Russian Dolls: TV Review
Lifetime’s new reality series follows the Russian-American families of Brighton Beach, N.Y.
By now, reality television viewers have learned that if you want to understand a culture, the best thing to do is study its women. From the Mob Wives of Staten Island to the Real Housewives of just about everywhere else, female protagonists have proved the perfect guides into worlds that otherwise would seem impenetrable, be they the bedrooms of organized-crime figures or the country-club banquet halls of the snooty upper crust.
The latest female-led immersion course to hit the airwaves is Lifetime's Russian Dolls, a sassy piece of voyeuristic candy that explores the Russian immigrant community of Brighton Beach, N.Y.
Fittingly, the show begins with a Russian proverb on the screen: "God can't be everywhere, so he created Russian mothers." What follows is a generational dance whose central theme is how much influence Mother Russia should still have on her Americanized children living in Brooklyn.
"I'm dating this guy, Paul," Diana, a 23-year-old platinum blonde, tells the camera with Jersey Shore-esque levels of self-awareness. "Paul has a Maserati." The trouble with Paul, however, is that he's "Spanish" (by that, she evidently doesn't mean "from Madrid"), and her equally blond mother, Anna, doesn't go for Uncle Sam's melting-pot relationships.
"Please don't hurt me," she warns Diana during a borscht-making lesson. "Don't hurt my family."
But, alas, Dolls is no West Side Story, and Diana's dilemma as to whether to dump Paul proves somewhat skin-deep. "I am always judged," she confides to her spray-tanned, frosted-lipstick-covered roommate. "Like, I believe in plastic surgery, I believe in Botox -- I believe in all these things that maybe the way that they were raised, they don't understand it."
The other major conflict in the premiere involves Marina, the middle-aged co-owner of the legendary Rasputin nightclub, who is worried that her belly-dancing mother-in-law will embarrass her at a sexy-grandmother pageant.
"Only young women in bikinis; no old ladies in belly-dancing outfits," Marina tells her friends. "No thank you."
When it comes to jewelry shopping, however, Marina is far less conservative.
"It's not about being flashy -- we work very hard for our success," she says while trying on 11-carat diamond bracelets at a local boutique. "It's about showing it off. That's how it is in Brighton Beach."
Saving Dolls from simply becoming a Jersey Shore also-ran, executive producers Banks Tarver (Mob Wives) and Ken Druckerman (This American Life) have wisely widened the generational focus of the drama. Although Lifetime has been pushing the sex appeal of its younger female protagonists at every opportunity, the real hope for this series lies not with Snooki knockoffs but a deeper exploration of how cultural identity morphs over time.
From watching the premiere episode, it's hard to say whether the reality TV frame will facilitate more than a superficial examination of the issues of gender, class and heritage that might be lurking deep inside the babushka-doll heroines presented here. But if we're going to learn about the Russian immigrant experience, these women aren't a bad place to start.