3P Reviews

Broken and Brought Together – Russian Doll

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There’s not enough time in the day to do everything you need to, especially in this day and age. Perhaps it’s natural, then, for stories to imagine worlds where time is flexible, where death doesn’t have to be permanent, and where everyone gets a second chance. But there’s no fun in second chances when they don’t have some stakes, so why not throw in a catch or two? Russian Doll is the latest in the surprisingly long list of time loop narratives, following New York resident Nadia as she dies and discovers the afterlife consists mostly of falling down stairs over and over again. You’ve seen this story before, but as a show, it has a few creative twists that make it worth watching past the first few episodes.

 

3P Reviews: Russian Doll

 

Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: None

 

Part One: Hat Has an Unnecessary Vendetta Against Groundhog Day

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You would not believe where I was or what I was doing when I first heard about this show, so let’s just say it’s made its way through the grapevine to me over the last few months. Acclaim and chatter about a new Netflix series are hardly apt to get me excited because I’m a bitter old curmudgeon. I’ve noticed more than a few Netflix series and films puff up a good crowd at release, only to fall into obscurity within a few weeks (welcome to the graveyard, here are your neighbors, Birdbox, Bright, Ozark, The Umbrella Academy, Bandersnatch). It hasn’t stopped me from trying a series before, though, or liking it long after everyone else forgets it ever existed. This one, as expected, was a disappointment.

At first.

Series made for streaming often have a slower pace and weaker introduction than series made for weekly episodic release. An episodic series needs to convince a viewer to put in the effort to come back next week, while a streaming series expects to be binged and often involves a more passive viewing experience. Such is the case with Russian Doll, which takes several episodes to click. I watched the first one, decided it was like Groundhog Day, which is what I had been told, didn’t see any reason to watch seven more episodes, and stopped.

Let me stop here for a minute to make a confession: I cannot watch Groundhog Day anymore. I used to enjoy it well enough as a child, though it took a while for me to watch it the whole way through. Now, I can’t stand it. The trope it plays on, the repetition of a single day, is done to death. It’s in Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Umbrella Academy, that Disney Christmas special with the ducks, that Stephen King book, that book that inspired Groundhog Day, about every movie with a time-traveller in it, The Good Place, and any video game with a checkpoint system. When it comes to story, repetitive loops are just tedious, and the more frustrated the characters get by that repetition, the more that feeling translates to the audience. Groundhog Day is far too long to rewatch for that very purpose, and it takes too long to get to the meat of the story.

Yes, you need some preamble, but in order for a time loop to tell a compelling story, it needs to follow a non-looping story. Characters who are outside of the loop and trying to change it or who ignore the loop to further their own interests make the repetition a background element rather than a setpiece. The Good Place does this effectively, showing similar events in a loop as a montage, and changing the loop wildly in each in-depth iteration. The loops allow the series to jump right into philosophical musics and character studies without disrupting the plot. Humor also doesn’t hurt.

Russian Doll, like most time-looping stories, gets into its own notions of how this type of plot can allow for those deeper discussions, and these moments (mostly toward the end of the series) are unique and worthwhile. But the show spends two full episodes faffing around with a barely-changed Groundhog Day scenario before it shows any of its better qualities.

Part of this is lead character Nadia not having anyone to act off of. There are a number of lovely side characters, and the protagonist is actually quite charismatic, but she runs through many generic actions before she comes into her own. Her introduction is quite clunky, setting her up as a has-been video game designer who lives in New York with her escape artist cat. She’s unlucky in love, a bit selfish, and witty, as evidenced by countless exaggerated gestures. As we get into the story, we find that she’s a sort of character I respond well to, being something of this myself: deeply insecure and unwilling to open up to people, eager to throw out bad jokes to distract from sensitive conversations, and perpetually frantic.

These characteristics are a part of her from the start, and you can occasionally imagine them peeking out in those first two episodes, but Nadia is not a particularly introspective person; she prefers to avoid her problems rather than face them (which plays into some of her deaths to comedic effect), and needs a bit of prompting to do so.

By the third episode, we have that character. Honestly, it could have been pretty much anyone, and the character they choose, Charlie, is not nearly as charismatic as Nadia. He’s a hapless failure less intent on understanding what’s happening than continuing to try to get his girlfriend back. Once Nadia and Charlie unite, they can start to form a meaningful relationship (though not initially an amiable one), and from there, the story rapidly picks up.

The characters are initially intrigued though Charlie is still more interested in getting back with his girlfriend that he sees Nadia as little more than an inconvenience. Charlie is unwilling to share what he’s learned about their situation, but Nadia is eager to tease apart whatever she can. Charlie proposes that they each have some personal struggle to get through, which Nadia dismisses quickly just as Charlie dismisses the first way he died.

As they discover more about each other and open up, they start exploring ways they can connect with the people around them, but just as they start to look like they’re making progress, Nadia starts seeing odd things and their unusual reality starts to break.

Why the he’ll couldn’t this show have compressed those first few episodes?

 

Part Two: Colors! But Why?

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I like the look of this show. I tend to enjoy series and films with high-contrast, slightly exaggerated color palates and dramatic camera work. This has both, and for the most part, it’s beautiful, even when what’s happening on-screen isn’t. It’s one of the better-looking television series I’ve come across in recent years. That said, it’s not without its flaws, visually speaking, and it’s a good demonstration of why a film that looks visually appealing sometimes might not sit right.

I do not pretend to be especially knowledgeable about cinematography. At least, I hope that’s what comes across. My familiarity with artistic media is largely constrained to high school classes, workshops, and whatever I’ve taught myself as a hobbyist, so my terminology is likely a bit off, but I believe I can communicate the basics of what makes a shot look good from an audience perspective.

First, it needs to be clear. An artist needs to know the foundational rules before they break something, and nine times out of ten, an unclear shot will not be tied to any clear purpose. Student films are plagued with unnecessary artsy shots that communicate nothing of import (I should know, I have made them). Most professional cinematographers strive for clarity, getting a shot where the subject is in focus, the lighting is appropriate to the tone of the scene, the camera is stable, the background is simple and often blurred, and the framing and blocking don’t fall into cutesy cliche. A plain, strait forward shot is boring, but it does what it’s supposed to.

Once an artist knows how to perfect the functional shot, they can start to play around. Hue, saturation, contrast, playback speed, frame rate, angle, movement, and many other characteristics can be tweaked in subtle ways using various tricks of the trade to communicate additional subtext. The Dutch angle is a simple but effective example: tilting the camera so the subject and the reference point are misaligned, even just by a little bit, creates a sense of unease regardless of whether the subject creates that same sense. The Dutch angle is visually interesting because it contrasts with the shots before and after (unless you’re watching Battlefield Earth), but it also signals that something is metaphorically off-kilter within the film.

Of course, these techniques require an understanding of when the cinematographer should use them. Any old fool can tilt a camera (again, see Battlefield Earth), but most acclaimed professionals do so sparingly. Repetition and randomness clouds the image and any purpose behind it.

The second concept an artist needs to nail down once they have a good grasp of clarity is style. Style is a signature, something to change a shot from bland but competent to interesting (and hopefully still competent). If clarity is knowing how to use the principles of design, style is which principles you use. Particular artists tend to gravitate toward and away from certain elements or combinations of elements based on cultural upbringing, aesthetic preference, and how they think they can best communicate a concept that’s lodged itself in their brain. Many commercial artists adopt a particular style so they can be more readily identified amongst their peers, some (the assholish sort) going so far as to trademark certain colors so only they can use them.

Style is just as if not more difficult to manage and fine-tune as the basic elements of design. Few artists make one piece and stop there, so style becomes the accumulation of many small choices, some unconscious, that unite a piece, a project, a phase, or a corpus of work. The edges tend to blur between different artists united by circumstance, social circle, region, time period, and other cultural markers, to the point where distinguishing trends as intentional without context is nigh impossible. That doesn’t mean there aren’t trends to be seen, though.

Purpose is the last general feature of visual (or really any) art. It’s all well and good to know how to create something and then apply that knowledge, but the purpose behind the piece is where the truly interesting discussion comes in. Purpose is, by its very nature, subjective and unknowable. It is often contradictory and defined more by conjecture than anything else.

For example, in archaeology, rock art is among the oldest expressive forms, but its purpose is difficult to ascertain in any given situation. Researchers can often detail the techniques and tools involved in its creation and surmise details surrounding its context, like who created it and when, and what the customs surrounding it may have been. But look at any two textbooks or blog posts or news articles and they’ll tell you different thought processes behind the creation of ancient art. We can sometimes rule out unlikely possibilities and hone in on probable explanations, but these are inherently vague and incomplete. Accuracy in understanding motive always hits a large target.

The same is true for modern art as well, just to a different degree.

In art, the purpose of something is a combination of the artist’s intent, how well they communicate that intent, how receptive the audience is to it, and whether the audience brings any additional context to the table. It’s the only part in the artistic process that explicitly involves the influence of a separate party, and it’s a shared experience. One person looks at Macbeth with the historical knowledge of the characters and the author and the political climate of the time, and they’ll come away with a different experience than a fifteen-year-old who only knows Shakespeare as “That To-Be-Or-Not-To-Be Skull Guy.” Both may get a worthwhile experience out of the play, but it will not be the same experience.

Some works cater to the person trying to read into the subtext and metaphor, others just try to tell a straightforward story, and some try (try) to do both. A determined reader can read subtext into any story, but at some point, it’s up to the delivery of that story to ease the process for the sake of cohesion.

Okay, so what does any of this have to do with Russian Doll?

In short, the show nails the first two aspects of artistic presentation. It is clear and it is interesting. But the last part is where it struggles to find a foothold. Beyond its essential story, what is it trying to communicate? It has themes and motifs, loaded terms and imagery, it has meaning. But almost all of this is communicated through dialogue where the visuals are usually left to look pretty and tell the superficial story.

For instance, there’s one scene in the last episode that looks lovely and caters to gimmicks I especially enjoy. Charlie is talking to some of Nadia’s friends whom she wronged at some point in her past. Charlie proposed that they were being punished for their sins, and to get out of the loop, they have to make amends. While starting to do this, though, the two protagonists get separated, stuck in the other’s first loop. So when Charlie encounters Nadia’s lesbian friends at a party while looking for her, he remembers the story she told him about dissuading the couple from getting the dog, and he tells them that she regrets saying it. It’s a sweet little scene, perhaps bittersweet in Nadia’s absence, but it’s a much-needed moment of catharsis.

It also looks good, but here’s the thing: it’s filmed as a slowly-zooming-out long take set outside the apartment window, lit in warm yellow light. On its own, it looks great, but the content does not merit these stylistic choices. This is a small intimate moment between a few characters, but it’s not tense in any way, so why the long take? The room itself looks warm and comforting, if a bit crowded, and Charlie is conceptually isolated within the story as he’s taking up Nadia’s position at the party. The interior of the house is fine, but the camera is placed in the cold, unwelcoming outdoor walkway.

… Why?

Why zoom? Nothing new is being revealed to the point-of-view character. Is it because the lesbians are being enlightened?

The choices in this scene are deliberate and would be difficult to execute, so I have to assume there’s some point to them, but I can’t think of any other than to make the scene look interesting.

The show does this a lot. It’s not nearly as bad as Sherlock of Hannibal (which I’m just now noticing are named the same way), but the cinematography is similarly style over substance much of the time. I could conjure up a meaning if I thought for a while. Perhaps the show means the window to imply that closeness with others is a guard against the harshness of the rest of life. Charlie has difficulty speaking to the important people in his life, so maybe the long take builds upon tension I didn’t realize because this is actually a difficult step for him. Maybe the window symbolizes Charlie being stuck in another dimension.

None of these conclusions quite fits, nor are they easy to elucidate. Further, there is plenty of subtext and symbolism in this series, but it doesn’t quite align with the visual message.

 

Part Three: Come Together

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This series is about community. Unlike most shows with a similar focus, though, it aims small, starting with two characters who isolate themselves, and bringing them together so they can learn to connect with those around them. I like the message of the show. It has a simple arc and it uses a creative means to display it.

As Charlie and Nadia learn more about each other, they start to hone in on their respective crises. Nadia is fundamentally selfish. She has a large network of friends and family she takes for granted, and little direction in life. She has skills and she wants her world to have at least some small meaning, she wants to connect to people. But she’s unwilling to admit this to herself or anyone else. Opening up to people is dangerous because it makes you vulnerable, and Nadia has dealt with being vulnerable enough in her early life that she’s not eager to return to it. She’s a Jewish woman in video game design, and her childhood was overshadowed by her complex relationship with her now-deceased mother, an impulsive woman who once sold Nadia’s college savings to buy a family heirloom she herself lost. Nadia has gone through a litany of short-term boyfriends and remains in contact with her aunt, but tends to isolate herself from these people. Her friends might as well exist in another world, even the ones who come to her party.

Nadia’s arc is twofold, as is Charlie’s: she has to learn to help people, but also to trust them. Nadia’s isolation throughout the series belies her genuine empathy. When she and Charlie essentially live in a world separated from those around them, they can start to grow close. In one loop, they play around with a sexual relationship, but I think it’s crucial in this particular series that, unlike in Groundhog Day, sex does not stop the loop. In the 20th century, a happy ending meant love winning out and a man and a woman coming together for sex or marriage or babies. We still have that in stories in the 21st-century, but I think we’ve started to wise up and realize we can derive meaning from other endings as well. Sometimes love doesn’t solve everything. Sometimes the romantic ending isn’t what the characters need.

In the sixth episode, Charlie confesses that the first time he died was by suicide. Around the same time, Nadia is growing increasingly concerned that each reality is, to the people outside of the loop, real. She worries that there are worlds where her friends and family have seen her die, where they now have to live with horrible memories of unlikely accidents. She uses this as an excuse to keep from reconciling with her friends and family. Then she ends up on the other end of Charlie’s first loop, and vice-versa.

As they reach out to help their fellow time traveler, they soon realize that because they are trapped in the other’s first loop, they are once more alone as their regular travel companion has no memory of them — but because they haven’t gone through the looping timelines yet, maybe this time things will be different.

Perhaps not for the better.

The tension in the last episode comes from Nadia and Charlie trying to save each other from their first deaths, which they both succeed at after a few near-misses. They haven’t changed each other’s lives all that dramatically, but the small act matters. They’ve each been saved and saved another.

In the last scene of the show, they don’t end up together, but they get swept up in a raucous parade through the park thrown by the neighborhood. Nadia holds a prop to join in, and the two versions of the pair, mirrored initially, merge together. Here, the cinematography is at its flashiest, but it also kind of works. It does this visual paralleling of the characters frequently throughout the other episodes, to show that they (literally) mirror each other, but it’s the way the two worlds come together in time with the catharsis of the story that I especially like. It ties everything up, but not so neatly that it feels too cute.

Yes I would have preferred the story open with Charlie as a more prominent character. Yes I would have preferred it play less into the Groundhog Day premise and that the messaging behind its aesthetic were clearer. But I can live with that.

It makes me a bit sad, though, because many of these faults are not unique to Russian Doll. Netflix fosters particular tics in its series, and Russian Doll suffers for them. The bingability, the familiar yet rehashed premise, the prestige drama aesthetic, the promise that it’ll be a miniseries with a self-contained story, but the ending left just open enough to allow a sequel season. I hope they keep it a miniseries this time. Its story is sweet and simple, and it wants to be a quiet, self-contained thing. But it’s also Content, and once enough buzz crops up, you’ll want weird thumbnails to attract attention and a continuation of the series so Netflix can make bank on overpriced Funko Pops.

I don’t have an easy solution to that. Decent show, though.

 

 

Series Breakdown Rating:

Aesthetic: 7

Character Depth: 7

Hook: 3

Unity: 7

Pacing: 5

Sum: 29/50

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