Still Married, With Children, but in Russian

MOSCOW, Sept. 9 — Turn on the sitcom that is the hottest television show in Russia, and it all seems so familiar. Moored to his living room couch is a shoe salesman who is more interested in watching sports than conjugal relations. His wife has shocking hair and an even more shocking mouth. A couple of ne’er-do-well teenagers round out this bawdy, bickering bunch.

In fact, the show is an authorized copy of the American sitcom “Married With Children,” with a Russian cast and dialogue but scripts that hew closely to those of the original. This knockoff is such a sensation, especially among younger viewers, that its actors have become household names, and advertisements for its new season are plastered around Moscow.

A drumbeat of anti-Americanism may be coming from the Kremlin these days, but across Russia people are embracing that quintessentially American genre, the television sitcom, not to mention one of its brassiest examples. And curiously enough, it is the Russian government that has effectively brought “Married With Children” to this land, which somehow made it through the latter half of the 20th century without the benefit of the laugh track.

The show’s success says something not only about changing tastes here but also about Russia’s standing. Sitcoms are typically grounded in middle-class life and poke fun at it. The popularity of Russian versions of “Married With Children” and other adaptations of American sitcoms suggests that Russia has gained enough stability and wealth in recent years that these jokes resonate with viewers.

“ ‘Married With Children,’ with its satire on the American middle class, fits the style of our channel well,” said Dmitri Troitsky, a senior executive at the Russian channel TNT, a Gazprom-owned network whose programming bent is roughly similar to that of the Fox network in the United States. “It seemed interesting and topical for us to do a parody on the Russian middle class.”

These days, American visitors in Russia could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon some bizarre realm of reruns. Adaptations of two other shows, “Who’s the Boss?” and “The Nanny,” are also popular here.

All three programs are distributed by Sony Pictures Television International, which has created versions of them and other American programs around the world, often in partnership with local producers. “The Nanny,” which was first broadcast here in 2004, was such a hit that after running out of episodes to copy, some of the show’s original American writers were commissioned to create 25 more episodes, said Ron Sato, a Sony spokesman.

Natalya Bochkaryova and Viktor Loginov star in Russian television’s wildly popular adaptation of “Married With Children.”
Natalya Bochkaryova and Viktor Loginov star in Russian television’s wildly popular adaptation of “Married With Children.”Credit…TNT Network

“Married With Children,” which ran from 1987 to 1997 in the United States, has been renamed “Schastlivy Vmeste,” or “Happy Together.” Its setting has been moved from the Chicago area to Russia’s heartland metropolis of Yekaterinburg. The sniping couple, Al and Peg Bundy, have become Gena and Dasha Bukin.

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The thrust is the same: sending up family life as outrageously — or as vulgarly, depending upon your point of view — as possible.

A typical bit: In the living room, Gena suddenly tells Dasha to take off her clothes. Dasha is elated that Gena finally wants to have sex, and then Gena says, “No, Dasha, I’m simply dying of hunger, and hope that that will take away my appetite.”

Natalya Bulgakova, a spokeswoman for TNT, said the show, which had its debut last year, is now the most popular scripted series among Russians ages 18 to 30. (Older Russians typically roll their eyes at mention of “Schastlivy Vmeste,” as if they briefly wonder whether life under Communism was not so bad after all.)

TNT is owned by Gazprom-Media, which is controlled by Gazprom, the Russian national resources behemoth that is controlled by the government. Asked about the show, Gazprom-Media said in a statement that it did not interfere in its stations’ programming decisions.

While even Americans who do not speak Russian could discern the American roots in “Schastlivy Vmeste,” it is fair to say that many Russian viewers might not. But even Russians who do would seem unlikely to be bothered by the show’s origins.

Russian television has come a long way from the staid, politically tinged fare of Communist times, and these days there are many channels offering a steady diet of movies, dramas, game shows, soap operas and reality shows — some locally produced, some imported and dubbed.

News programs, which are tightly overseen by President Vladimir V. Putin’s administration, are another story. As in Soviet days, they rarely divert from the Kremlin’s point of view. Barbed political satire, which thrived after the fall of the Soviet Union, has been suppressed.

Sitcoms were first broadcast in Russia in the 1990s, when the country was on the brink of economic collapse, but both original sitcoms and copies of American ones achieved poor ratings. People were struggling and seemingly not in the mood for breezy jokes about the lives of the comfortable. Unable to identify with the sitcoms’ characters, Russians instead flocked to dubbed Latin American soap operas.

Only recently, with the economic upturn, has the sitcom taken hold.

“This is probably the last television genre to be adopted in Russia,” said Elena Prokhorova, who studies Russian television and is a visiting professor at the College of William and Mary, in Virginia. They did not work before, she said, because “sitcoms require a very stable social life.”

The producers and actors of “Schastlivy Vmeste” said that while the Russian scripts followed the outlines of the American ones, they had made changes for a Russian audience, fashioning plots around Russian holidays and using sets that better resemble interiors in Russia. Viktor Loginov, who plays Gena Bukin, looks younger than Ed O’Neill, who played Al Bundy, in part because the show is geared toward younger audiences.

They also insisted that the humor was more Russian. “We try to capture the so-called Russian soul so that it will be accepted by our Russian audience, so the character becomes a guy from the street,” said Mr. Loginov, a classically trained actor.

Still, the feel of “Schastlivy Vmeste” seems far more American than Russian. Classic Russian humor tends more toward narrative satire than slapstick.

Though “Married With Children” was something of a shock when it first appeared in the United States, provoking advertiser boycotts, two decades later the Russian version has not stirred a similar reaction. Russian television critics note that, as in much of the world, television here has become home for a lot of relatively coarse fare.

Daniil B. Dondurei, editor in chief of Cinema Art magazine, said he saw a darker significance in the success of shows like “Schastlivy Vmeste.”

“Today, people are becoming accustomed to not thinking about life,” he said. “The television is training them to not think about which party is in Parliament, about which laws are being passed, about who will be in charge tomorrow. People have become accustomed to living like children, in the family of a very strong and powerful father. Everything is decided for them.”

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