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Not just Chernobyl: how New East TV turned to the dark side, with a little help from HBO

Not just Chernobyl: how New East TV turned to the dark side, with a little help from HBO

In the wild 90s, Eastern European audiences fell for the charms of Western trash culture. Today, following financial crisis and depopulation, TV viewers want a darker reflection of the times. Enter HBO Europe.

26 June 2019
Top image: HBO Europe

When I was a child in the 1980s, during the terminal phase of communist Poland, two convictions dominated: that the dysfunctional system must go; and that anything from the West — whether third-class action cinema or spaghetti westerns — was better than even the highest-end Polish cultural produce. The hunger for Western goods was overwhelming. The black market for trashy Western productions ruled supreme, and everyone I knew was absolutely convinced that domestic TV and cinema were a priori terrible.

In the post-communist 90s, people wanted to finally consume, whether that meant hamburgers or the lesser works of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I remember my grandmother shouting across the room for me to turn over from “that terrible Polish series about the war to Dynasty” — together with The Bold and the Beautiful, many Poles’ new favourite series, a demonstration of what life in America/the West was supposed to look like.

Of course, in Poland as in other post-communist countries, notably Russia, some directors did insist on the less glamourous side of capitalism, showing what making huge amounts of money quickly tends to mean in practice. But for every Alexey Balabanov or Władysław Pasikowski film, there were many more saccharine-sweet, soap-style productions about and for the newly-forming middle classes (and those who aspired to join them). Here, rich people were mostly noble and untroubled by annoyances like work. Social pessimism might have struck a chord at prestigious film festivals, but when it came to what the masses really watched, the Eastern European 90s were presented completely unrealistically.

Fast forward to the 2010s. Financial crisis, deindustrialisation, and neoliberal economics prompt migration from Eastern European countries as soon as EU accession allows it. This brain drain has left large swathes of countries like Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary depopulated. Correspondingly, so-called “post-Soviet chic” has become the conventional Western way to represent the post-industrial decay of Eastern Europe.

Read more HBO’s Chernobyl tells a version of Soviet history that’s vital for both Russia and America

At the same time, “prestige TV”, often delivered via subscription channels or, increasingly, on streaming services, has replaced the 90s obsession with soaps, to the extent that binging hit series has become an obligatory way of keeping up with the zeitgeist. Dramas such as The Wire, The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad are much more sociologically sophisticated than their predecessors, presenting neoliberal politics and organised crime as joint ventures. Their protagonists live in rotten realities where crime offers individuals the chance to overcome hostile economic conditions.

Now, these trends have converged. In recent years, American prestige TV kingmakers HBO (via their transatlantic subsidiary HBO Europe) have released a number of dramas set in Eastern Europe, shot in coproduction with local talent, in which contemporary capitalist reality is finally presented unflatteringly. Chernobyl has been the most visible success story from HBO’s post-communist turn, dipping back into the Soviet past and a world-historical tragedy to keep viewers hooked. Its success, and the column inches subsequently dedicated to it, have drawn attention away from the channel’s other New East productions, which recognise that we needn’t look back into the bad old days to find plentiful cynicism and hopelessness.

Below are four series that demonstrate how Western resources are helping Eastern European artists to reflect on their own post-communist fates. Of course, there are major downsides to this approach — there is a flattening effect, with the diversity of the region replaced by a series of tropes and simplifications designed to appease international audiences. Many of these shows follow a formula familiar from other European hits, like Denmark’s The Killing: make everything as dark as possible, put the stomach-churning murder of a woman at the heart of the drama, and scandalise the keeping-up-appearances community. That these shows are refreshingly pessimistic for the region suggests it’s easier to criticise capitalism in a foreign-financed production than a domestic one. But when scriptwriters and directors work for investors like HBO Europe, they have to conform to international fashions — the double-edged sword of globalised cultural production.

Wasteland, Czech Republic

This 2016 drama is a highly unusual take on the capitalist aftermath and the death of community. The hopelessness of post-communist transition is shown via the example of a border village (the border happens to be with Poland, which bizarrely is presented as a land of opportunity), where almost everyone despises everyone else. The whole thing looks as if directed by Béla Tarr, and makes Twin Peaks look like It’s a Wonderful Life by comparison. The former coal-mining village is called Pustina, or the titular “wasteland”, which is an apt description of this cemetery of the socialist past, where solidarity has been buried along with the natural habitat.

The main narrative catalyst in Wasteland is class conflict. The central figure — with whom we are presumably supposed to identify — is the female mayor, a noble, hardworking member of the intelligentsia. She is trying to save the village from a Polish oligarch, who wants to buy out the inhabitants and then finally destroy the community. But this place has been dead for a long time, drowned in mutual envy, and the noble mayor, with her nice home and cultural capital, is the most loathed of all. The show displays an admirable concern with misogyny as a persistent social pathology, but it is class that proves to be the final threshold here. Poor people are shown to be greedy and primitive for wanting material stability, which somewhat proves the point that social class has become the most significant demarcation line in the formerly-socialist East.

Golden Life, Hungary

Imagine a world where people took Dynasty so seriously that they were still trying to revive decades later. Golden Life, based on a Finnish show, is a compelling family gangster drama that first aired in 2015 and is now on its third series. Reminiscent of Gomorra in its close look at organised crime-as-business, it takes us to the posh suburbs of Budapest, depicting the life of small-time gangster Attila, who, after years of cheating, stealing, and killing, has a nice home, a trophy wife, and two bored kids. He wants to retire, but his thuggish boss and his demanding spouse won’t let him. While they often provoke revulsion, these characters are fully fleshed-out; we understand the sense of humiliation that comes with constantly needing to affirm one’s status. Attila’s wife, humiliated by the upper-class women on her aspirational estate, is particularly striking. Aren’t we all constantly pretending to be more perfect than we really are?

Success, Croatia

Directed by Danis Tanović, the only Bosnian to win an Oscar (for the excellent war satire No Man’s Land), this biting new thriller brings together four disparate characters: a young father down on his luck, a teenage cynical girl, a bored lawyer, and a jaded architect-businessman, all of whom are somehow involved in the murder of a local mafioso’s violent son. Over the course of the series, presented as a mock motivational promotion on how to gain the titular “success” in late capitalist post-Yugoslavia, the set-up evolves into a fast-paced take on class inequalities and corruption — especially the role of real estate in whitewashing organised crime in the New East. This is powerful, considering how housing, communal and free under socialism, has become a luxury commodity unavailable to most.

Hackerville, Romania

Boasting Romanian New Wave maestro Cristian Mungiu as producer, this 2018 drama follows Lisa, a young German policewoman specialising in internet crime, who emigrated from Ceaușescu’s Romania with her dissident father just before the collapse of communism. She is drawn back to her homeland when an investigation into a huge online bank robbery leads her to Timișoara. She is initially met with distrust by her vaguely sexist Romanian colleagues, but this quickly melts into a mutual appreciation and romantic interest. Timișoara is a protagonist itself in the narrative, and despite its visible ruination is presented as endearing and warm — unlike cold and unpleasant Hamburg, where Lisa’s corrupt superiors are more concerned with fawning towards corporate business. In Hackerville, the post-communist East turns out to be the site of the kind of brotherhood, intergenerational friendship, and solidarity forgotten elsewhere — which might sound naive, but at least gives us reason to hope that Eastern Europe might not be as doomed as its TV representations suggest it is.

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