The Sniffer: The Ukrainian Sherlock Holmes

by Chris Riendeau

Ah, Ukraine. The eastern European nation which has been at the center of great controversy and conflict since the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia a few years back. You might remember Russia from the 2016 election, where they took what was a minor part and made the most of it, stealing nearly every scene like they were Lakeith Stanfield in Atlanta. They say great conflict leads to great art, though, and – in what may be well-disguised Russian propaganda – Ukraine has produced the finest new Russian-language program on television right now: The Sniffer. The Sniffer is about a guy, who (not really spoilers) has an amazing sense of smell and solves crimes by smelling. But wait, please don’t leave, there’s so much more…

Shot in what seems to be an endless supply of sparsely furnished, brutalist apartments and abandoned warehouses, the show follows “The Sniffer” – apparently he has no name, this is literally his credit on IMDB – played by Kirill Karo, as he helps out his detective buddy with tough cases. He smells objects, he smells corpses, he smells bags of drugs, he just takes a big whiff of the room and he is somehow able to smell how many times people had sex and what denominations of currency were in a long-absent bag that once sat on a table. What is the difference between the smell of a $50 and a $20? Only The Sniffer knows.

Keep in mind, this is not set in the future. His apartment just looks like this.

And he’ll tell you, with plenty of snark. He dresses people down on a number of occasions by exposing what secrets their latent odors reveal. I know what you are thinking, and yes, he acts exactly like Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, except all of his deductions are based on smell alone. He smell-reads his allergy doctor, who is made-up and lit to look like a porn actress playing the allergy doctor in a high-budget parody of this very show.

Why is he at an allergy doctor? Well, that is by far the best part of the show: his only weakness is cats – he is cripplingly allergic to them. This ubermensch’s kryptonite is kittens. But it probably doesn’t come up too often, right? Wrong. A cat literally falls on him at a crime scene in the pilot. It just jumps on him, for no reason. Or maybe it was sent by his secret nemesis? I haven’t finished the season yet, no spoilers, Ukrainian friends.

What makes this all so great, in such a bad way, is that the show has an absurdly high production value. When The Sniffer smells on the scene, the camera spins around and he seemingly churns up smell-ghosts, misty CGI wraiths who act out crimes. When he tries to identify chemical compounds, his nose draws similarly misty molecular diagrams from the test tubes. Bullet-time cameras spin around objects he envisions using his nose-powers. His apartment has 50’ tall ceilings, all bare concrete, and it is filled with tubes of smell samples just waiting for their time to shine during one of the copious smelling montages. Everything looks and feels like, well, Sherlock, but also CSI, or any given high-budget procedural.

Everything except the set-dressing. For some reason, despite the obviously sizable budget, the attention to detail is terrible. Five-hundred square-foot rooms have two chairs in them, the bookshelves in the Sniffer Jr.’s school were seemingly a painted plywood set piece borrowed from the local high school theater.

Although apparently not books.

Even The Sniffer’s parking garage seems to house only one car. Maybe it symbolizes the emptiness he feels, you know, being so burdened by his ability. He does spend most of the day with rubber discs up his nostrils to keep the smells at bay. Plus, it’d probably be really awkward to have sex with this dude while he smelled your life story.

All in all, The Sniffer is a fine example of what happens when (I assume) Vladymir Putin decides he wants to pseudonymously try screen-writing and refuses to be edited. “Second draft? Niet. That’s like riding a horse with your shirt on!” Truly, though, the absurd premise plays like a running gag in some other show, like Joey Tribbiani or Bojack Horseman should be playing the lead.

Against the odds, however, the show is doing amazingly well.  Whether or not you take it seriously, it is worth a watch, if only to preview what TV will be like in the third or fourth Trump administration. So call your mom, get her Netflix password, and check out The Sniffer.


Chris Riendeau is a musician and writer from Wilmington, NC, and you would not believe how much TV he watches.