Russian Doll

Started by Chris L, Feb 03, 2019, 11:55 pm

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Chris L

I really, really, really can't recommend this new Netflix series enough. Yeah, Netflix has probably come out with two or three more new shows since it debuted last week, but it's the one to watch. Honest.

It's sort of a sitcom, created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, and Lyonne seems to have intended this as a star vehicle for herself. And, boy, does she make the most of it. It's not giving away too much (because you'll figure this out from the Netflix description) that it's basically a variation on the movie Groundhog's Day with Lyonne in the Bill Murray role, but it's still very much its own thing. Episodes are only a half hour each and there are eight of them, so you can binge it in four hours.

The season feels thoroughly self contained, but I just read that the creators want to do three seasons. I'm not sure how they can pull that off, but I'm willing to go with them wherever they want to go.
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scenicdesign71

Feb 09, 2019, 11:48 am #1 Last Edit: Feb 18, 2019, 10:56 am by scenicdesign71
Quote from: Chris L on Feb 03, 2019, 11:55 pmThe season feels thoroughly self contained, but I just read that the creators want to do three seasons. I'm not sure how they can pull that off, but I'm willing to go with them wherever they want to go.

Yeah, I was surprised to read that too (that the show had been planned with a potential three-season arc in mind).  And here I'd been thinking that, with its four-hour total running time -- and its ending suggesting a traditional, well, ending -- Russian Doll was bucking the usual "streaming bloat".  I was less impressed than some by the show overall, but I'll be cautiously happy to watch a second season if that's still in the cards (which I would think only more likely now, given the universal critical raves).

I was perplexed throughout by the show's peculiar milieu, a Lower East Side that feels somehow both dreamily vague and hyperspecific in terms of its texture and period.  Jason Zinoman pulls it all together in a lengthy Twitter thread confirming my sense that, to a New Yorker at least, Nadia's time-loop seems to encompass a much, much longer orbit than just the night of her 36th birthday and the day (or so) after.  I remain baffled as to what non-New Yorkers might make of the show: even if one is inclined to write off Zinoman's theory as far-fetched (as he himself modestly does, despite confirmation from the show's creators), it's still hard to wrap one's head around the show's odd 80s vibe and its invention of a world in which apparently idle neo-bohemians in 2019 can somehow afford a rather spectacular LES floor-through, while a CUNY doctoral candidate studying "Updike and the Suburban Imaginary" somehow lives in a gleaming-white Yuppie cubicle with room for an actual dining table.  (This isn't Friends, after all; call it "sort of a sitcom" if you like, but I got the distinct impression that the creators thought they were doing something rather more ambitious).  If nothing else, the show's retro soundtrack and titles seem too aggressively deliberate to be merely random decorative flourishes.

Easter eggs, for those so inclined:
https://www.vulture.com/2019/02/russian-doll-easter-eggs-hidden-references.html

NYT's gloss on Zinoman's tweet and related local history as it pertains to Russian Doll:
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/05/arts/television/russian-doll-netflix-tompkins-square-park.html

The show viewed as scrambled autobiography (i.e., Lyonne's):
https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/netflixs-russian-doll-is-natasha-lyonnes-mind-bending-story-1181142

Design-geekery, including a helpful groundplan of Maxine and Lizzy's loft:
https://www.vulture.com/2019/02/russian-doll-bathroom-set-production-design.html

I've binged Russian Doll twice now, and while it's obviously grown on me, I still can't shake two pesky feelings:  (1) to me, at least, the show is mostly about this weird, sometimes richly-evocative but never-entirely-coherent milieu it's created -- aside from which, there's not a whole lot here that's new or wildly impressive, Lyonne's charismatic central performance notwithstanding; and (2), I can't help feeling strangely pseudo-nostalgic for that world -- many of whose references hit home with me even though they weren't, and aren't, really a part of my life either then (grinding my gears at NYU while only peripherally aware, at best, of Tompkins Sq Park being shut down a few blocks away) or now (living up in the Heights while, ten miles south, rich hipsters pretend there's still a speck of bohemia left on the LES).

Zinoman's historical details are fascinating (he really was there, literally in TSP during the '88 riot, albeit as a kid visiting from out of town), but his feel-good conclusion -- bohemia has always been mistakenly pronounced dying or dead, therefore it can't ever actually happen (see also: Midnight In Paris) -- seems unduly optimistic to me.



Chris L

The Easter Egg list on Vulture is odd. I think of Easter Eggs as external references, like the George Peppard one, while most of the others are just good continuity, which must be a difficult thing to maintain in a time loop.

I came to Russian Doll cold, stumbling across it on the Netflix home screen. I'm glad, in retrospect, that I hadn't seen the rave reviews, which might have set me up for disappointment; no show can live up to that kind of praise. Instead, it was a delightful surprise (and a "sort of a sitcom" because that's the closest standard TV programming category that it falls into, though it's an awkward fit).

Thanks, @scenicdesign71, for the article on Tompkins Square Park. I'm not entirely sure how the riots are the "key to" the show, though a great deal of it seems to have taken place in the park or next to it. But Lyonne and Headland seem to agree. I guess it is, indeed, a New York thing (though the characters, and their apartments, do seem to represent the kind of gentrification the rioters were protesting).

The retro soundtrack, I suspect, represents songs that the creators (or their parents) loved in the 80s. Being old enough to be their parents, I thought it was terrific. ;)
But us, old friend,
What's to discuss, old friend?

scenicdesign71

Quote from: Chris L on Feb 09, 2019, 11:10 pmThe retro soundtrack, I suspect, represents songs that the creators (or their parents) loved in the 80s. Being old enough to be their parents, I thought it was terrific. ;)

If it were literally that arbitrary, I'd count it as an irritating flaw: either forge a meaningful connection between the story you're telling and the songs you're using, or give me some other compelling reason to care about your (meaning their -- the creators', or their parents') personal taste in music.

Fortunately, in this case I don't think it is that arbitrary; indeed, my sense is of a world so specific and acutely-observed -- or intricately-constructed (if also then kinda run through a blender) -- that I'm caught between wanting to enter it and feeling trapped helplessly outside it.  There's definitely a late-eighties/early-nineties vibe here that goes beyond the random urge to share one's [parents'] favorite Pandora station, though I'm almost wondering whether a future season (if there are to be any) might delve deeper into Nadia's mom's (Chloe Sevigny) backstory, sketched out in S1 in quick, therapeutic, almost diagrammatically efficient strokes.  (And sure, pull the actual Tompkins Square riots into S2 while they're at it; hell, why not throw in a few soapsuds and have Horse turn out to be Nadia's long-lost brother?).

By the by -- I actually took Emily Nussbaum at her word when, in a spoiler alert not far into her review, she advises watching the show before reading further -- and then forgot to come back afterward, until just last night.  As usual, she's a worthwhile read (and, not for the first time, the sheer agility of her prose did go some way toward sweeping away my mild reservations about the show under discussion):

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/02/04/the-clever-thrill-ride-of-russian-doll

Bizarrely enough, the comparison to After Hours had occurred to me while watching Russian Doll -- despite knowing the Scorsese film only by reputation. (I know, I know... I've literally been meaning to see it since sometime in my mid-teens).  But I hadn't heard (or read) anyone else make that connection until Nussbaum.




Chris L

Oh, I don't think the songs were meaningless, though whether the fact that they're from the 80 and 90s is a link to the Tompkin's Square riots is beyond my capacity to judge. Perhaps in future seasons we'll get a clearer sense of the connection. At present, all I know is that I like the music.

I saw After Hours when it first came out on VHS and, probably by complete coincidence, Griffin Dunne seems to be making a major comeback recently on television, notably on This Is Us (as Jack's brother) and on something else that Amy and I saw recently, though for the life of me I can't find it in IMDB. He seemed to fade into obscurity after After Hours and, though it may be my imagination, seems to be having a career resurgence. Maybe he'll end up on a future season of Russian Doll.

The Elle website has some interesting comments about a possible second season for the show from Lyonne and Headland:

"A second season has not been announced yet. Lyonne and co-creator Leslye Headland told Thrillist that the team pitched Netflix three seasons of the show, but future seasons might look nothing like the existing one: 'Certainly there's additional things that we would love to explore if it makes sense to do it," Lyonne said. "Some of my ideas veer pretty wildly from exactly this world, some sort of stay in it.

"'We definitely pitched it as this three-season idea and yet it's so interesting to think about how that shapes and morphs in the time since making it,' Lyonne told The Hollywood Reporter in another interview. "Who knows if we'll be lucky enough to go back down the rabbit hole. That's tomorrow's question. But I think we have some ideas.

"Headland told The Hollywood Reporter: 'We pitched Netflix three seasons of the most bonkers, heartfelt, passionate, this-is-what-we-truly-feel-like-is-our-story-to-tell idea... And they said: 'Great, the more of that the better.'" Does that mean another season (or two) are definitely on the way? We hope so.'"

There's more, but the takeaway seems to be that they really have no idea where they're going from here, but a lot of possible ideas. All of them seem to revolve around Lyonne in some way or another, but the connection between seasons sounds like it's going to be more thematic than literal. Or maybe it will be both literal and thematic.

Like I said before, I'll follow them wherever they want to go.
But us, old friend,
What's to discuss, old friend?

scenicdesign71

Sep 15, 2019, 12:52 am #5 Last Edit: Sep 15, 2019, 07:48 pm by scenicdesign71
I suppose I should start a separate thread for this, but I was struck by a few broad similarities, so I'll just say: if you liked Russian Doll, there's a decent chance that Amazon's new animated (well, rotoscoped) series Undone might appeal to you.

I enjoyed both quite a bit, though not entirely without reservations.  Partly those had to do with both stories' eagerness to exploit, even while acknowledging and questioning, the spurious trope of mental illness as a kind of cosmic or spiritual gift.  It's a hazard of this particular genre, and one which both writing teams actually navigate pretty well, but it always tends to put me in a skeptical frame of mind from which I can rarely be entirely, 100% coaxed out again.

But with Undone, my qualms had at least as much to do with the rotoscoping itself: while often gorgeous, after lengthy exposure there came a gradual sense of diminishing returns (which I've experienced before with other examples of this technique; apparently this series employed some of the same animators from Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, with which it shares a clear visual resemblance in service to another trippy, dreamlike, strategically-unreliable narrative structure).  I could swear that, by the end of the four-hour first season, serious technical corners were being cut, with the slack taken up by a few too many greatest-hits reprises of visual setpieces from earlier episodes (not without justification -- as with Russian Doll, frantic repetition is a legitimate plot device here -- but still).  And from relatively early on, I kept getting vague, imprecise whiffs of the director's logistical triage: the need to devote more time and money to one sequence, less to another; to render different types of shots in different styles (by which I mean: different enough to snag my eye, but not enough to register strongly, or even particularly defensibly, as pure aesthetic choices); to assign the various scenes, backgrounds and characters to separate teams of artists; and so forth.  I can't for the life of me figure out why such things would stand out to me more distinctly -- and distractingly -- with this form versus "pure" animation (or, for that matter, "pure" live action), but for some reason they seem to.

Anyway, if anyone else decides to watch this, I'd be curious to know their reactions.


Chris L

I hadn't noticed Undone on Amazon Prime before, though (on the Windows interface, at least) they seem to be advertising it at the top of the page, where they were recently advertising Good Omens. So I'm guessing it's new. Some of the scenes in their insta-preview look gorgeous and a few look spectacular. (I could swear there's a sequence where she's inside a video game.) Some of it looks similar to A Scanner Darkly, though I don't recall Linklater going quite so far out on the weird edge visually. (It's been more than a decade since I saw that film, though, so I don't remember the whole thing. And this may just be using newer CGI technology or technology that's gotten cheaper since Scanner.)

It looks like the kind of thing I'd enjoy, so I'll probably take a look at it. At four hours, it should be an easy binge.
But us, old friend,
What's to discuss, old friend?