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From Russia with love - and sex

Stop me if you have heard it before - the latest overseas ratings sensation features four attractive, well-dressed city girls meeting in cafes to agonise over relationships, romance and ageing in an uncaring capital. No, HBO has not revived Sex and the City. This is Balzac Age, Russian network NTV's hit sitcom based in the rapidly changing world of modern Moscow.

The show's second series started last week, stirring a frenzy of anticipation in the Russian media. Balzac Age follows the fortunes of Vera, Alla, Sonia and Yulia who, like Carrie Bradshaw's crew, are reaching a certain age. Indeed, the title refers to the Russian slang for women over 30 - referencing Honoré de Balzac's novel A Woman of Thirty.

The comparisons pretty much stop there, however. While the show is ostensibly a comedy, it is a comedy in much the same way that Chekhov's plays of futility and death are. Balzac Age's Samantha is Sonia, a divorcee-turned-call girl who has sex with an oligarch in a dark, empty apartment. The equivalent of Carrie is narrator Vera, a therapist who lives at home with her mother and teenage daughter as Moscow rents are too high to enable her to afford a decent place. Alla - who approximates to Miranda with her high-flying legal career - has a male stripper habit that she cannot shake off, and husband-hunting Yulia is a nymphomaniac who only wants to get married because her father ran out on her mother, leaving the family broke.

In the first episode of the new series, Sonia confesses that she much prefers anonymous sex for money to any other sex she has had, then gets drunk and weeps over her loveless old age. When Yulia joins in, Alla hires male strippers in thongs to clean her apartment in a bid to cheer everybody up. This briefly works, until they all get depressed because the men are only there for the money. In post-Soviet Russia, however, this is laugh-a-minute stuff. As Homer Simpson might say: "It's funny cos it's true."

Balzac Age has pulled in huge ratings and made stars of its four leads - so much so that their personal lives are collapsing in true Hollywood fashion.

The Guardian, 16.01.2006