With a crazy glint in her eye, Yelena Bogatyreva is lunging full force at fellow contestant Varvara Rade. It is an early November afternoon on the set of the Russian reality show Mama v zakone. Clutching a heavy object, Bogatyreva gives Rade two good whacks on the head but fails to land a third blow, for her opponent fights back, clawing at Bogatyreva’s breasts and screeching like a hyena. Hair-pulling (Bogatyreva) and finger-biting (Rade) ensue, until Bogatyreva is on the floor, kicking Rade in the crotch, exposing both Rade’s cleavage and her own knickers in the process.
It is a strange scene, made stranger still by the women’s age: Bogatyreva, a petite classical music-lover, is 65, Rade is a 52-year-old housewife with frizzy blonde hair. Nonetheless, it is unquestionably real – and exactly the kind of fireworks for which Valery Komissarov, the show’s producer, is famous.
The formula of Mama v zakone – its literal translation is mother-in-law – is simple, but tailor-made for conflict. It is a marriage-oriented dating show, in which 12 young women and seven young men are installed in a house and left to tussle for love, flirting, squabbling and cheating along the way. The twist is that the boys are accompanied by their mothers, the mothers-in-law of the title, who, since the show started airing in October, are proving to be every bit as rivalrous and devious as the youngsters.
Komissarov, who resembles a mustachioed silent film villain, is the godfather of Russian reality television; a man with a history of taking on seemingly benign programme ideas and turning them into Tarantino-esque mega-sagas. A former TV host – and former longtime MP – the 46-year-old got his start as Russia’s Jerry Springer with a talk show called My Family, and soon moved on to the world of reality television, a world where casts of strangers are holed up together on a stage set.
His shows have fist fights and sex scenes that make their counterparts in western Europe look like Sesame Street. My Family featured a running cast of prostitutes; another show, Dom-2, a former porn star hiding her past. Two former Dom-2 contestants were later murdered.
Komissarov hit gold in 2004 when he devised Dom-2, one of the first homegrown reality shows. The programme, which stuffed 20 lusty twentysomethings in a house, became a teen cult hit and one of Russia’s most-watched shows. It is also the longest-running reality show in the world, thanks to airing three-and-a-half hours a day, 365 days a year. But Komissarov now wants to reach not just the kids, but their parents. The ticket to this, apparently, is Mama v zakone.
Though most of the mothers-in-law are over 50, they yell, curse and are not afraid to get physical, as shown by the Bogatyreva-Rade tussle (sparked by a misunderstanding between their sons). The show’s name Mama v zakone is also a play on the Russian vor v zakone, or thief in law – a title usually reserved for mafia godfathers.
Following the formula of Dom-2, Mama v zakone is also what Komissarov calls a “never-ending reality show”. His biggest challenge will be to repeat the success of Dom-2, and is an important test for Komissarov’s reality TV model. While his shows would be shocking anywhere, they stand out especially on Russian television, which, beyond Komissarov’s dark mega-sagas, is dominated mostly by censored state television news and imported American sitcoms. The question is whether viewers are watching Komissarov’s creations because he taps into some deeper truths about Russian culture and society; or because his viewers are the same as reality viewers everywhere and are simply in it for the shock factor.
I first meet Komissarov in a mansion the producers are renting just outside Moscow near the set of Mama v zakone. His office, located on the second floor, is the size of a FTSE 100 boardroom. The room is empty save for his desk and a couple of chairs at one end of the room, and the two photographs that loom above them. One shows the TV man with Vladimir Putin – until earlier this year the producer was also an MP. The other shows Komissarov, a devout Orthodox, with the patriarch, the head of the Russian Orthodox church.
This presents a startling contrast. Komissarov, after all, is a man who cultivates scenes of violence and sex for a living. But the TV producer doesn’t seem bothered by the paradox. His shows, he says, are about exposing society’s virtues and vices and leading people to find the good in themselves.
Komissarov claims his shows, and the moral dilemmas they present, are no different from a classic such as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Tolstoy’s novel, he explains, is a story about a woman who chose money and security over love, but then tried to reverse the decision; a choice that led to her becoming a fallen woman who ultimately commits suicide. “Women, reading this, often have the same issues. And they make the right choice to get out of strange situations,” says Komissarov. “With reality shows, these kinds of situations come up every day. Thank God, no one is throwing themselves under a train.”
Maybe not, but Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian socialite and longtime host of Komissarov’s Dom-2, recalls the incident on the show when a former porn star was exposed – during her on-screen wedding. The revelation sent the groom-to-be, a fellow contestant, running for the hills and the woman threatening on air to commit suicide (she didn’t).
Sobchak swears the producers had no way of foreseeing this: “You can’t look through all the porno tapes out there,” she says matter-of-factly. “This is what we should show, this is life … A lot of people, unfortunately, recognise themselves in these heroes. To say that these people do not represent us, that this is not our life, would be hypocritical.”
Andrey Kurpatov is a psychologist who has worked with contestants on reality shows, including Russia’s version of The X Factor, and has hosted a therapy-oriented talk show, Dr Kurpatov. He is no fan of Dom-2, but he accepts that, by putting a range of minor to serious mental issues on display, the programme has brought greater understanding to personal and domestic problems that a decade ago were not talked about publicly in Russia.
“Dom-2 created a social model of more openness, more freedom in the discussion about intimacy,” he says. There is still no sex education in Russian schools, while most Russians, he says, were not raised to have these types of frank personal conversations outside the home.
“I can’t say it is a show that television should be proud of,” says Kurpatov. “But I also can’t say that television viewers don’t need a show like it. It opens the eyes of adults … for young people it’s an opportunity for a kind of social education.”
For Alexander Novikov, a respected Russian sociologist, the fascination of Mama v zakone lies in its attempt to examine the post-Soviet generation gap between the coddling, Soviet-reared mothers and their independent-minded prospective daughters-in-law.
“Today’s generation of girls won’t treat their sons and husbands they way the mothers do,” predicts Novikov. “In Russia today a young woman understands that she can work, be successful, earn money and achieve more than just finding a man.”
Most of the contestants on Komissarov’s shows don’t look like potential case studies when they arrive. The girls are unfailingly pretty and curvaceous – gym trainer, stripper and model are typical professions – and the Mama v zakone mothers are initially composed and well-intentioned. Yet within a matter of days, it is as if a switch is flipped and they become classic Komissarov characters, exploding and screeching.
“When people ask me, ‘Why do you pick so many idiots?’, I know that I have done my job correctly,” says Komissarov. “First of all, I don’t think of them as idiots. And second of all, it means that people are making an evaluation.”
Sobchak is more philosophical. The cast members, she says, are more like us than we would like to admit. “People all play roles … but then eventually everything comes out and they forget there are cameras. They become us.”
Three weeks before Rade’s brouhaha with her rival, I sit down with her on the Mama v zakone set. It is two days after my meeting with Komissarov and I’ve been given free rein to wander around the show, mingling with the cast members and becoming a part of the social experiment myself, thanks to the scores of cameras on the set.
Ploughing around the house where she lives with the other six mothers, Rade – a solid woman whose eyes bulge when she gets angry – is in high spirits and doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who would resort to finger-biting or hair-pulling. Indeed, she is starting to show a soft spot for her prospective daughters-in-law.
“The first day I came here, I sat down next to the girls and talked to them … and the first thing I said about them was that they were all idiots,” she says with a laugh. “Now I feel completely differently. I’m in love with almost all of them.”
Alexander Rastorguev, chief editor of Mama v zakone, says Rade and her son Igor were the first family cast for the show, and that Rade is his favourite character. Even though the show would go on to paint a more humiliating portrait of Rade, Rastorguev – like his boss – argues that the programme is actually doing her and the other mothers a service by allowing the older women – and the viewers – to see that they are not so different from these attractive young girls who are half their age and a world apart.
“You’re 40 years old, you have two children, you’ll be on a pension, no one needs you, you’re an invalid. And we’re saying: ‘What are you talking about? You’re only 40. You can come and feel equal to these young girls.’”
It is almost a half-noble thought, yet it doesn’t seem to be Rastorguev’s driving motivation. He has worked with Komissarov since the early days of Dom-2, but his background is not in television, it’s in literature: Rastorguev used to be a philologist specialising in literature of the avant-garde.
Sitting in the control room where he and a dozen colleagues monitor more than 50 cameras as they plot out how to shape the narrative, Rastorguev laments the decline of the traditional arts in Russia during the past 20 years.
“The theatre died,” he says. “Traditional television series will, too.” For him, the genre represents a new form of Russian art, a celebration of real-life proletarian characters and a bridge between modern Russia and its great literary and artistic tradition. He even quotes Chekhov when trying to describe one of the Mama v zakone contestants, a leggy dim-witted brunette from Kiev.
“On Dom-2, ordinary people become the main heroes of primetime and speak in an ordinary language, which no one was speaking in on television before,” says Roman Petrenko, CEO of Dom-2’s network TNT. When it first aired, Dom-2 was a greater shock from an artistic point of view than the actual content, he argues. Sobchak agrees, pointing out that people working in film and theatre watch Dom-2 to get a better sense of real dialogue, and of how real people act.
While most viewers may not be looking for these sorts of nuances when they watch Komissarov’s shows, it is undeniable that they are drawn to a different type of reality TV than their UK or US counterparts. When Endemol, the world’s largest independent production company, started distributing reality TV formats in Russia, it soon found it had to alter some of its western formats for Russia.
In the US and UK, for instance, viewers loved Wipeout for the funny ways in which contestants messed up on the show’s obstacle courses. In Russia, the name of the show was changed to Cruel Game and focused less on the pratfalls. Viewers were more interested in the mini-dramas between the contestants, says Marina Williams, head of Endemol’s central and Eastern European division.
“That’s just the nature of Russian people – they are very emotional,” says Williams. “We were brought up on classical literature which made us think very deeply about the quality of relationships between people and I think it stayed in the blood.
“I don’t think Americans tend to dramatise as much as Russians. Reality TV is more entertainment than an emotional experience there.”
Komissarov insists that he now knows the reality TV genre better than his American predecessors – can any US reality producer take credit for filling three-and-a-half hours of network programming every single day? – and thinks US audiences will love Mama v zakone. With that in mind, in the week of our interview he flies to New York to meet US TV executives. A decade after Big Brother was brought from the west to Russia, Komissarov wants to bring the west, or at least the US, Mama v zakone.
Some may believe that the producer’s shows tap into the Russian soul. But Komissarov himself thinks reality show viewers are the same everywhere and are simply looking for two things: a moral and an escape. “People brush their teeth? Why? They are cleaning them of bacteria,” he says. “Just the same, you need to clean your soul so that you’re not thinking about the end of the world, all that’s horrible about politics, finance. You need to find an exit from your little world to make it better … Can you fix the eurozone? The world … ? We cannot … the whole world is garbage.”
It’s a world view that cheerleading Wipeout-loving Americans might find a little hard to stomach. But if anyone can sell it to them, it’s Valery Komissarov.
Courtney Weaver is a reporter in the FT’s Moscow bureau. To comment on this article, please email email@example.com