Gotta Get Up
Human beings have a natural tendency to question authority, to resist doing things that everyone tells us to do. Which is why, I’m now embarrassed to say, I put off watching Russian Doll until this weekend. The Netflix mini-series was just getting too much hype. The 98% Rotten Tomatoes score, the cries of “brilliant” and “visionary” on Twitter…it just seemed too good to be true. But once every three months or so, I like to pretend I’m disciplined. So, knowing that an aspiring TV writer really couldn’t afford to miss this, I sat down and watched it on Sunday.
Fortunately, this was one of those situations where the entire American public was correct. The show really is that good.
The complex show doesn’t lend itself well to newsletter descriptions, so I won’t go beyond the basic premise. But it follows a woman who keeps reliving her 36th birthday party, and always dies at the end of it. Which, I know, sounds exactly like Groundhog Day. But I assure you, it isn’t. It was clearly influenced by the iconic Harold Ramis film (admittedly a favorite of mine), but it quickly goes in a very different direction. The main character (played by series creator Natasha Lyonne) is one of the most unique sitcom protagonists I’ve ever seen. She’s so different that every moment she’s on screen is absolutely mesmerizing. The show combines a science-fiction-type premise with a New York mumblecore tone in a very addictive way.
For me, the show is wonderful because it made me appreciate techniques that I had previously written off. The story is a tightly-woven tapestry, with multiple plot lines that fit inside of each other like Russian nesting dolls. Subtle details from one episode come back five episodes later, and you kick yourself for having missed the hint. This used to be my favorite kind of sitcom writing, and watching shows like How I Met Your Mother and Arrested Development, which both do this very well, helped persuade me to choose this career path. But recently, I’ve grown bored of shows that rely on twists and gimmicks and self-referencing to be funny. It seems too clever by half, and the recent TV boom has given us many, many shows that do it poorly. I also got better at writing, and better at predicting twists before they occurred, making the whole experience less satisfying.
But Russian Doll was so good, I could watch it as a fan, without wearing my “writer” or “critic” hats. It never felt like they were just using twists and self-references for the sake of showing off. Everything organically fit the story, and there were a few times when something meta happened and I was surprised and delighted. It works because all of this is in service of character and plot, not gimmicks. This ability to make complex writing look effortless demonstrates tons of technical virtuosity, and makes the show a treat. It inspires me to be a better writer, to practice more so I can eventually create something so seamless.
I write all of this because a) I want you all to watch the show, and b) it renewed my interest in a style of writing I had grown bored of, by doing it better than anyone else. It’s a lesson for all of us. Even the most overdone concepts, in any industry, can be made exciting again by elevating them to a higher level of quality than we’ve previously seen.