Sunday, January 3, 2021

Forever Looping

As anyone who's had a substance abuse problem or lived with someone who has will know, keeping the supply lines open becomes a way of life. The last thing you want to do is run dry. That thought came back to me when I read Wilhelm's post on pandemic binge-watching: "The most difficult part of coming to the end of a show is that you now have to find something new to watch."

I do my best to make sure that never happens. My pattern for a while has been to have one dramatic series and two comedies in play at all times, interweaved in such a way that whenever any one of them approaches the end, the other two still have some way to go.

In the wings I keep several shows I know I definitely want to watch, along with a few more I might need if better options dry up. Netflix has a nice "My List" option I use to keep track of things. I don't remove anything when I've finished with it and Netflix doesn't do it for me. It makes for a handy tally of consumption.

It would be nice if Netflix let me annotate my list the way I've done in the screenshot above. Big red crosses for things I've already watched, ticks for shows I'm watching now, an elipsis for stuff I'm about to start on, question marks where I haven't made my mind up yet, tildes for standbys I know I'll get to some day but not any time soon and a big red NO for anything I've tried and didn't like or shouldn't have added to the list in the first place. Or something like that.

Amazon Prime has a similar facility although it's not as slick as Netflix's and anyway Prime doesn't appear to be adding new stuff often enough for me to need to keep a list right now. And that's the real problem. When you first subscribe to these services there seems to be more than you'll ever need. Indeed, the initial issue is how to put any kind of dent in the pile.

It's amazing how soon you get through the must-sees to the maybes, though. I don't really watch that much, certainly not by the standards of 1980s or 1990s me, but a couple of hours a day burns a hole that needs filling.


As I mentioned in my response to Wilhelm's post, I've been taking a lot of my recommendations from bloggers I follow. More often than not it's just a mention in a piece about something else. My blog roll doesn't feature too many who post specifically about their viewing habits but several mention what they're watching, in passing. All I need is a hint.

Once in a while, though, I will come up with something on my own, like the show I just finished watching last night: Russian Doll. I hadn't heard anyone mention it before I spotted it on Netflix although now I look it up I see it was nominated for a bunch of awards in 2019, none of which it won. As usual I'm about a year or two behind the zeitgeist. Which is fine at my age.

Doesn't matter. The point is I hadn't heard of it before I noticed it cropping up in the slew of "suggestions" Netflix pumps out daily, almost all of which I ignore. Only for some reason I didn't ignore this one. The thumbnails were stikingly simple, mostly just a picture of a matryoshka or the lead actor's face. It didn't seem to be trying too hard. Always a good way to get my attention.


So I added it to my list and it sat there for a while until I got towards the end of the third season of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Deserves a post of it's own. Not going to get one. I was starting to get a little antsy, anyway. Netflix had flagged Sabrina with a "New Season Coming 31st December" banner but I knew I was going to come up short by a couple of weeks before that kicked in. What to do?

I tried Strong Girl Bong-Soon, which looked like it might be interesting. There are a lot of subtitled South Korean shows on Netflix but I hadn't yet tried one. After the first hour-long episode I was of the opinion the cultural gap might be just a tad too wide for me to jump without a run-up. 

There were parts of the show I liked a lot but there were other bits that I found... disturbing. For a light super-hero comedy it seemed very... violent. Not brutal Titans violent or grotesque Happy violent (geez... what an hour that was. Never again.). Just weirdly cartoonish violence using real people. Also the gender politics were a little difficult, here and there.


So that was out, at least for now. I thought about all the shows on my list but I didn't really want to start on any of them with Sabrina Season Four on the way so I started dapping through a few others I'd had an idle curiosity about, which was when I noticed Russian Doll's episodes were only 25-30 minutes long. I'd figured it would be an hour-long drama but apparently not. So I watched the first one right then. And it was great.

It's a very easy show to sum up. It's "What if Groundhog Day actually had an interesting plot?". I'm not a big fan. I saw it at the cinema on first release, back when I was going to the cinema two or three times a month, every month. I used to go see a lot of arthouse films in independent cinemas and a lot of Hollywood movies in multiplexes. Actually, in those days I don't think there were any multiplexes in the city where I lived. Mostly old 1930s picture palaces converted for three or four screens. But I digress (and not for the first time).

As I said, I wasn't all that impressed by Groundhog Day. It was good but I couldn't see what made it movie of the year material. I can watch Bill Murray in anything but at times I thought even he looked like he didn't quite get it.


It seemed like an interesting idea that no-one onboard really knew what to do with. It hit some kind of collective nerve, though, because since then the whole "live the same day over and over" time-loop concept has become a complete cliche. Of course, when I started watching Russian Doll I had no idea that's what I'd be getting. I hadn't read a single review or watched a single trailer. I'd read the Netflix description under the thumbnail and that was it.

Okay, if I'd been paying attention the blurb does in fact reveal that Nadia, the titular lead, "meets an untimely end...then suddenly finds herself back at the party" but in my defence I wasn't paying and attention and that is pretty vague. Half an hour later I was in no doubt: wake up in a bathroom, take drugs, die, wake up in a bathroom. That's the whole of the first two episodes.

I mean, we've all been there, right? Not the time loop but the setting. It's that New York state of mind. If Russian Doll wasn't so good it would be downright derivative. Half a century of literary and cinematic tropes in kit form. Forget Groundhog Day, think After Hours, Slaves of New York, Bright Lights Big City, Breakfast at Tiffany's... If Candy Darling and Joe Dallesandro walked past with Woody Allen in a muffler you wouldn't even bat an eye. 

For this kind of thing you need smart, hard, brittle dialog that drips with meaning and emotion and shallow, empty people filled with warmth, wisdom and empathy. It's a hard ask and many fall short but Natasha Lyonne carries it shoulder high. She's the lead actor and co-writer/creator, along with Leslye Headland and... oh yes, Amy Poehler. Well, that figures.

When you get the cast and the characters and the setting and the dialog this right the plot doesn't really mater but Russian Doll's nested narrative is fascinating. The title refers to Nadia herself, natch, but also to the complex interfolding of time, something whose mechanics, purposes and reasons remain deliciously unexplained throughout. 

Part of the draw is working out what the hell is going on, something Nadia and Alan, about whom I won't say anything becauuse almost anything I say about almost anything is going to be some kind of spoiler, spend most of the series trying to discover. There are only eight episodes and since no-one, presumably, knew whether there'd be a second season when they were writing them, there's even a kind of ending. Doesn't actually explain anything but that's the joy of it. 

Well, it is for me. I really love not knowing stuff. I like shows and movies and books that set up complex narratives and refuse to resolve them. I like stories that just end with no resolution. If you like to listen to smart, funny, quick-witted people being cynical and self-centered as they drive relentlessly toward a conclusion neither they nor you understand, this is for you.

I get that a lot of people don't like most or all of those things and that most people like to know what the hell they just watched when they get through watching it. On that front, at least, there is some hope. There's a second season already commissioned. Maybe it will shed some light on what's been going on. Or not.

I'd bet on not. In fact, I'm banking on it.


  1. Russian Doll predated the pandemic for us, so didn't make my binge watching posts. But it was a fun show, very much about following Nadia as she tries to work out the rules of her suddenly looping existence.

    1. I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with the set-up in Season Two but really the strength of the show is the lead actor. She's pretty much in every scene and she's a great screen presence.

  2. Natasha rocks that part.

    Groundhog day makes a tad more sense when you realize he's been in the loop for over 100years. So near 40,000 times the same thing. It becomes a sort of horror movie at that point.

    Dark. Ya gotta watch Dark. Sci fi time travelling story that gets almost as complex as Primer. Its a hard one to binge, as your brain needs time to breathe.

    1. Have to second the Dark recommendation. Just finished season 1, it was great.

    2. Oddly, I just noticed from something I read recently that Groundhog Day has that timescale. It's a very long time since I saw it and I only watched it that once in the cinema but I have no recollection of that being revealed. In my memory it would have been a few months at the very most. I probably should watch it again but I don't imagine that's very likely to happen.

      On "Dark", it's been on my radar for a while. My ex, who is great for recommending stuff and knows what I'm likely to find interesting, suggested it. I've even watched the trailer but I actually found that off-putting rather than encouraging, although now I can't remember why.

      I'll put it on the list.


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