The Bleak, Nihilistic Show Russians Can’t Stop Watching

The leader of the Universam gang — Marat’s brother, Vova — is also freshly returned from battle, having served in the brutal Soviet-Afghan War. He seems unbothered by what he saw there. None of his peers seem curious, either. This is the show’s aesthetic world: blank to the point of impenetrability. The director, Zhora Kryzhovnikov, rarely lets the camera wander beyond the rectilinear bounds of apartment blocks. The period details are hauntingly precise, but I still have no idea what Kazan actually looks like. The plot is somehow both frenetic and inert.

The show is set in a critical moment. Everyone knows that the Soviet Union is crumbling, but nobody knows what will come next. In one of its few moments of effective irony, Vova muses about the future. “I listened to Gorbachev,” he says. “They say that in a year or two, we will be like America. Or maybe better.” My family left the country in 1989, and I remember the disappointment and humiliation of those years with exceptional clarity. We were all supposed to have VCRs. Instead, gangsterism filled a vacuum left by collapsed institutions. The “Kazan phenomenon” of the ’80s morphed into the Russian mafia of the ’90s, which looted post-Soviet democracy until an exasperated Kremlin handed power to Vladimir Putin, who effectively converted organized crime into a form of government. Today, his worldview, with its fixation on strength prevailing over weakness, is embedded in the national consciousness.

It’s easy enough to dunk on bad Russian TV, but “The Boy’s Word” has something truly rotten at its core: It is a warning about what happens when our ability for moral reasoning becomes so impoverished that the most straightforward response to any situation is to punch somebody in the face. In a withering online review, the critic Platon Besedin wrote, with classic Russian restraint, that the series “could only be demanded by a sick and miseducated society that walks in circles like a tired, sick pony.” American culture is not exempt from similar criticism: We may not have to fight over VCRs, but I doubt that Besedin would regard Street Fighter 6 and “Deadpool & Wolverine” as evidence of a culture on the come up — and if he doesn’t know about “MILF Manor,” let’s not tell him.

In the final scene of “The Boy’s Word,” Andrey is in a prison colony. He is playing the piano, while the boys arrayed before him sing. The scene is tense, controlled but close to unhinged, and may be the show’s best. Andrey is a new man, ready for the new world that he has helped make. He concludes with a glissando, his long fingers sliding across the fingerboard. Then the show ends, and Russia begins.

Alexander Nazaryan writes about culture and politics.

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