How 'Russian Doll' Updates a Tried-and-True Concept
'Russian Doll', the latest comedy/drama television series from Netflix, is gaining traction as one of the best shows of 2019.
It should be fairly obvious, but here's your spoiler alert. Read ahead only if you want to know what happens in later episodes of Russian Doll!
The show follows the irascible Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), who finds herself trapped on the night of her 36th birthday, dying repeatedly but coming back to life with no explanation. No one around her seems to notice, that is, until she meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), who is stuck in a time loop of his own. Together, they have to figure out why they're dying at the same time. They realize, in a bit of genius narrative resolution, that during their first interaction, they failed to help each other in moments of need and desperation, setting them both on a looped timeline. They need their multiple deaths to strip away layers of their exterior selves (much like the outside Russian dolls in a nesting set) and face the deeper issues that have been holding them back. In Nadia's case, it is coping with the death of her mother.
One might make the obvious comparison to Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's 1993 comedy. But there are other projects with similar ideas. Happy Death Day, The Edge of Tomorrow, and Source Code immediately come to mind.
Much like Sam Elliott's character in A Star Is Born states, artists have a limited amount of tools. Musicians have 12 notes, and writers and directors often rely on the same storytelling mechanics, tropes, and narrative premises to form new movies and TV shows.
So how do you take a tried-and-true concept and make it your own?
The show is a result of several women's creative talents. Leslye Headland wrote, produced, and directed the series. Lyonne also wrote and directed several episodes. Amy Poehler wrote a few episodes and served as producer. Together, they came up with a series that nods to other established "time loop" properties but sets itself apart with a level of existentialism and reflection that leaves the project feeling like an entertaining therapy session, peppered with acerbic comebacks from Nadia and the sincere humor of Alan's neuroses.
So yes, Russian Doll, like Groundhog Day and Happy Death Day, uses grim hijinks to propel the plot. Nadia and Alan die time after time, in ridiculous and gruesome ways. But many would argue that calling Russian Doll a darker, more recent Groundhog Day is too reductive and doesn't take into consideration the many elements that make it unique.
As a TV series, the project has much more room to breathe and explore the characters' world. It follows a well-written female protagonist with flaws and bad habits and deep-seated mommy issues. Another lead pops up halfway through, revealing that the heroine is not all on her own, which turns the traditional time-loop plot on its head. The show plants important plot points with delicacy in conversations that feel authentic. It utilizes New York City as both a rich backdrop and a source of endless danger (watch out for those sidewalk cellars). And the show keeps the action very, very small. This is a story about characters coming to grips with their problems, learning how to be better to themselves and those around them, and realizing that they need each other to move forward. Even as a half-hour comedy, the plot is profound and explores a great deal about the human condition.
Some takeaways? Don't be afraid to use a concept that has already been done before, but also don't be afraid to innovate. Consider your protagonist, and maybe make them someone we haven't seen before. They can be younger, older, or a different gender, race, sexuality. Where other projects have gone big, maybe you can go small, and make something more character-driven. And while you're there, go deep, too. What is driving your characters on a psychological level? Finally, find a way to take the expected narrative in a new direction, either by introducing new characters or obstacles or rules.
What are some concepts that you'd like to give a fresh spin? Let us know in the comments below.