The Sniffer is a Ukrainian TV series recorded in Russian. The stories all take place in an unspecified Russian city. The license plates are Russian and the characters often refer to oligarchs. The show has two protagonists, the title character and his childhood buddy, who after a promotion halfway through the first season, is a Colonel in the Special Bureau of Investigation which seems to function as a national police force.

The show thus far has three seasons. The first is available on Amazon Prime. The first two are on Netflix. The third season has thus far not not reached the US. Each season has eight episodes lasting about 50 minutes. The production values, editing, and acting are all first rate. Of course, you have to keep your eyes fixed on the subtitles to follow the action. The program has been a big hit in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Baltic states, and Israel.

The war between Ukraine and Russia had some odd effects. Russian programs are banned in Ukraine, but Ukrainian shows are allowed into Russia, hence the ambiguous portrayal of where the action takes place. But as I mentioned above the setting is clearly Russia. When the police arrest someone, he is not read any rights but does seem to have a right to an attorney. This right is sometimes grudgingly granted.

The Sniffer is played by Estonian-Russian actor Kirill Käro. He’s an olfactory Sherlock Holmes who can deduce the details of a crime or other nefarious and even legitimate actions by inhaling deeply. In one episode when the press gets wind of his activities he’s call “The Dog Man”. He has an hysterical ex-wife who continually shows up at awkward moments either asking for money or for help in disciplining their 15 year old son who is the quintessential sullen teenage obnoxious jerk. The son hates his mother and tolerates his father because the latter gives him money. The ex-wife, in turn, hates her own mother. Human nature doesn’t respect international borders.

The Sniffer is morose and solitary. He lives in a large building in which he is the only resident. His luxury western car is the only one in the building’s underground garage. He is apparently quite wealthy from unspecified private investigations. He eventually falls for a doctor he has been forced to see. She soon succumbs to PTSD for which she is hospitalized under the care of a shady doctor who keeps her over medicated. Her PTSD was the consequence of her kidnapping; she was rescued by the Sniffer and the Colonel

The Colonel, the Russian actor Ivan Oganesyan,  is friendly and outgoing. He’s much better attuned to the realities of his world, though he regularly breaks rules to achieve his law enforcement goals. He’s also a charming ladies man who gets depressed only when the girls repeatedly spurn his advances. He does his best to look out for his depressed colleague and friend who was coerced into working for the SBI by its director, a savvy general who usually lets the Colonel get away with bending the rules.

Ivan Oganesyan – The Colonel

The picture of Russia that emerges is an interesting one of contrast between squalor and affluence. Several scenes at Russian army bases suggest that the west has little to fear from the Russian military. But scenes in shopping malls and upscale residences indicate that those fortunate to have money can buy goods and services at the same level as in the affluent west. There are traffic jams which match anything seen in LA or Bangkok.

The emotional tone of the show varies from stark brutality to wry humor. Each show mostly focuses on a single crime, but there’s an ongoing background plot involving some cryptic paramilitary organization. When the protagonist identifies a suspect or a witness by the remnants of his scent a gauzy picture of the person, or scene, or object appears on the screen.

There seem to be only two types of women in this depiction of Russia – young, beautiful, and luscious on the one hand and worn and tired older women on the other. Surely there must be a middle ground, but if there is we don’t get to see it.

The cinematography is first rate. The second season was photographed by Graham Frake, who had previously been head of photography for Downton Abbey. Independent of its revealing look at life in eastern Europe the show is great entertainment. Highly recommended.

Review of Season 3 here