My ‘Russian Dolls’: When Reality TV Hits Close to Home

My ‘Russian Dolls’: When Reality TV Hits Close to Home

August 15, 2011 at 5:11 pm

In September, I, a third-generation American, will marry Olga, a Jewish émigré from Ukraine. My fate will be forever tied to her earthy but lovable Russian-speaking family. (Think comical cross-cultural misunderstanding à la “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”)

My "Russian Dolls." My fiancée's Babushka (grandma) and her family watch Lifetime's new reality show, which hits close to home. Photo by Daniel T. Allen.

There’s her father, a moustached bruiser of a guy who drives an Astro minivan and (though I can’t understand all the Russian epithets) apparently swears like a sailor. There’s Nixie, a Miniature Pinscher who yaps every time you come in or out of the house. And Babushka, or grandma, who knows more ways to prepare potatoes than you could possibly imagine.

There’s also yelling. Lots and lots of yelling.

My imminent induction into the Russian-American community made last week’s season premiere of “Russian Dolls,” Lifetime’s newest reality show set in Brighton Beach — Brooklyn’s “Little Odessa” — a matter of personal significance.

“Russian Dolls” follows the melodramatic lives of eight characters who exemplify the stereotypes associated with Russian Americans (a fondness for displaying material assets, for one). The show applies the formula introduced by reality programs like “The Jersey Shore,” “The Real Housewives” series and “Mob Wives” to another, fresher off the boat, ethnic group.

If the mantra of the meat-headed male co-stars of “Jersey Shore” is “gym, tan, laundry,” then it’s “diamonds, furs, Maserati” for the strong-willed mothers and housewives of Brighton Beach.

I proposed to Olga about one year ago and our wedding date is set for early September. This photo was taken a few hours after she said "yes." Photo courtesy of Daniel T. Allen.

After the opening montage, the Brighton Beach waterfront appears onscreen. A title card displays a Russian proverb: “God can’t be everywhere so he created Russian mothers.”

During the pilot episode Michael Levitis, a nightclub owner whose family is central to the show, sends his wife Marina to the jewelry store on a strict budget of $20,000. “This is unbelievable. Where did they find these people?” Olga’s mother asked.


A photo of me and "Russian Dolls" cast-member Diana taken on my iPhone minutes after the show aired. One of the perks of a reality TV show in your community is that you can tell the stars what you think. Photo courtesy of Daniel T. Allen.

“We love the finer things in life,” Marina coos into the camera as she fingers a diamond bracelet.

During a commercial break, my future mother-in-law repeated a Russian proverb that Olga roughly translated as, “one spoiled sheep ruins the flock” or  “a sick lamb ruins the rest.” I’ve never owned a lamb but I get what she means: The cast of “Russian Dolls” makes everyone look bad. “They should tape us, at least they’ll see what real life is like,” she continued. Her father responded sarcastically, in Russian: “Yeah. We eat. We lie down. We watch TV.”

Diana Kosov, 23, another “Russian Dolls” cast member, is a platinum blonde on a mission: “I want to have my first kid at 25,” Diana tells her friends as they sit together at the banya, or bathhouse.  But Diana’s search for a mate hits a stumbling block in the first episode. Her boyfriend is tall, treats her well and drives a Maserati… but he’s Spanish, not Russian. For this community, this is a major taboo.

My future mother-in-law repeated a Russian proverb that my fiancée roughly translated as ‘one spoiled sheep ruins the flock.’ I’ve never owned a sheep, but I get what she means: The cast of “Russian Dolls” makes everyone look bad.

Irina, Olga’s 21-year-old sister, who until this moment had been in a separate room watching the “The Jersey Shore” (very meta), bounded upstairs. Irina can sympathize with this storyline. She’s taken heat from her own mother for dating non-Russians. “Mom, what if I brought a Spanish guy home?” Irina asks her mother, who replies,  “You want to die me right now?[Sic]”

I squirmed in my seat remembering my future mother-in-law’s’  less than chipper reaction when Olga first brought me home. There was a brief period of conflict, but now that I’ve dug in, all parties have declared a permanent ceasefire. The Cold War lasted decades, so I figure we’ve still got some thawing to do.

When Olga’s grandmother was a child, her family trekked from Ukraine to Central Asia to escape the Nazis during the war. She returned to the Soviet Union afterward to live most of her adult life under Communism and raise two children with little help from her ex-husband. What did Babushka think of the show?  “They show life with no problems,” she complained in Russian.


A preview of  Lifetime’s “Russian Dolls.” Click here to watch the first episode in its entirety.

After the credits rolled, we all hopped into the car and drove the few short blocks to Rasputin, the Levitis’ nightclub, where a red carpet premiere party for “Russian Dolls” was in full swing. A crowd had gathered out front. Olga and her sister waited in the car as I ran across the street to check out the scene.

And there she was. Russian Doll Diana, in the flesh, wearing a slinky sequined dress and flowing blonde hair extensions.

One of the perks of a reality TV show in your community and about your community is that you can tell the stars what you think in person.

“I hope you find love in the next episode,” I said to Diana as I walked back to the car to head home. I think she laughed.