A Reconciling Smile: Humor in the Post-Soviet Police Procedural (A Case Study of the Television Series Streets of Broken Lights)

Elena Baraban, University of Victoria

This paper explores the use of humor in the post-Soviet police procedural in the example of the television series Ulitsy razbitykh fonarei (Streets of Broken Lights [1998-]). The series has re-established the police as positive heroes in Russia. The structural significance of humorous scenes in Streets of Broken Lights merits an examination from the point of view of genre development.

In interpreting genre as the transition between history, ideology, and popular culture, I rely on theories by Michel Serres, Mikhail Bakhtin, Terry Eagleton, and Fredric Jameson. Humor is defined as an aesthetic, social, and psychological category. As a means of communication, humor can help achieve consensus, exercise social control, or introduce competition and conflict in a group (William H. Martineau). According to Freud, humor has a liberating effect on the human psyche because it asserts “the ego’s invulnerability.” With humor, “traumas of the external world” become “no more than occasions for [the ego] to gain pleasure.” From the point of view of literary theory, humor is a special kind of the comic that combines mockery and sympathy. Unlike the laughter of superiority (e.g., satire and irony), the laughter in humor is predominantly positive because it involves affiliation with what appears to be funny. Humor expresses the acceptance of the world regardless of its imperfections.

Among post-Soviet detektivy that deploy humor and parody (e.g., ironicheskii detektiv (ironic detective fiction) and Boris Akunin’s mysteries), police procedurals are the most difficult genre. Unlike, for instance, criminal dramas that depict a radical break with the Soviet past, police procedurals must create a sense of continuity with the past because their heroes function in an institution which has inherited the structure and expertise of the Soviet militsiia. However, in view of the devastating critique of the police in the 1980s-1990s, constructing an authentic positive image of a police detective presents a challenge.

Some circumstances that account for the use of humor in depicting the police since perestroika include post-Soviet chaos anxiety and critique of the police. Without the ideological orientation typical of the detectives in Soviet police procedurals, without a sense of Russia’s new national identity, police detectives acquire a new outlook on their role in society. The incongruity between a police detective who no longer believes that social order can be fully restored and the hero’s need to be efficient produces the tension that underlies the Streets’ plots. Humor becomes a rhetorical strategy that reduces this tension and protects police detectives from self-depreciation.

Another function of humor in Streets is the renegotiation of the Soviet past. Since humor allows reconciliation of contradictory characteristics in a hero and acceptance of his imperfections, the humorous depiction of the police becomes a tool for neutralizing the critique of the police and for dissociating the cops from the negative aspects of police work in the Soviet period. At the same time, by grafting new onto the old, humor (steb, parody of Soviet ideology, irony, and black humor) allows continuity with what was before; it thus makes the post-Soviet transition less painful.