Leave it to Mother Russia to come up with the most complex nesting doll of a series, a darkly comic tale of suspense and interlocking stories originally produced for Russian TV.
“An Ordinary Woman” reeks of cultural rot and personal corruption, a culture of casual criminality, cheating and lies, all wrapped up in a single “ordinary” Russian family.
And it can be damned funny, in a “Weekend at Bernie’s” way. Prostitution, adultery, drugs, blackmail and murder make for darker than dark comedy.
Marina (Anna Mikhalkova) is a high-mileage 39 year-old who earns that label, “an ordinary woman.” But by that time we hear that we’ve already seen the pregnant Marina get the results from her ultrasound. Her surgeon husband (Evgeniy Grishkovets) is so consumed with work calls that he’s barely there. But the OB-GYN won’t tell her until he hangs up.
“Hydrocelaphalus.” Their unborn son has a birth defect and probably won’t live long, if at all.
This is where the tone for this entire series is set. The news all but rolls off her, and doesn’t floor her husband either. Everybody we meet in this series is unflappable, resigned to the worst. Forget the plot for a moment and bathe in what lives of quiet desperation look like when resignation has set in. In a world of incompetence, cut-rate service, slackers (Nobody is EVER on time.), drunks and juggling jobs, what’s another piece of bad news?
But “ordinary?” Not Marina. She shrugs off the latest expenses of her florist shop, Plan Bs her latest childcare issue with her youngest by corralling her college age daughter Katya (Elizaveta Kononova) and makes a public restroom inspection of her latest recruit for her real business.
Zhenya (Aleksandra Bortich) is beautiful, fresh from the provinces and in need of work. Marina will be her pimp.
“What, you expected a Black guy in a leopard print top,” (in Russian with English subtitles)?
Marina’s husband knows nothing of this, nor does Marina realize Artyom has a chick on the side, a highly strung nurse (Mariya Andreeva) at his hospital, and she’s got…demands.
Daughter Katya is pretty much skipping college and living with her boyfriend at the motorbike garage where he works. When she borrows a bike to cover her tracks with her mother, it gets stolen and now the beau is in hock with a guy who expects a payout.
And then one of Marina’s hookers is murdered in the high end hotel where she helped former hooker Galina (Yuliya Melikhova) land a desk clerk job.
Complicated? You have no idea.
Let’s throw in the attention-starved drama queen of the family. No, not the harridan mother-in-law (Tatyana Dogileva), but Tanya, the eight-year old who thinks nothing of derailing a day or a night with her drama, faked injuries in gymnastics class or growing fury at the idea that a baby is about to steal her spotlight in the family.
How is “an ordinary woman” supposed to deal with, well, a body in a hotel, a murder she can’t let the cops hear about, a family that doesn’t know about her side hustle or a MURDERER (She’s too busy to think of that, for now.)?
There were CCTV tapes in the hotel? Who knows how to erase them?
Katya needs fast cash to get the boyfriend out of a jam. Maybe dealing drugs to the nerd who crushes on her?
And just wait until the alcoholic detective (Darya Saveleva) whose mother has dementia shows up!
It takes some getting used to the way everybody in “An Ordinary Woman” under-reacts to every fresh crisis that threatens to bring the house of cards she or he has built crashing down.
It’s not just Marina’s repeated demand that this or that underling “Use your HEAD” or “BRAIN,” as she expects little pieces of impossible to be dispensed with by other “ordinary” people. Everyone knows how lying works, that putting off a reckoning is the best they can hope for.
We’re looking at an entire nation of people who learned to scramble, lie on the fly, take short cuts and create work-arounds to get by long before the Bolsheviks took over. Problem pregnancy, lost motorbike, body to dispose of, there’s little asking for help and a whole lot of unspoken “I’ve GOT this,” all of it carried out in secret. Nobody shows anybody else their cards.
The award-winning “An Ordinary Woman” makes for TV that bowls you over with almost too much complexity, but draws you in with one instance after another of “How in the hell is she getting out of this?”
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, profanity, alcohol and drug abuse
Cast: Anna Mikhalkova, Elizaveta Kononova, Evgeniy Grishkovets, Aleksandra Bortich, Darya Saveleva, Yuliya Melikhova, Tatyana Dogileva
Credits: Written by Maria Melenevskaya, Denis Utochkin and Aleksandr Sobicheviskiy. Streaming on Topic and Topic.com
Running time: 17 episodes @42-52 minutes each