Russian Dolls

Russian Dolls debuts tonight at 10:32 p.m. Eastern on Lifetime.

In the wake of Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of New Jersey, it was inevitable that America’s reality producers would try to reproduce the winning formula of these shows with a different white ethnic group. The only question was who would be their first victim: Would it be the Massholes, as some have suggested? Or would it be the “Strong Islanders”? Nope, turns out it’s the Russians—because God knows they haven't had enough terrible things happen to them already.

Russian Dolls, a new Lifetime series that follows a group of women living in the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, begins with a montage thoroughly riddled with clichés. It plays like a compilation of outtakes from virtually every reality show that’s aired on Bravo, MTV, or VH1 over the past three years. The bravado and narcissism is the same; just fill in the blank with “Brighton Beach” and “Russian.”

­­­­­­­­­­“            are known for having a good time,” says a peroxide blonde. “There are some real bitches in                   ,” declares another. “I like the finer things,” declares a third, while trying on a fur coat and a humongous diamond ring. As the sequence winds down, the six cast members strut arm-in-arm down the boardwalk, decked out in their flashiest gear. “We are the women of Brighton Beach. Welcome to our community!” The goal of these bombastic 90 seconds is to grab the viewer’s attention, but the sequence actually has the opposite effect; it squelches any curiosity you might have had about the (genuinely very interesting) Russian subculture of New York City.

This is unfortunate, because once the tedious opening is over, things actually get kind of interesting—at least for a while. The first "Russian doll" we meet is Marina, 34, a mother of two and co-owner of Rasputin, “the world’s most famous Russian nightclub.” (We’ll take your word for it, Marina.) Marina likes to be the center of attention and is therefore exasperated with her mother-in-law, Eva, who’s competing in a traditional grandmother pageant. (For the record, this is exactly the kind of reality-show spectacle I can get behind.) Eva performs an adorable belly dance and wins the talent competition, but there's no one from her family there to congratulate her; Marina has already forced her kids and husband to leave. In case you missed it, Marina is The Diva.

Then there’s Diana, a bleach-blonde 23-year-old who likes to hang out at Banya, a Russian bathhouse, with her girlfriends Anastasia, 25, (who looks frighteningly like Paz de la Huerta) and Anna, 22, (who doesn't, thank God) where they talk about babies and boys. She’s dating a guy named Paul who drives a Maserati, which would be more than enough to make him husband material, except for one small thing: He is “Spanish” (a.k.a. “Hispanic”), and Diana’s mom insists the she marry a Russian.  

There’s some intriguing material here, but the story editing is choppy and heavy-handed, and there's almost no attempt to explain the relationships between the various women. (It doesn’t help that the single preview episode made available by Lifetime clocked in at barely 19 minutes long). Diana’s storyline is especially clumsy. Over a sushi dinner with Paul, she alludes to her Russian background no fewer than a dozen times, then proceeds to break up with him because he’s “Spanish.” “Could we get this wrapped up… separately?” she asks the waiter. I only hope the producers compensated Paul with lots of pesatas.

The real problem with Russian Dolls, and shows like it, is not that they’re exploitative; it’s that they reduce fascinating subcultures to boring clichés. Real people are forced into reality-casting pigeonholes—The Bitch, The Diva, The Maneater—and complex social customs are portrayed as just another manifestation of American consumerism, the same in Orange County as they are in Brighton Beach. Obviously, this is not the case. At the risk of sounding like a complete jerk, there's no reason a show can’t be both enlightening and exploitative. Earlier this summer, I was utterly transfixed by My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. There was plenty of gawking at the tacky social customs of Irish Travelers and Roma people in the UK, but the series also provoked sympathy for its subjects: under-educated teenage girls whose bright fantasy wedding gowns contrasted starkly with their miserable, subservient marriages. If only more producers ripped off that show and not The Real Housewives, reality TV could be a lot more interesting.