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Glasnost to Glass House

Russian reality show has contestants shedding clothes and cavorting before millions, raising questions about moneymaking and decency on state TV.

November 24, 2001|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Twenty-six cameras track them 24 hours a day, from the shower to the exercise room and into their rumpled beds (why don't they ever make them?), where goateed Maxim tries to convince strawberry-blond Olga that going all the way in front of millions of viewers is part of the job.

"Easy for you to say," she answers breathily as he tries to detach the microphone strapped to her back. "You're a boy. Can you just imagine what people are going to call me?"

Although they are in the dark in an otherwise empty bedroom, they know that all of Russia--not to mention Ukraine, the Baltics and parts of Central Asia--can see whatever they do through the magic of infrared photography.

Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. But six young people in a glass apartment close to Lenin's tomb are tossing Russia a few questions: What are the limits of moneymaking and good taste on the country's heavily commercialized but mainly state-controlled television networks? And when does reality degenerate into raunchiness?

For a chance to win their own apartment, a commodity that almost no twentysomething Russian could afford without help, three men and three women have been baring their souls--and more--in a thrice-daily series called "Behind the Glass." It's Russia's first foray into reality TV.

Since it began Oct. 27, the show has become wildly popular, drawing 50% of the television audience in Russia some nights, its producers say. They suggest that viewers are watching because it provides a window into the minds of a new generation and shows what kind of society Russia has become.

Bunk, snort the critics. "This is a gimmick aimed at making money, and that's all there is to it," said Vladimir Pozner, a noted television commentator and analyst.

The series also has been criticized by the Russian Orthodox Church ("very dissolute" and potentially "ruinous" to viewers) and the country's Islamic mufti ("a propaganda of lechery.") At least one moral-revival movement has appealed to the Mass Communications Ministry to have it banned from the airwaves.

What sets "Behind the Glass" apart from reality TV serials in the West is the willingness of the participants to shed their clothes for the unseen cameras, a tactic they seem to believe is the surest way to the hearts of viewers. When the show airs Dec. 1, the public will vote to award the apartment to one couple from among the participants. The losers, who are voted off as they go along, get nothing aside from celebrity and small bonuses they can earn during the program through assigned tasks.

In the first two weeks, viewers witnessed Sasha sudsing Margarita in a shower segment that lasted nearly 20 minutes, Olga and Margarita lying atop each other and kissing ferociously, Denis awkwardly declaring his love for Olga, Maxim and Olga making out in bed and Denis walking in on them. The nudity and steamy (literally, in the case of the shower) scenes are concentrated in the segment that airs after 11 p.m.

When at last Maxim reached his amorous goal--with Margarita not Olga--the Obshchaya Gazeta newspaper called it "an epoch-making event." Komsomolskaya Pravda's headline announced: "Max and Margo Finally Did IT."

Only Janna, a pouty, dark-haired contestant of Armenian descent, has eschewed being drawn into the general sexiness. But that has not seemed to hurt her. She was kept on the program while the spicier Olga was voted off.

So far, the acme of drama on the show has been Sasha's agonized decision to leave after learning that his real-life girlfriend was angered by his splashing around with Margarita. He says that the shower incident was platonic and that his relationship with his girlfriend was more important than winning an apartment.

"It was the decision of a man," producer Grigory Lyubomirov said approvingly, although he added that he liked having Sasha on the show.

Sasha was replaced by muscle-bound Anatoly, who arrived with a cake and a bottle of champagne for his new roommates. More recently, however, the relationship between the newcomer and the rest seems to have soured. One day--encouraged by the producer, whose disembodied voice gives provocative instructions from time to time--they declared Anatoly their "slave."

Not a Pretty Picture of Russian Youth

In general, the six have not supplied a very flattering portrayal of Russian youth. They have been listless and sloppy, have read little, shuffled around, and have few evident convictions or goals. Yet there is something faintly touching about them, caught in a surreal situation, trying their best to be engaging.

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