Bling And Borscht: 'Russian Dolls' Play Up Stereotypes Lifetime's new television show features the ladies of Brighton Beach living large. But residents of the New York neighborhood known as "Little Odessa" say that this "reality" show is anything but.
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Bling And Borscht: 'Russian Dolls' Play Up Stereotypes

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Bling And Borscht: 'Russian Dolls' Play Up Stereotypes

Bling And Borscht: 'Russian Dolls' Play Up Stereotypes

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JOHN YDSTIE, Host:

Just as celebrities and activists are supplanting news anchors, so-called real people are taking over for actors. Reality shows that dive into American subcultures are all over cable TV, from MTV's "Jersey Shore" to "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" on Bravo. The latest entry in this category is on Lifetime. It's called "Russian Dolls," and it's focused on a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUSSIAN DOLLS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Brighton Beach is the immigrant experience.

WOMAN: It's like another planet.

WOMAN: One square mile of Brooklyn jam-packed with crazy Russians.

YDSTIE: Jesse Baker went to Brighton Beach for a little reality check.

JESSE BAKER: "Russian Dolls" is crammed full of short skirts, short fuses, plastic surgery and gaudy jewelry.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUSSIAN DOLLS")

WOMAN: How many carats in this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Eleven carats of diamonds and it's $28,000.

WOMAN: Gorgeous. Big and blingy and definitely Russian style.

BAKER: The Russian culture you see on "Russian Dolls" is that the women of Brighton Beach hang out in bathhouses all day, drink vodka in Russian clubs all night, and their favorite pastime, talking behind each other's backs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUSSIAN DOLLS")

MAN: Gossip travels in Brighton Beach faster than the speed of sound.

MAN: How do they do it?

MAN: I don't know.

MAN: Do we get those little cups with the string?

MAN: Drama, drama.

MAN: Gossip, gossip - that's how every single Russian girl is.

ELINA MILLER: American popular culture likes to equate Russians with vodka and bears and those furry hats. But we show something a little bit deeper.

BAKER: Something deeper is what Elina Miller, co-creator and co-executive producer of Russian dolls, is looking for. Elina emigrated from Russia as a child and grew up in Chicago. She says the idea behind the show came from a desire to showcase a family on TV that looked like and sounded just like her own.

PA ANNOUNCER: The next stop is Brighton Beach.

BAKER: Brighton Beach is largely a working class community, nestled under a subway trestle, the final resting place of the B train in Brooklyn. It became a stronghold of Jewish emigrants starting in the 1930s and '40s and is now often referred to as Little Odessa because of the heavy concentration of emigrants who fled the former Soviet Union to rebuild their lives. Crgy Arinkin just moved to the U.S. from Kazakhstan and says he sees little resemblance on the show to the community he now calls home.

CRGY ARINKIN: They took brat girls and scandal girls who could make a show.

BAKER: Letters of criticism from Russian-speaking residents have complained about everything from the title of the show to the women in it. Local politicians and residents drafted a letter of protest to Lifetime before the show even premiered, asking the network to stop making ethnic cartoons out of their culture. Slate magazine television critic Troy Patterson understands what the backlash is about.

TROY PATTERSON: I take away that they're a bunch of borscht-eating gold diggers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUSSIAN DOLLS")

WOMAN: It's not about being flashy. We worked very hard for our success. It's about showing it off. It's how it is in Brighton Beach.

BAKER: "Russian Dolls," though, is not the first to paint a not-so-nice picture of Brighton Beach. It's rep on scripted television shows is that it's a haven for the Russian mafia. Take CBS's "Blue Bloods" for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLUE BLOODS")

MAN: (as character) Regean, Brighton Beach. Are you kidding me?

MAN: (as character) Yoskino, the mob boss, his son?

BAKER: A Brighton Beach run by drug lords is the setting for the film "We Own the Night."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WE OWN THE NIGHT")

MAN: (as character) I'm going to be heading up this new narcotic team starting this week. Russian unit out of PSA1 in Brighton.

BAKER: Ylena Mankhnin is the director of the business improvement district in Brighton Beach and says these television shows are just peddling a product the world seems to want to buy.

YLENA MANKHNIN: We do not have museums and landmarks but our culture, which is not talking about brand names and size of diamond. We are nation of Chekhov and Pushkin and Lermontov, that's what I would say.

BAKER: Producer Elina Miller notes she is putting together a reality TV show here.

MILLER: I know that people want us to show the librarians and the nurses and the computer programmers - I've read all of those comments. But that's not necessarily what is interesting to people.

BAKER: Miller says the women of "Russian Dolls" are strong-willed and smart. And it seems they all share a distinctive quality - they're willing to talk behind the backs of their girlfriends, dump their boyfriends and cry on cue in front of the camera. For NPR News, I'm Jesse Baker.

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