Skip to main content

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll
Season One

(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Doll is good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

Cindy: So, you think you were hit by a car while you were chasing your cat and now you’re reliving your birthday?

If you’re bringing such a pejorative agenda to your critique, though, you’re going to end up picking fault in material for the sake of it (and if About Time is on your list, that’s very easy to do), so the likes of Edge of Tomorrow, Groundhog Day, or The X-FilesMonday (the latter unmentioned, probably unseen by the reviewer) are ripe for receiving unearned flack (while Happy Death Day is honourably excused).

In her efforts to extol Russian Doll, Knight makes inaccurate assertions (that Amy never uses what she learns to manipulate others; she very clearly manipulates her ex at various points) and reaches dubious conclusions. I’m unconvinced the serialised runtime actually helps the show, and that we gain insights into its core characters that we couldn’t if was two-and-a-half rather than three-and-a-half hours. Series creators Natasha Lyonne (who plays Nadia) and Amy Poehler and Lesley Headland have three seasons (at least) planned with Netflix, but they’re going to need to accentuate the “bonkers”, as Lyonne puts it, if they’re going to sustain it.

Nadia: Oh man, it’s never gonna be Thursday again! It’s just always gonna be this party. And were just gonna keep coming back.

With all such time loop narratives, one of the fundamentals is “Why is this happening to me?” and in the cases of Nadia, who keeps waking at the same party, and Alan (Charlie Barnett), likewise in front of his bathroom mirror, it ends up boiling down to a slightly shrug-worthy learning/ acceptance/ realisation/ forgiveness angle that’s only thrown into relief by a spanner in the multiverse in the last episode, one that offers an effective underlining of all the learning they’ve done over the previous seven episodes.

There’s a lot to like in this first season, most obviously Lyonne’s patented whip-smart, cooler-than-thou New Yorker humour, which marbles the entire production (it’s only a surprise when characters don’t speak in hard-boiled quips). Nadia’s not actually doing a whole lot different to Nicky in Orange is the New Black (and various of that show’s alumni pop up here), to the extent you have to recognise that Lyonne playing another druggy basket case is a brand of comedian’s confessional shtick, but she does it so well and so casually that it matters little (“a very tough lady who looks like if Andrew Dice Clay and the little girl from Brave made a baby”).

Nadia: I’ve got a couple of theories that I’m working on. Us being the same person is my current favourite.

She, Headland and Poehler haven’t come up with anything enormously different in terms of how these repeats unfold, except that in all cases (at least initially, barring the one we don’t know about) they’re random accidents. There’s also the way the expectation of a next day reset doesn’t hold true; both protagonists make it to the following day at various points, only for an unfortunate occurrence(s) to intervene.

Nadia: This is Alan. He’s basically a child who the universe has tasked me with babysitting. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
Alan: Sure.

Knight’s right to suggest that the inclusion of co-experiencer opens up the canvas, but Alan’s been rather schematically much designed as the OCD, obsessive, borderline pathological flip side to Nadia’s gregarious off-handedness, with the entailing problem that he’s only ever a secondary figure even when attention is entirely on him; more crucially, he never makes the leap to someone you’d actually want to spend time with and follow their story, other than reluctantly, which is a failure of connecting to the viewer (or maybe just this viewer) on some level.

Another element that successfully embellishes the standard Groundhog mix is the encroaching entropy we begin to notice around the end of the second episode, first signified by wilting flowers but soon also by decaying fruit (still ripe on the inside), and disappearing mirrors, the viability of their universe diminishing and so presenting its own ticking clock (I wondered at points how influenced the makers were by Happy Death Day, particularly when Nadia begins spontaneously dying on sight of her younger self or she and Alan get nose bleeds, as it reminded me of Tree’s progressively worsening health as her death count piled up). The final awakening at the party (prior to the successful reset) is especially effective, Nadia emerging to find Maxine (Greta Lee) dancing on her own in the apartment and demurring from joining her on her mission.

Nadia: I’m having a very hard never-ending night!

Unfortunately, I don’t think Lyonne’s inclusive message (“When we dismiss each other as people and choose to pretend others aren’t impacted by our actions or don’t reach out to each other, we’re all at a risk of not making it”), as commendable as it is, is that compelling or distinctive compared to any other movie or series offering similar sentiments.

With regard to its length, the season sags fairly early on before regaining its tempo – I found my attention waning during the third and fourth episodes, with not-that-interesting red herrings (the homeless guy, although I liked the gag with his grooming kit) and the introduction proper of Alan failing to bolster the narrative sufficiently (because, per above, you don’t really want to spend time with him). Elsewhere, some subplots, such as Nadia’s parent figure/shrink Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) never quite stick; indeed that thread feels particularly rote, even though it relates directly into the realisations of how to resolve their loop.

Nadia: Let’s fuck this party in the mouth!

Structurally, the season is solid, however; it isn’t until episode six that we learn Alan doesn’t recall how he died. And then in the seventh that Nadia comes to the realisation she needs to forgive herself for rejecting her mother (Chloe Sevigny), while Alan needs to let go of losing Bea (Dascha Polanco). The problem here is that, after all the build-up – that vital extended running time a series can offer – this can’t help but feel slightly underwhelming, emotionally underpinned or not – they both need to save each other; people and connections are important; the difference between a lonely life and death and a fully engaged positive embrace of the same – as it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to be the case. Nevertheless, the Sliding Doors, missing-the-right-person finale is well done, Nadia and Alan having to truly exert themselves to ensure the oblivious other is safe, and the final merging of selves under the bridge, amid the procession, is about as good an ending as you could hope for from the material.

Nadia: What do love and morality have in common? Relativity. They’re both relative to your experience.

There’s a sense that Russian Doll could have been bolstered by Damon Lindelof-style theoretical intrigue or diversions on the plot side – The Leftovers is the high water mark for character-focussed storytelling with a genre twist – that might have fuelled the plot more adroitly (as it is, Lyonne is the principle motor); getting excited by Emily of the New Moon is the kind of thing Lindelof of Nic Pizzolatto would throw in to their work, but ultimately it lacks earth-shattering significance or mystique (it’s no Yellow King). Likewise, falling back on computer language to describe their universe (which, after all, is everyone’s favourite means of describing the matrix/ projection/ hologram/ simulation currently) feels very familiar at this point, with Nadia being a programmer an obvious convenience to enable the discussion.

Alan: Do you think we’re dying at the same time?

On the other hand, certain choices definitely aid the flow; keeping the episodes down to a direct 25-30 minutes characterises the show as more of a straightforward, punchy sitcom than the dramedy it is. And that comic touch is very reliable throughout. The humorous deaths are nothing new (even Edge of Tomorrow has them), but continually falling down the same flight of stairs or into an open sidewalk cellar, or into the East River, provides solid slapstick yuks. Occasionally, you think a line is over-written (“Nobody chooses me. I’m an asshole where a choice should be”), only for a later retake to reveal that Mike (Jeremy Lowell Bobb) has self-scripted it for suitable occasions, so of course it is.

It’s admirable to have a positive message floating your time loop narrative – after all, the reigning champ Groundhog Day is the king of that – but if you’re going to tackle this subgenre you really need to arm yourself with something else besides. Bill Murray is the bitter pill that helps the sentiment go down in that movie, without adverse side effects. The most recent notables managed it (Edge of Tomorrow, Happy Death Day) by having a keen take on their particular principle genres (SF and horror respectively), but ultimately, I don’t think Russian Doll quite manages to set itself apart or has quite enough narrative drive to sustain its length. Maybe season two will propel it into the realm of greatness.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

Would you like Smiley Sauce with that?

American Beauty (1999)
(SPOILERS) As is often the case with the Best Picture Oscar, a backlash against a deemed undeserved reward has grown steadily in the years since American Beauty’s win. The film is now often identified as symptomatic of a strain of cinematic indulgence focussing on the affluent middle classes’ first world problems. Worse, it showcases a problematic protagonist with a Lolita-fixation towards his daughter’s best friend (imagine its chances of getting made, let alone getting near the podium in the #MeToo era). Some have even suggested it “mercifully” represents a world that no longer exists (as a pre-9/11 movie), as if such hyperbole has any bearing other than as gormless clickbait; you’d have to believe its world of carefully manicured caricatures existed in the first place to swallow such a notion. American Beauty must own up to some of these charges, but they don’t prevent it from retaining a flawed allure. It’s a satirical take on Americana that, if it pulls its p…

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Is CBS Corporate telling CBS News "Do not air this story"?

The Insider (1999)
(SPOILERS) The Insider was the 1999 Best Picture Oscar nominee that didn’t. Do any business, that is. Which is, more often than not, a major mark against it getting the big prize. It can happen (2009, and there was a string of them from 2014-2016), but aside from brief, self-congratulatory “we care about art first” vibes, it generally does nothing for the ceremony’s profile, or the confidence of the industry that is its bread and butter. The Insider lacked the easy accessibility of the other nominees – supernatural affairs, wafer-thin melodramas or middle-class suburbanite satires. It didn’t even brandish a truly headlines-shattering nail-biter in its conspiracy-related true story, as earlier contenders All the President’s Men and JFK could boast. But none of those black marks prevented The Insider from being the cream of the year’s crop.