Good Cops, Bad Cops

Actors in the Russian "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" take a break during filming. (Vladimir Filonov/MT)
Dec 01, 2006
The Moscow Times

By Carl Schreck

Darya didn't see the traffic cop when she yanked a left after pulling out of the Hotel Ukraina parking lot. It was a blatantly illegal turn, and it was obvious that money would have to change hands if we were to make it to the set on time.

It had been a long time since I'd witnessed the whole process of haggling over a bribe with Moscow's notoriously corrupt defenders of traffic safety. I felt awkward watching from the passenger seat as Darya, the PR represtentative for Studio 2V, begged the cop to let us go with a warning, so I just leaned my head back and closed my eyes while trying to suppress a grin.

We were, after all, on our way to the set of Studio 2V's latest project, a Russian adaptation of the hit U.S. crime show "Law & Order," which NTV plans to beam into living rooms nationwide early next year.

The cop saw no irony in the situation after Darya explained where we were going.

"Maybe you can just pay a small fine on the spot," he said as Darya began rifling in vain through her wallet. She didn't have the cash, so I fronted her 300 rubles -- giving up one of my two 1,000 ruble notes would have been excessive, I felt -- and the cop sent us on our way.

"But no more hooligan behavior!" he ordered, as if to convince himself he was doing his job correctly.

For most Russians, a police force without corruption might sound as implausible as borshch without sour cream, or a legal document without a stamp. But if you tune in next February to watch the Russian adaptation of "Law & Order," don't expect to see Moscow's finest planting evidence, beating confessions out of witnesses or extorting cash out of illegal Tajik workers.

"We have a lot of corruption," said veteran actor Dmitry Brusnikin, who is directing and starring in the adaptation of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," in an interview on the set. "But we don't want to show the whole truth about our police, because we want our police to be better than that."

Brusnikin said, however, that the sketchy aspects of police work would not be entirely whitewashed.

"That wouldn't be realistic," Brusnikin said. "The characters are simply people who love their job and do it honestly. There are such people, and we're telling their story."

When "Law & Order" first appeared on U.S. television in 1990, it stood out from other crime shows because of its two-part format. The first half of each episode featured an investigation where detectives nabbed the suspect, while the second half focused on the legal maneuvers of prosecutors trying to get a conviction. It proved to be a successful formula, and the show is still running today. It also has a number of spinoffs, including "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

The franchise is now going international. A French version is in the works, and Studio 2V is filming Russian adaptations of "Special Victims Unit" and "Criminal Intent," with plans to make 12 episodes apiece.

The producer of the project, Pavel Korchagin, said the U.S. show had been one of his favorites for years.

"I liked it because of the psychological and philosophical aspects," Korchagin said. "They catch the criminals with the help of their brains, not with mindless car chases."

NBC Universal Television, Wolf Films and NTV announced in May that a deal had been inked for Studio 2V and Global American Television to co-produce the show, adapting the original U.S. scripts to the specifics of the Russian justice system.

Rossia television currently airs the original U.S. series in translation in the 3-4 a.m. time slot. But Korchagin said that if earlier Russian viewers preferred foreign series in translation, in recent years they have been increasingly tuning in to domestically produced spinoffs.

With the exception of the "Gilligan's Island"-meets-"X-Files" drama "Lost," which has been broadcast this year with heavy promotion on Channel One, ratings for hit U.S. shows like "Sex and the City," "24" and "The Sopranos" are unexceptional, Korchagin said.

"It's not because the plot lines are bad," Korchagin said. "It's just that they portray a different reality."

In fact, it was the glaring differences between the U.S. and Russian justice systems that prompted the producers to adapt "Criminal Intent" and "Special Victims Unit" rather than the original "Law & Order" -- or the "mother ship" -- said Ed Wierzbowski, president of Global American Television, the co-production partner of Studio 2V.

"We specifically chose those two because the court scenes in those shows are kept to a minimum," Wierzbowski said.

Indeed, U.S. prosecutors would likely drool over the chance to argue their cases in front of Russian judges, who last year acquitted only 3.6 percent of the suspects whose cases they tried, according to Supreme Court statistics. Their chances of obtaining convictions from juries would be a lot slimmer. According to the same statistics, every sixth person tried by a jury last year was acquitted.

Korchagin said the shows would feature both jury and judge trials.

"The more complex cases will be tried by a judge, the less complex ones by a jury," he said.

Both Korchagin and Wierzbowski, however, said that crime was the same anywhere in the world and that they had little difficulty adapting the U.S. scripts.

"The only real changes were the names and places," Wierzbowski said.

In recent years, crime has become to NTV what sensationalist stories like the JonBenet Ramsey murder, to paraphrase Jon Stewart, are to U.S. cable news networks: oxygen.

From "Cops"-like city crime wrap-ups to documentaries about cannibals and the son of serial killer Andrei Chikatilo -- complete with menacing music and comically manipulative camera work -- NTV has made an overt bid to corner the blood-and-guts market, critics say.

"It's hard to say whether there is truly is a demand for such shows among the public, or whether channels are creating the demand themselves by force-feeding crime shows to the public," Kommersant television critic Arina Borodina said.

But actor Ivan Oganesyan, whose detective Andrei Pankratov is based on detective Elliot Stabler from the original "Special Victims Unit," said he hoped the show kept the gore to a minimum. As someone who was on stage when Chechen terrorists seized the Dubrovka theater in 2002 and survived three days in captivity before special forces stormed the building, Oganesyan's distaste for violence is perhaps understandable.

"Now when I hold a gun in my hand, I feel somewhat squeamish," Oganesyan said.

Oganesyan isn't the only actor in the show with a disturbing crime story in his past.

Valery Troshin, who plays senior lieutenant Petya Yevdokimov -- based on the Richard Belzer character Detective John Munch in the original -- said an acquaintance of his in the 1990s turned out to be a serial killer who targeted pregnant women.

"I saw firsthand the investigators who actually nabbed this guy," Troshin said. "Maybe they're our prototypes."

According to a March poll conducted by the Levada Center, 70 percent of Russians are fearful of law enforcement agents, and 45 percent believe those in power use law enforcement to deal with political opponents. But Troshin, like others involved in the project, said police detectives like the ones he and his co-stars are playing are not the object of public distrust.

"People don't trust dishonest traffic cops, dishonest duty officers who might confiscate and resell someone's apartment," Troshin said. "But they trust the ones who do the investigative work, the ones who are out there catching bad guys on the street and saving people."

Brusnikin offered a more blunt analysis.

"Whether you want to or not, if something bad happens, you call the police," he said.

© 2017 Carl Schreck. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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