Russian Doll - Season 1 - ADULTS ONLY
Admit it. When you think of streaming networks, the first one that most likely will come to mind is Netflix. And that would be understandable. With such films as The Irishman and such TV shows as Stranger Things under its belt, it laid the groundwork for greater flexibility with storytelling and filmmaking.
And I will be frank, after watching all three seasons so far of Stranger Things, I would easily have called it my favorite show on the network… had it not been for Russian Doll. This TV show provided a truly inventive take on a normally popularized story formula, and, in so doing, displayed its artistry to great effect.
The story is about a young woman named Nadia, who was living life to the fullest in New York City and enjoying her 36th birthday party when she was suddenly hit and run over by a car. Then, next thing she knew, she was back at her apartment, at her 36th birthday party, and even in the exact bathroom she was in earlier. At first, she thought she was hallucinating because of a special cigarette her friend, Maxine, made for her, and this tempted her to find out why she was reliving her 36th birthday party. However, she got thrown into a whole ‘nother kind of loop when she met Alan, who was also going through death-induced time loops of his own. As soon as they both caught on to that, it not only compelled them to work together, but it added to their commitment to get to the bottom of this freaky conundrum. Along the way, a series of circumstances, as experienced by Alan and Nadia and for each other, caused them to open their eyes bit by bit and discover why both their time loops were occurring, and why onto them, while also being tested in more ways than they could’ve imagined.
As you can tell just from the premise, the show somewhat established the same classic story formulas that Groundhog Day did, down to the same rhythms, the same punchlines, and even the same touching effects. Nevertheless, it benefited from plenty of twists that separated it from the Bill Murray classic. For one, Nadia relived her birthday only when she died, no matter how random and out of the ordinary it may have seemed. Two, the periods in which Nadia experienced her 36th birthday party and the parts of her life afterwards could have gone on for, say, a few days instead of one whole day.
And nowhere was the show's experimentation on the classic formula, as well as its overall uniqueness, cranked up to 11 than in the end of "A Warm Body" (Episode 3). Nadia was getting on an elevator that, little did she know, was about to fall down and kill her and the others in it, plus Alan. When the elevator started falling, everyone was ducking for cover except for Nadia and Alan, and when Nadia asked him why he wasn’t budging when he knew he could be dead in the next moment, he gave her this answer:
It doesn't matter, I die all the time.
That changed everything; that clued me in that Nadia wasn't alone.
Speaking of which, I found the characters fantastic. Nadia was a snarky playgirl and expert video game mechanic with a dry sense of humor, and more often than not retorted with witty one-liners to combat against any nonsensical thing she could have heard. Alan was timid and shy, but had problems concerning low self-esteem. And, unlike Nadia, who went to extreme lengths to take herself out of her time loop, Alan wanted to take advantage of his in the hopes of making things right. They both expressed shades of narcissism to them, and they had problems of their own, but as they got more and more used to each other and even to their life stories, they eventually came to realize how upfront they both should have been about those problems. Nadia’s stemmed from way back in the past, and they all centered around two people: one, her mother, who knew the therapist Nadia continued to see and with whom she had a dysfunctional relationship, and two, her ex-boyfriend, John, with whom she had a more complicated relationship. Alan’s stemmed from his pursuits to propose to his girlfriend, Beatrice, especially when he discovered that she was going out with other men, such as Mike Kershaw.
While I’m still on that subject, the supporting characters all felt memorable, nicely explored, and they each left quite an impression. Nadia's friends, like the bubbly and no-nonsense Maxine and the motherly Lizzy, each expressed aspects of the feminine New York society at its most uncertain or troubled. John Reyes, Nadia's ex-boyfriend may not have been the most complex character, but I thought it was cute to see him act as the more grounded half to Nadia's wilder half. Beatrice, Alan’s girlfriend, could easily have been written as an unsympathetic, selfish girlfriend, but I admired how concerned she was with Alan and that she wanted to move on with her life for both their sakes. Mike Kershaw, a college writing instructor, was brash, cocky, and arrogant, making him a perfect love rival for Alan. And the therapist, Ruth? I feel like Nadia should be thankful to have had someone like her, who knew her throughout most of her life, watching her back in times of stress.
The acting in the show was terrific. All the actors and actresses, such as Greta Lee (Maxine), Rebecca Henderson (Lizzy), Yul Vazquez (John), Jeremy Boob (Mike), Elizabeth Ashley (Ruth), and Dascha Polanco (Beatrice) either impressed or touched with the right expressions at the right time, and collectively, they helped their characters leave their mark the way they should. But at the end of the day, the breakthrough performance clearly comes from Natasha Lyonne as Nadia. Her sarcasm, her raspy voice, and her sense of humor elevated Nadia into being as much of a laugh riot as she was an interesting, identifiable character, and as a whole, she held the show together. Come to think of it, I should also give props to Charlie Barnett, the actor who played Alan. What Lyonne gave her character in terms of insecurities, Barnett gave his in terms of vulnerabilities. As a result, they made the chemistry between Nadia and Alan feel much more believable and natural, and you could feel it whenever it cropped up in the show.
The writing of this show, so far, is just brilliant. I think part of it came from its cleverly-handled contradictions of moods and circumstantial surprises. It remained cheeky from beginning to end and made the most out of its most comedic pratfalls and most explosive situations while also finding ways to test its characters. It stayed afloat with snappy, witty, colorful dialogue that contributed to its flavorful levity while also having the guts to venture into uncharted territory, also for the characters’ benefits. And, as I already stated earlier, I liked how the show started off with the classic, if not clichéd, rhythms of Groundhog Day, before they dissolved over time and allowed it to develop itself into its own unique thing.
I also admired the way it’s shot. I found it a sight to behold, for two reasons. One, once it was focused on the characters, it gave them extra focus and put their personal dilemmas in the spotlight, resulting in an even greater connection to be felt with them as viewers. And two, it exploited juxtapositions of the presentation of New York City. It can go from bright, yet grayish and dreary during the daytime to dark yet vibrant and colorful during the night, and they gave the surroundings, no matter where they were, a sense of sharpness.
Something else that I think should be mentioned about this show is that while it remained a witty, comedic show and kept being innovative with its story, the last half of the season became more melancholy once the dilemmas were being brought into discussion more and more. Not to mention, once both Nadia and Alan continued their respective time loops, things and people started to disappear around them, starting with the produce somehow going bad. At this point, it turned the continuum of their time loops into races against the clock, thus making the last half of the season also eerie and surprisingly suspenseful.
Which leads to another factor that lends the show its potency: its philosophical analogies. One of the discoveries Nadia and Alan stumbled on during their investigations on the time loops was the possibility of multidimensional occurrences. A bug in the program, as Nadia metaphorically put it. They reached that conclusion as the potential reason their experiences looked so different every time they relived them. And as for why the time loops occurred onto them, they believed that it was due to their hesitance to help each other when they both hit rock bottom before they both died that same night. This kind of overview carried some existentialism to it and was very thought provoking. It makes you wonder if we’re really alone in the universe and, most of all, if there are other worlds out there that are exactly like ours but function differently.
It's wry, it's sassy, it's colorful, it's sad, it's eerie, it's suspenseful, it's quirky...actually let me rephrase that. Russian Doll is not only one of the best shows on Netflix, it might be one of the best TV shows in freakin' general. It leapt off to a good start with characters you would root for and relate to combined with situations that you would relate to. And, to top it all off, it will leave you differently than when it found you just as easily as you would leave it differently than when you approached it. That’s the sign of a great TV show. As of this writing, there's only one season of this show, and it's practically eight half-hour episodes long. Watching this season from beginning to end should be as much of a cinch as watching Gone with the Wind.
Simply put, until the next season rolls around the corner, Russian Doll is the kind of show I would easily go on a binging loop with any day.
My Rating: A
I find it funny that this show, along with Stranger Things, also from Netflix, took the basic concepts off of popular films off of which they were inspired, and all reworked them to their advantage and to outstanding, fresh results. In Russian Doll's case, it was Groundhog Day. In Stranger Things' case, it was The Goonies. Anyone who wants to go into writing should rely on these as prime examples of how to reinvent otherwise cliched storylines.