March 20, 2018

Method Acting

Method Acting

To improve my ear for the spoken language, my Russian tutors over there and my Freshman English college students here in New York all suggested the obvious: watch Russian TV.

Why I didn’t heed them is one of those mysteries about ourselves. I had reasons but no good reasons. After all, I remembered sitting alone in Petersburg, Moscow and Yasnaya Polyana hotel rooms enjoying any non-news show I clicked on. Watching CSI-like shows, soccer or hockey and The Office-like sit-coms was fun and probably educational: no subtitles. I paid close attention and parroted phrases I recognized. But when I returned to New York, никогда! Never! ... Until last fall.

I’ve already written about the slick and attractive but far-fetched detective show Нюхач (“The Sniffer”) on Netflix. Now I turn to an actual smitten-worthy show, probably already well-known to Russian-TV watchers: 2011’s Метод Лавровой (Lavrova’s Method), or as it is absurdly titled in its Amazon Prime translation: “Madame Detective,” about a criminology class taught by a young blond knockout in the Moscow police academy. She teaches by engaging her students in on-going cases, which “method” takes advantage of and challenges their eagerness and naivete, as well as dangerously or comically overwhelming them.

In brief, Katya Lavrova (Svetlana Khodchenkova) retired or took a leave of absence from her job as a police detective because of a mistake, a hesitation, involving her no-good older half-brother, which resulted in the near-fatal wounding of her partner and best buddy, Mikhail (Misha) Chiglintsev, played by Dmitriy Blokhin, who, I’m prepared to swear, with his sad eyes, depthless soul and kindly manner, is a better actor than the great Daniel Day-Lewis. Despite Lavrova not officially working anymore as a detective, she consults with Misha on his cases and generally takes them over. Misha just can’t help deferring to her.

I enjoy Lavrova despite her frostiness, despite her primness, despite her sharp tongue and impatience with everyone: her students, her roommate, the countless suspects and even her mother. I admire her careful weighing of clues and her explications of them with her class, though she has the uncanny inability to detect that short, stocky, dough-faced Misha is madly in love with her and would die for her. But in Season 1, nobody else, not even her hunky lawyer boyfriend, nor nebbish ex-husband, nor her crew of hormone-rich students, notice Misha’s love of her either. It’s only we viewers who have to sympathize with him and sigh when Lavrova ruffles his hair or teases him as if he were a neutered bear.

At first I thought her wayward crew of students, all of whom were on the verge of dropping out of the academy before she took on the course, were props, the laziest of stereotypes. But the show creators did not choose for us to know them before Lavrova got to know them, or before they got to know one another. They’re all attractive puppies: feisty, affectionate, moody, moony, sensitive and playful.

The 20-episode Season 1 has so many light and funny moments that your hard-earned yet unfair prejudices about Russian stolidity and humorlessness will dissolve like sugar in hot tea. (Anyway, mine did.)

In the second and final season (2013), which is available, but without subtitles on YouTube, there seems to have been an attempt to spice it up and speed it along, and that’s a shame. One of the show’s attractions is its lack of hurry. (In Season 1 some of the mysteries take four episodes to solve.) Her class reminds me of my favorite classes, both decades ago when I was a student and now as a professor in a Brooklyn community college. In a classroom with good chemistry, it feels as if we have forever.


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