Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Media Review: April 2019

Russian Doll
Created by Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne, and Amy Poehler
Produced by Universal Television, Paper Kite Productions, Jax Media, and 3 Arts Entertainment
Released February 2019

Writing about Netflix’s brilliant new series Russian Doll is inherently challenging. Is talking about it at all an automatic spoiler? Do expectations mar its impact? Is it weird that I loved it but also hope it gets cancelled? That it felt derivative and wildly original at the same time? Russian Doll practically cries out for discussion, but it’s also so captivating that it’s tempting to just clam up, let it wash over you, and simply bask in its dazzle and humor and feels.

The “Russian doll” of the title is Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne), a feisty, foul-mouthed video game software developer in New York City. The series begins at midnight on her thirty-sixth birthday, at a raucous affair thrown by her friend Maxine (a delightful Greta Lee). Nadia’s trying to enjoy herself, but it’s a fraught day, for many reasons. Perhaps not the least of which is simply that it’s her birthday, a celebration of self she’s not naturally inclined to join in on. Essentially she’s having a midlife crisis, and for all her swagger, she’s not handling it very well, burying her despair in a blanket of attitude and unhealthy choices, including smoking a cocaine-laced joint and having sex with a skeevy stranger (Jeremy Bobb). Throughout, Nadia projects her emotional distress onto the plight of a local deli cat named Oatmeal, who’s gone missing. Later in the night, when she spies Oatmeal near a park, she races to retrieve him, and gets run over by a taxi. She dies instantly.

A moment later, she wakes up. She’s back at the party, at midnight, turning thirty-six again. She wanders back out into the crowd with a disconcerting sense of déjà vu, unsure if she’s just experienced a memory or a premonition. Something odd’s going on.

Of course, seasoned genre fans will know exactly what’s going on: Nadia’s caught in a timeloop. This trope, notably popularized in the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day (1993), has become something of a staple of timebending SF shows and films in recent years. It’s an enticing premise, enabling characters to run through multiple iterations of the same scenario, deploying the accumulated knowledge of their experience in an attempt to shape an optimal fate. Films like Source Code, ARQ, and Edge of Tomorrow have run engaging variations on the idea, and the concept has worked its way into one-off TV episodes as well (12 Monkeys springs to mind).

At first, Russian Doll basically appears to be taking the Groundhog Day concept to series. Lyonne, boosting her edgy Orange is the New Black persona to another level of comic bluster, delivers a riveting performance from the get-go. And the show gets plenty of mileage out of her hilarious, increasingly frantic reactions to an inexplicably recurring experience. But Nadia is smart, crafty, and stubborn, and she starts trying to figure things out. In so doing, she shifts trajectory on each cycle, which brings her into entertaining contact with a memorable roster of characters, whose reactions to her escalating desperation lend humor and comic momentum. Along with Maxine, Nadia encounters and occasionally enlists the aid of another quirky friend named Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson), Nadia’s pining ex John (Yul Vazquez), an enigmatic homeless man named Horse (Brendan Sexton III), and a close friend and therapist named Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley). Unfortunately for Nadia, no matter what she does, she dies, which plays out in a sequence of comically shocking sight gags.

Fortunately, Russian Doll doesn’t just beat its timeloop to death; the show evolves. Its transformation kicks in with the arrival of a new character, Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett), who is experiencing his own frustrating timeloop. When the two discover each other, it shifts Nadia’s investigation in a new direction, and provides her with a partner in crime. Here, the show separates itself from the Groundhog Day formula, and starts to feel like more than just a variation on a theme. Like Phil Conners in Groundhog Day, Nadia’s cyclical fate is a journey of self-discovery. But Phil’s experience is an overly forgiving, of-its-time masculine affair, allowing its hero unlimited attempts at self-improvement that ultimately win him the prize of a new life. Nadia is no less flawed, but more complex, rewarding viewer sympathy with her competence, determination, and growth—which, in her case, involves learning to let other people in. Her prize isn’t to win; it’s merely to get another chance to figure herself out and move forward. The messaging is more mature, healthier, and more feminist; notably, the series is written and directed entirely by women, and the results are refreshing.

In terms of genre content and storytelling techniques, Russian Doll is an ingenius contraption. Seasoned SF fans will appreciate its many clever “aha” moments, skiffy twists, and sense-of-wonder visuals. But the show stands out more in the way it converts this genre machinery into emotional power. It’s an irresistable mix of the cerebral, the silly, the chilling, and the heartfelt. The tone is so rich and varied that it should feel scattered, but the elements all work together, creating something uniquely coherent and true-to-life.

Ultimately, Russian Doll provides hope there may be other heights to which the “new Golden Era” of television may ascend. Prestige TV of the twenty-first century has long been dominated by the stories of the reprehensible—antiheroes, criminals, villains—in shows like The Sopranos, The Shield, Mad Men, Deadwood, and Breaking Bad. Even as these shows deconstructed, commented on, and criticized their people and their worlds, they also celebrated or glorified them. Russian Doll is part of a new breed of positive, progressive visions in TV, which might be exemplified by the work of Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place). The medium seems to have figured out that as the real world gets darker and more difficult, our fictional worlds need more light, more hope, more role models.

That isn’t to say that all of these shows flinch from darkness, or thorny subject matter. The Good Place, Maniac, and Bojack Horseman, among others, are all solid examples of shows confronting the challenges of living ethically in a systemically broken and injust world. This is art that makes sense of the cruelty, chaos, and disappointment of being human. Russian Doll, in its briskly clocked, beautifully executed way, is an exquisite example of this new type of emotionally realistic but uplifting show. It plays out so perfectly in its streamlined eight-episode run that while the world surely needs more of it—and I would welcome it if it comes—there’s part of me that wants it to end here, because it’s pretty much perfect.

Christopher East

Christopher East

Christopher East is a writer, editor, reviewer, and avid consumer of science fiction, fantasy, and spy fiction. His stories have been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Cosmos, Interzone, Talebones, The Third Alternative, and a number of other speculative fiction publications. He’s attended the Clarion and Taos Toolbox writing workshops, and served for several years as the fiction editor for the futurism, science, and technology blog Futurismic. He blogs extensively about writing, fiction, film, television, music, comics, and more at www.christopher-east.com. Currently he lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works for an occupational and environmental health and safety consultancy.