January 17, 2005

The Joys of Russian Television

Two years ago, when I arrived in Moscow for the first time, I was surprised to discover that the TV show Alf was much more popular in Russia than it was in America. One of Moscow's more popular channels aired the show every weekday evening, if I'm not mistaken, and then launched a day-long Alf marathon on a Saturday in September. When I saw the sorts of culture that America was exporting, I had to shudder at the fate of Western civilization.

Ever since then I've found it oddly intriguing to see which American movies and TV shows are aired on Russian TV. WB shows seem to be popular--you can often watch Charmed or Smallville on weeknights--and there's always a bad American movie being shown. Since I've arrived, I've seen parts of The Cable Guy, The Bachelor (starring Chris O'Donnell), Serendipity, Six Days Seven Nights, and Anna and the King. The last of these movies is inoffensive enough, I suppose, but I'd never dream of watching any of the other movies if they weren't being shown in another language. (Fun fact: in Russian, the title of Serendipity is translated as Intuition. Robert Merton would be intrigued!)

I've often wondered whether the bad movies shown on foreign TV have a distorting effect on international views of the U.S., but until this weekend, I never had any evidence for this theory. Then, on Saturday, I met an American grad student who--like me--lives in an apartment with a khoziaika, an older woman who owns a multiple-bedroom apartment and rents out one of the rooms to a foreigner. This woman apparently has some interesting ideas about U.S. popular culture. She's a huge fan of the actor Eric Roberts, for example, and is convinced that he's a big star in America. (All I know about him is that he's the much less successful brother of Julia Roberts.) She even knows his movies, and was determined to watch The Cable Guy because he appears in it! Roberts apparently appears in the movie for only a moment, but this woman apparently believed that this was because he was a famous actor making a cameo, not because he was a failed movie star taking a small role in a horrible movie. She was delighted, moreover, to have the chance to see him once again.

I wouldn't attach too much significance to the pop culture preferences of a 60-something Russian widow, of course. But I just can't help wondering: many people in foreign countries detest the pop culture exported by America, and consider the U.S. a corrosive force in the world of culture. Should we really be surprised, if what many foreigners see on TV are cat-eating aliens and third-tier Jim Carrey movies?

Posted by Ed at January 17, 2005 02:24 AM

I appreciate this peep into Russian life, but why must you use your bully pulpit to take cheap shots at an American icon? Let's face it: In 100 years, people will look back and realize that Alf was one of the great cultural achievements of the 1980s. It redefined the possibilities of the sitcom, which had become stale and predictable (just try watching an episode of Taxi or, God help you, Mork and Mindy), by daring to put an unpleasant, wisecracking monster at the heart of the show. Without Alf, it's safe to say, there could be no Seinfeld. Plus, that girl Lynn? She was hot, man.

Posted by: Willie at January 18, 2005 10:08 AM

You say "I wouldn't attach too much significance to the pop culture preferences of a 60-something Russian widow, of course."

Why not?

Posted by: Wendy Writer at January 20, 2005 03:10 PM

They have the whole library to pick from, that cat eater is chosen for a Russian reason. With Japanese culture the flow is strongly bidirectional, so we can learn about ourselves from our choices our of their shows, and them by looking at what they pick and reject.

Posted by: Ripper at January 20, 2005 05:45 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?