As more audiences discover Svetlana, the immediate reference point will likely be, “Curb Your Enthusiasm from the perspective of a Russian émigré-turned-brothel madam.” Which, on its own, would not only be somewhat accurate (the show’s titular star/writer/director, Iris Bahr, famously played Larry’s Orthodox-Jew nemesis, Rachel Heinemann, on a multi-episode Curb arc), but also sound kind of amazing. And Svetlana is kind of amazing. It’s also, without exception (unless, of course, you take exception), the funniest and most original new comedy that’s made it to broadcast since the turn of our most recent decade. Unfortunately, HDNet—yes, the network overseen by Dallas Mavericks owner and sometime Entourage cameo-artist Mark Cuban—isn't yet available all major cable providers (damn you, Time Warner and Cablevision), but the show goes out of its way to have a viral presence and make its half-hour episodes available online, so get streamin’, folks.
Svetlana is just the latest in a string of characters that enviably accomplished Bahr has created, lived in and perfected for theater, film and television, including the aforementioned Heinemann and the 11 roles she embodied for her acclaimed one-woman play, Dai. She’s also an escaped mail-order bride who runs a “whorehome” in L.A. dubbed St. Petersburg House of Discreet Pleasure, which sounds even funnier every time Bahr announciates it on-screen. Svetlana shares residence with her "daughters" (i.e. in-house prostitutes) Natasha, Anya and Marina, and her bumbling slacker husband Vlad, who physically resembles the figure of Russian masculinity but demonstrates the backbone of a kitten with scoliosis.
What separates Svetlana from kindred spirits/influences such as Curb is that it’s heroically low-budget, possessing none of a premium channel’s slick production or precise inter-story editing. Much of the actual comedy is clearly improvised, but it’s a testament to just how funny Bahr and her regular ensemble—which also makes room for cred-assuring guest turns from Thomas Lennon, as Svetlana's former partner in Russian gymnastics and the bedroom, and none other than Justified Chief Deputy Nick Searcy—are that the show only infrequently drags in spots out of reliance on virtually every exchange concealing a punchline in the neckline of its fishnet midi dress.
And even measured against David’s confrontational raunch, Svetlana is wildly and hilariously explicit, with Bahr and her crew tossing around more fucks, pussies, balls, dildos, cocks, 69s and rimjobs than in your average Real Sex segment about elderly tantric workshops. (One late-Season 1 scenario, for example, was predicated on a competitive "Fuckdown" between Natasha and a rival prostitute named Crystal Meth that gloriously toiled in maximum gratuity.) Bahr is absolutely fearless in this role, and quite apparently brought Svetlana to HDNet fully developed, from the Jiminy Glick-on-'ludes pitch shifts of her Russian accent to most episodes’ oddly demanding sexual-physical comedy. (There is never outright nudity or sex, but there are countless compromised positions, tacky boudoir outfits and, in one memorable instance, a hysterically un-simulated and ill-fated shower groping between Svetlana and Vlad.)
But the show is also unexpectedly warm. Yes, its premise is absurd, but since its premiere last May, Bahr has found a supportive, caring, good-natured rapport between Svetlana and her unconventional "family" when they're not conducting business. One of the finest little moments in tonight's “Me Love You Decent Amount of Time” comes when Natasha offers Svetlana a pink feather boa as consolation for her missing Jimmy Choos, and rather than toss her slightly airheaded daughter a sitcom-y expression of frustrated disbelief, Svetlana considers, mutters “Oh, oh OK” and wraps it around her neck with nonchalance before resuming her tangent. It was almost The State-esque in its tossed-off innocence.
Season 2's debut first picks up at the suburban ranch Svetlana had recently occupied
after being forced out of her prior address. A suspicious new Asian neighbor, posing as a comically diminutive member of the neighborhood watch, is asking one too many questions about St. Petersburg House of Discreet Pleasure (see, still funny). Eventually, with the help of her redneck pimp friend Buster (Searcy), Svetlana outs the woman as a competitor madam who’s stealing all of her business. Naturally, this leads to a stakeout and eventual showdown that somehow reaches its, er, climax with Svetlana disguised as something resembling a professorial Charlie Chaplin, battering a
leather-clad, martial-artist Asian hooker with multiple floppy black dildos.
Meanwhile, on the whorehome front, Svetlana has dispatched her gay bff Jared (Sam Pancake, also best known for a recurring part in Curb, as Larry’s taunting victim in the notorious “C Word” episode) to uncover whether Vlad is a closet homosexual, after she discovered him dancing alone in women’s clothing and makeup. Pancake makes the most of his return appearance, carrying a secondary storyline that never quite naturally meshes with its counterpart (Bahr is only one woman, after all), although it does give us the distinct pleasure of Jared challenging Vlad’s hetero willpower with strategically placed gourds, pitiful reverse psychology and, as the coup de attempted conversion, unzipped simulation of doggystyle anal sex.
Still, for all its shock value and willingness to constantly one-up itself by stacking the physicality of a bit, and despite its occasional struggle to balance and find purpose for more intricate plotting, Svetlana is consistently laugh-out-loud funny because of Bahr’s seeming directive for her cast to eke out the humor in every line of dialogue, regardless of tact, taste or personal boundaries. Which weirdly makes her sound like a dictator. Of the most hilarious country ever.
• As a Jewish man who easily crushes for dorky, cute, witty brunettes, I can safely assure you that spending a few hours with Bahr/Svetlana will finally get you over that long-standing Sarah Silverman fixation.
• “Do I look like Heidi Klum? Am I married to Seal? Do we like his scars?”
• Vlad, while in hot pants and smeared makeup: “I’m trying to get in touch with my feminine side.” Svetlana, half-dressed in her stakeout ensemble with a look of charmed dumbfoundedness: “You’re barely in touch with your masculine side.”
• It’s too bad Natasha and co. didn’t have more to do in this episode, but hey, as I said earlier, Bahr is only one woman with modest resources. You try working a dozen characters into 22 minutes. You have done that? Oh, well, nevermind then.
• “A tiny little cup, just so.”
• “Inspector Gaydget.” Need I say more?