Perfecting 'Strangers' with a Russian twist


MOSCOW -- Warner Bros. is on a roll in Russia with a local version of its 1980s TV hit "Perfect Strangers," featuring two local actors playing reincarnated versions of the show's original central characters Larry and Balki -- but with the new monikers of Andrei and Ivan.

This is a distinctly Russian version of the U.S. evergreen comedy that aired on ABC from 1986-93, starring Mark Linn-Baker as Larry and Bronson Pinchot as Balki. But the local actors playing the leads were diligent about studying their American counterparts' performances before hitting their marks.

Artem Semakin, who plays Andrei (and is known to Russian audiences for his role in CTC comedy "Born Ugly"), says during a pause in the frantic production pace on the Russian set, "The American actors have that accuracy which is so necessary in a sitcom: accuracy of tempo and pauses."

Ivan is played by Anton Eldarov, who also is well known to Russian audiences from his role in military drama "Soldaty" (also on Ren-TV). "We simply show what goes on between two guys, one with a Moscow psychology, the other with a provincial outlook," he says. "Two 'grotesque' types -- exactly the same ethos as the U.S. series."

Already in its second month on air, "Perfect Strangers" -- or as Russian audiences know it "Brat'ya po-raznomu" is off to a promising start with a respectable 5% audience share.

The show is being made under a deal in which WBITV has partnered with entertainment channel CTC -- Russia's fourth-largest national broadcaster -- and Amedia, one of its leading TV production houses, to produce the formats.

And this is just the beginning for Warner Bros. International Television as it heads east in a scripted format deal with the Russians that will see its popular sitcoms "Suddenly Susan," "Step by Step" and "Full House" go Cyrillic.

"Perfect Strangers," which airs five nights a week on Ren-TV with daytime repeats, is down for 50 episodes, though its Moscow producer Dmitri Mileshin believes options for further episodes are likely to be taken up.

"The time has come for these sorts of sitcoms on Russian television; viewers enjoy the humor, and they are shows all the family can watch and relax with," says Mileshin, a large, affable and bearded man. "We think the initial 50 episodes will be extended -- there are options to continue in chunks of 26 -- because its already getting the ratings and is popular with viewers."

But Mileshin is at pains to emphasis how different the Russian version is. "We've kept the essence -- the dramaturgy -- but some 70% of the episodes have been completely rewritten," he says. "Russian audiences don't understand American jokes, and a lot of detail needed to be changed. But Hollywood is the world's master factory for television, and we can learn a lot from each other," he says, adding that WBITV executives were "intrigued" by the Russian approach to fine-tuning the show.

Four or five pilots of the Russian version were filmed before they were screened to a range of focus groups. Recordings of the laughter -- and timing between gags -- were then used to tweak the pace and rate of the comedy.

Down on the set at Amedia's sprawling new Media City studios, housed in a vast old former ball bearing factory, the good humor and buzz are much in evidence.

Director Roman Fokin -- donning a red T-shirt with an image of President Vladimir Putin on the front and the gag "dobrogo putina" -- a word play on the Russian for "safe travels" (dobrogo puti) and the president's surname -- is dashing about between takes working at getting just the right expressions of adulation from the young female extras.

Like many young directors and artists working in Russian television, his background is in KVN -- Klub Vesyolykh I Nakhodchivykh -- university comedy clubs similar to Britain's famous Cambridge Footlights.

"Andrei and Ivan are like chalk and cheese -- they have virtually nothing in common except they are distant relations," Folkin says. "But both want to try their best and are forever repeating, 'We are, after all, brothers,' which adds to the irony and comic situations."

With a tight shooting schedule -- three 26-minute episodes are shot every week, with an average day's shooting getting 12-13 minutes in the can -- Fokin has little time for reflection.