteen minutes haven’t passed before the two hit the Russian baths, which are poised to become this show’s Jacuzzi; Marina, 34, gets a pass from undressing. So far, the women are surprisingly snark-less about each other, and thus the only drama in the pilot comes from Diana wavering about her “Spanish” boyfriend, Paul. (Her drawled “Paul has a Maserati” is the show’s one genuinely sexy line so far.) Will their love overcome centuries of nonexistent Russo-Hispanic strife? Nah, she dumps him in a sushi bar.
In other words, Russian Dolls is a wan thing done wanly — which is too bad, because it’s plopped itself right in the middle of a rather fascinating place. Everyone here appears to have been instructed to say things like, “Well, this is life in Brighton Beach!” as often as possible, but the show fatally errs in trying to pass the neighborhood off as some sort of crazy nouveau riche mecca. The real Brighton Beach, of course, is a geriatric community of mostly provincial Ukrainian Jews that Russian-Russians visit to gawk in disbelief. (Imagine if somewhere in, say, Switzerland there were a Catskills enclave, with Cel-Ray soda and live Henny Youngman.) If Russian Dolls had guts or guile, it would have been shot in Moscow; but its creators, at least two of whom are actual Russian-Americans, are more interested in presenting the “Brighton Beach” identity as a stand-alone thing divorced from the old country, like Jersey Shore's guido culture. It’s not, at least not yet. Hell, were the cameras not trained on them, half of the cast wouldn’t be speaking English.
Not that it matters. What makes this kind of show infinitely scalable (Persian, Korean, etc., versions are rumored to be in the works) is that ethnicity, despite being the marquee attraction, is never the point. All of these characters, or at least their edited TV representations, are united beyond origins by one megatrait: poshlost, tackiness, that great Russian word that Nabokov has once assonantly translated as poshlust. The poshlust codes and habitats are the same everywhere: Italian brands’ diffusion lines; marble, brass, and mirrored surfaces; neon-lit restaurants serving grilled shrimp on sticks; and, of course, that lingua franca of global tat, house music. All of the above are in abundant supply here, cut up with moody boardwalk shots. In short, there’s nothing Russian about Russian Dolls. It is, like every reality show ever made, from Tic-Tac-Dough to The Apprentice, about the effects of sudden exposure to money.
It’s surprising, then, that the most poignant, and truest-feeling, part of the Russian Dolls is the most grotesque one. The creators are wise enough to make a character out of Marina’s mother-in-law, a sexagenarian who likes to put on revealing outfits and mortify her family by competing in pathetic seniors’ pageants. Lonely, dotty, and cruelly forced to telegraph her thoughts in bad-enough-to-be-subtitled English, she is the living spirit of Brighton Beach. “I vaz enzhineer in Russia,” she murmurs, in a throwaway line, and you catch a sudden flash of a life truly deserving of examination. Too bad the show is not interested.