Russian Doll is the first meaningful contender for the best show of 2019

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The immediate reaction when you hear about Russian Doll is “wait, isn’t that a little bit like Groundhog Day?” – or, indeed, “wait, isn’t that a little bit like Happy Death Day?” – but this latest Netflix offering isn’t as derivative as that first impression might suggest. Working within a premise that’s fast becoming a genre unto itself, Russian Doll has a genuinely impressive capacity to surprise – most obviously in the fact that it’s become an early contender for the best show of 2019.

Let’s start, as the show does, with Natasha Lyonne – indeed, in a sense Russian Doll begins and ends with Lyonne, who’s not only star but also co-creator, frequent writer, and director of the stellar finale. If any show could be described as a star vehicle, it’s this one; it’s difficult to think of a recent programme that achieves as much on the strength of its lead performance as Russian Doll does. Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, a woman caught in an endless (and, yes, Groundhog Day-esque) loop, dying and reliving the same night over and over again – the night of her 36th birthday party. Lyonne is caustic and abrasive as Nadia, but deeply, deeply funny; Russian Doll delights in her idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, as well it should. (A whole article could be written specifically to celebrate the way Lyonne pronounces “cockroach”, enunciating it as a three-syllable word.) There’s a certain clomping psychicality to her performance too, an awareness of motion and body language that anchors the character with a certain leaden weariness: it’s obvious that Nadia is carrying something with her as she moves through each successive loop.

The first three episodes of Russian Doll revolve more or less entirely around Nadia, an exercise in establishing a premise and pushing its boundaries (although the first episode does include a vital link to the second half of the series). It’s a testament to the skill of all involved that this doesn’t feel like a show spinning its wheels right out of the gate – Russian Doll even manages to avoid the characteristic pacing problems Netflix shows so often suffer from. No, those first four episodes are a necessary piece of groundwork, and an excellent showcase for Lyonne’s knack for physical comedy; an extended sequence of Nadia trying and failing to go down the stairs safely is one of Russian Dolls best recurring jokes. (One of Russian Doll’s less obvious strengths, in fact, is a keen awareness of repetition as a comedy tool – of both its potential and how best to use it.) It all adds up to four episodes of television that are genuinely very funny, if not necessarily something that would be remembered as one of 2019’s standouts.

It’s the third episode cliffhanger, though, where Russian Doll really starts to sing.

russian doll netflix natasha lyonne nadia vulvokov charlie barnett alan zaveri leslye headland the way out ariadne a warm body alan's routine elevator lift cliffhanger

Within a premise like Russian Doll’s, the supporting cast could very easily be thankless roles – resetting with each loop, stuck repeating different variations on the same lines over and over. It’s worth noting the quiet, understated skill of the wider supporting cast that Russian Doll largely avoids this; within relatively little televisual real estate, as it were, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley and Yul Vazquez, amongst others, are all able to quickly define their larger than life roles.

Nonetheless, though, one of Russian Doll’s key twists on the familiar premise is in giving Nadia a companion in her repetitions – Charlie Barnett plays Alan Zaveri, also continually dying and reliving a single night. Introduced at the close of the show’s fourth episode, Alan is, in many ways, the perfect foil to Nadia; Barnett gives a mannered, controlled performance as an individual who’s so insecure and nervous he seeks refuge in the strict routine of the loop. Alan is just as neurotic as Nadia, ultimately, it just manifests in different ways. Lyonne and Barnett complement one another well – it’d be dull to suggest that a female character’s story becomes more interesting with the addition of a male one, but that’s not what’s happening here anyway. No, it’s simply the case that giving a talented performer a similarly talented foil elevates the show – a rising tide lifts all ships, in this case.

The relationship between Nadia and Alan is ultimately key to Russian Doll’s spiky story of self-destruction, the heart of a character study that’s like a matryoshka doll in more ways than one. Across the latter half of the series, Russian Doll gradually pares back the layers of its lead characters as it moves from dark comedy to existential angst – there’s a rising intensity that comes with it, a result of touchingly introspective reflection. In a finale with more than one impressive directorial flourish, Russian Doll makes a bold declaration of intent; a move away from Nadia and Alan’s tragically isolated solipsism at the beginning of their loops, and towards a quiet embrace of what they share. At the heart of this Russian doll, there’s not one person, but two – and that makes things better, a little bit.

And with that, Russian Doll becomes the first meaningful contender for the best show of 2019.

Related:

My Top 10 TV Shows of 2018

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Safe’s story of paranoia and secrecy does an impressive job of standing out in a crowded genre

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What’s also notable, though, is the way Safe treats its characters. It’s a given in a crime drama like this that, at some point or another, each member of the supporting cast will become a prime suspect; Safe, for its part, moves the lens of suspicion from character to character in subtle, understated ways. It’s not dictated simply – or, maybe more accurately, it’s not dictated only – by the momentum of the plot, but often lead just as much by the camera itself, even when not addressed by the dialogue. Note how the camera focuses on Pete Mayfield’s car, after it’s revealed that not only has DC Emma Castle been investigating Pete, but that her former partner was killed in a hit-and run; the implication being, then, that Pete was the reckless driver in question.

Doubt is part of the text of the programme, and no one is free from it; Safe even positions Jenny herself as a figure of suspicion in at one point. It’s a clever solution to a problem that’s been endemic to the genre; while such dramas focus on a missing child, the child themselves is always defined by their absence, more an idea than a character in their own right. Safe uses the audience’s detachment from Jenny, and how little they know about her, to evoke a genuine uncertainty – one that neatly feeds into the drama’s wider concerns.

Man, this one was a difficult one to write. Genuinely, I can’t think of a single piece I’ve ever written that was harder to physically carve out of me, not for as long as I’ve been writing. I don’t think that – not effort, exactly, but it sounds less pretentious than “struggle” – is obvious on the page, because I don’t actually think that, in the end, it was a particularly good article. It was, you know, fin.

But! The difficulty came from, well, I’m not even entirely sure where. We’ll describe it as my mood, I suppose. All the “you can’t write” insecurities that we all have (or at least everyone says they have) just collapsed in on me at once right in the middle of this one. Literally, actually, the hardest part was the second half of the article. Eventually, I managed to get it done, though not after… well, a lot of thought and stress.

The moral of the story, of course, is that all these doubts are unfounded and I’m actually wonderful. No, I jest. When I actually did manage to fix it it was only because I just sat and ploughed through it (after several days of thought and space to calm down) – the real moral, I suppose, is that the only way to write is to write. Or something less twee, I dunno, there isn’t really a moral.

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Why wasn’t Electric Dreams as popular as Black Mirror?

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In almost every respect, Electric Dreams seems poised as a response to Black Mirror. There are surface similarities, obviously – both are high concept science fiction anthology programmes, after all – but it’s more illustrative to look at who was behind Electric Dreams; when you consider that it was co-produced by Amazon and Channel 4, the intent becomes obvious. Both had reason to want a drama similar to Black Mirror – Amazon to compete with Netflix, and Channel 4, as the latter programme’s original home before it was moved to Netflix, as a replacement.

In the lead up to Electric Dreams’ release, it seemed more than likely that the series would see equivalent success to Black Mirror. And yet, ultimately, Electric Dreams failed to replicate the success of Black Mirror. Which begs the question: why?

I was generally pretty fond of Electric Dreams, if admittedly frustrated by a lot of it. Across the ten episodes of its first season, there were some genuinely quite impressive hours of television; I think if I were inclined to isolate one particular flaw above all others, though, it’d be that sometimes Electric Dreams felt a little scared of subtlety and ambiguity. There were a couple of different episodes where the conclusion of the episode went to great lengths to explain things as much as possible, often unnecessarily, and sometimes to the detriment of the piece as a whole.

Still, though, there was a lot to like from Electric Dreams – it assembled some really quite impressive creative talents, arguably functioning better as an anthology series in that regard than Black Mirror. And yet Black Mirror still remained the more popular series, with Electric Dreams seemingly struggling to make much of an impact. This article, then, was an attempt to get to grips with that.

As an article, it’s probably not as analytical as it should be, nor evidence-based enough – really, what I needed was a lot of statistics and viewer data, and probably quotes from lots of different reviewers, AI numbers, that sort of thing. I did not have that. What it ended up as, then, was some speculation as to why Electric Dreams didn’t quite work in the UK. Even then, mind you, I might not have been correct in that speculation – just typing this up now it occurred to me that Electric Dreams might have been “too sci-fi” in a way that Black Mirror isn’t, for lack of a better way of putting it. So who knows really.

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In season 2, Jessica Jones became more of a superhero show – but that’s not exactly a good thing

jessica jones season 2 marvel netflix kilgrave alisa jones krysten ritter david tennant janet mcteer

No, Kilgrave – and, indeed, the first season of Jessica Jones as a whole – worked because there was a certain truth to him. The character served as part of Jessica Jones’ exploration of rape culture, of pervasive and insidious attitudes that can be observed in real life. A lot of the drama and tension comes from the fact that audiences are familiar with him, and those like him, both on a diegetic and extra-diegetic level; there’s something recognisable about Kilgrave, something that maps onto real life experiences.

Across season 2, we follow our eponymous hero as she’s drawn deeper and deeper into a convoluted conspiracy, uncovering information about the shady organisation that are responsible for her powers. It’s something that Jessica Jones isn’t particularly well suited to: the conspiracy angle is weak, and the return of a key character from Jessica’s past marks a genre shift that the show can’t sustain. In essence, it’s because little of this is analogous to real experiences. A huge amount of the strength of Jessica Jones previously came from its ability to use the trappings of the superhero genre to tell a story about trauma and surviving abuse; here, it’s weighed down by old tropes and familiar archetypes. Where the fantasy angle of Kilgrave’s powers was used to great effect to tell a story about genuine human experiences, that’s not the case in season 2.

Very heavy spoilers for Jessica Jones series 2 here, particularly after episode six – wouldn’t recommend reading it until you’ve seen the whole season, personally.

Not sure I quite got this article right – often the way when you’re writing quickly to meet a deadline, moreso after having binge-watched something. (One day, I should write about my growing disdain for binge-watching television programmes. It’s often a necessary evil of my job – gotta get the clicks within the optimal search hours – but I do think that television criticism, and actually in a broader sense television viewing, suffers from binge-watching.)

Anyway, though, this article. It perhaps might have been better titled “Jessica Jones loses sight of human experiences”, or words to that effect. In short, my feelings are that the best parts of Jessica Jones season 1 were the moments when it was least like a superhero show – when it reflected real life, even if only in an allegorical sense. The fact that it’s increasingly like a fairly over-the-top and convoluted superhero show in S2 was a bit disappointing – it felt like a genre shift in a show that didn’t need one. (Again, I have fairly complex thoughts on “superhero” as a genre definition, but that’s for another time.)

Still! I hope you like this article – or, if not the article itself, at least the basic gist of the ideas that are going on within it. Let me know in the comments below what you think!

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Collateral is an intimate drama fascinated by individuals and sceptical of institutions

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What’s interesting about Collateral, of course, is that it’s very pointedly not a whodunnit. It spends very little time dwelling on questions of the murder’s identity, revealing this roughly halfway through the second episode; instead, Collateral unfolds from both directions, focused on questions of how and why rather than who. At each turn, the show avoids leaning into any simplistic formulae – it’s consistently something more interesting.

I went back and forth a lot over whether or not that title needed a comma after “drama”. Still not sure. Also, come to think of it, the inclusion of “intimate” full stop. I suspect I’ve come to overuse that word.

Anyway, here’s a piece on a show I really really enjoyed, but no one has really seemed to be talking about much. It also, entertainingly, fairly neatly highlights the problems with how I’ve broken down the television genres on the blog, given that this is tagged as a “crime drama” and I open the piece by talking about all the ways it’s not exactly that.

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The problem with poor pacing, and increasingly overlong television

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Having a more flexible runtime makes sense – generally speaking, the traditional forty-five-ish minute slot for a drama or the twenty-five-ish minute slot for comedy are fairly arbitrary ideas imposed by the demands of advertisers rather than anything else. There’s nothing inherent to the stories that dictate they hold this structure, so the opportunity to be a little bit more malleable and adaptable can be worth pursuing.

Yet it’s debatable whether this approach is really effective, and whether the freedom that’s been allowed has ultimately been a good thing. There’s an argument to be made that, over the past few years, it’s led to a slew of poorly paced television series; slow and plodding, not using their runtime effectively. It’s not so much that a serial has to be filled with incident, but that there’s a sense that not every minute has to be earned in the way that perhaps it used to be – in turn leading to more meandering, more superfluous storytelling.

This article brought to you by the hour I spent watching the first episode of Seven Seconds, though could just have easily been brought to you by the interminable thirteen hours spent on Jessica Jones series 2.

A while ago, I changed up my approach with how I write about television; I decided, basically, that I was only going to write about a show when I’d seen the entire thing. Just a different way of looking at it, taking the series more holistically basically, and a way to stop myself getting too complacent – after a while, I figure I’ll probably switch it up again.

But anyway, this led to a lot of Netflix binge-watching, which was always frustrating – with the above Seven Seconds, ten episodes totalled around eleven hours entirely (there was one episode which was seventy-five minutes long, which is pretty much never necessary) and it worked out that if I watched all ten episodes, then spent another three hours or so writing an article on the show, my final pay would work out as less than minimum wage. Which I was not wholly impressed by. So I wrote this article about why TV episodes are too long instead. Though admittedly I’d probably mind less if I was paid more. So, you know.

(Some months later, a more well established TV critic, the name of whom escapes me, wrote something similar titled something to the effect of “overly long episodes are the TV equivalent of manspreading”, which is a much better title than mine. Made me laugh, anyway.)

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Some of the best TV you might have missed in 2017

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One of the things that always stands out to me about year-end ‘best of’ lists is that there are usually quite a few shows that, for whatever reason, I never got the chance to see. What’s nice about that, of course, is that those lists become a set of recommendations for me to work through for the next few months.

But it did get me thinking, though – how about a list specifically to that end? Here are the shows, then, that you might have missed; ones that flew under the radar a little bit, either because of the channel they were on, the language they’re in, or the time of year they came out.

It’s obviously an incomplete list – how could it not be? – but here’s some of the best TV you might have missed in 2017…

The State

The State Channel 4 isis peter kosminsky national geographic Ony Uhiara Sam Otto Shavani Cameron Ryan McKen.jpg

The State took on a controversial and difficult subject matter in a sensitive way – but more than that, it did it at exactly the right time too. A nuanced and considered look at how people are radicalised, it was a compelling drama that drew on extensive research of real-life cases. Intense and emotional, The State explored nuanced storytelling in place of simplistic thinking – always willing to challenge audience’s preconceptions and prejudices, this was a stark and powerful drama.

Clique

Clique BBC Three bryan elsley jess brittain louise brealey synnove karlsen aisling francoisi

The first episode of Clique was a particularly tense and taut hour of television, crafted with a real precision; it was one of the most effective pieces of drama BBC Three produced in a long time. With an unrelenting intensity, gradually probing the darker aspects of the world it put forward, Clique was an effortlessly self-assured piece of television. Certainly, it’s the sort of programme that might be easy to dismiss at face value; yet another teen drama without a huge amount to offer on its own terms. But to think of it that way it to do a real disservice to the intricate, nuanced work that was going on beneath the surface – there’s a real feeling, watching Clique, that it exists in a world that goes above and beyond the young adult drama you’ve seen before.

Ronny Chieng: International Student

Ronny Chieng International Student molly daniels declan fay comedy central malaysia melbourne university comedy central

It’d be easy to miss this one – a BBC Three acquisition that was only broadcast on BBC One very late at night – but it’d be a real shame if you did. Ronny Chieng: International Student has a certain charm that you could liken to Community, perhaps, but it’s very much its own show. Witty and inventive, this series draws on the real-life university experiences of its star Ronny Chieng – the perfect straight man for his increasingly absurd surroundings. In a year with a lot of great new comedies, this is the sort of show that might not get the attention it deserves – but it is genuinely, properly funny.

Snowfall

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Part of what I like about Snowfall is that it’s slow. Not in terms of pacing, not exactly; rather, it takes a measured approach, one that really lets it dwell on the period and pay close attention to detail. In that sense, Snowfall stands out because of how well it’s able to evoke a feel for the crack epidemic in 1983 Los Angeles. It’s the perfect backdrop for a cast of characters making increasingly compromised decisions – with newcomer Damson Idris giving a standout performance, Snowfall is definitely a drama that’s worth a look.

Babylon Berlin

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Babylon Berlin is absolutely mesmerising. I said as much in my review of the show’s first season, but it really does bear repeating. The most expensive piece of television Germany has ever produced, every penny that went into Babylon Berlin translates to the screen – it’s a gorgeous drama, perfectly evoking the aesthetic of the 1920s. It’s also home of one of the best television moments of 2017 full stop – the almost trance-like conclusion to the second episode is breathtaking, exuding confidence and inspiring awe.

Ill Behaviour

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Ill Behaviour took an absurd premise, but elevated it into something more – a dark comedy that was also a genuinely affecting drama. With a wit as quick as it was dark, this wasn’t just gallows humour; it’s a programme about repression, denial, and the lengths people go to in extreme situations. As ever, it’s a show that works because of its characters – self-destructive and neurotic, and perfectly pitched by the cast, each have a real and meaningful character arc. Ill Behaviour is packed with laughs, but it also leaves a lasting impact long after the credits roll.

The End of the F***ing World

the end of the fucking world alex lawther jessica barden charlie covell jonathan entwhistle lucy tcherniak review netflix channel 4

One of my personal favourite programmes of the year – I know that’s true of a lot of the shows on this list, but it’s particularly true of this. The End of the F***ing World is an elegant character study, focused on two isolated teenagers who live in liminal spaces; it lends its two leads, James and Alyssa, a real interiority, serving to emphasise the poignancy – and in some ways the tragedy – of the journey they undertake. Of course, it’d be remiss of me not to mention Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden, who really do make the series; an absolutely magnetic pairing, they’re fantastic actors who really embody the facades, neuroses and vulnerabilities of their characters.

Even then, of course, there are a lot of shows I’ve missed off this list that, if it could go on forever, I’d have loved to include – Guerilla, Overshadowed, or King Charles III, to name just a few. And that’s without mentioning all the excellent shows that, for one reason or another, I didn’t get the chance to see – shows like Three Girls, The Replacement or Bancroft.

If nothing else, that was one good thing about 2017 – there was a lot of really fantastic television.

Note: This was meant to be a Yahoo article which, for boring technical reasons I can’t work out, doesn’t actually display on the website anywhere – so I’ve put it here instead. Looking back on some of my choices, there’s a couple I probably would’ve changed – the fact that both The End of the F***ing World and Babylon Berlin took off massively in early 2018 because they turned up on American Netflix was validating, but does make me wish I’d taken the chance to stump for Overshadowed, which I really do love.

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Black Mirror’s USS Callister is a perfect metaphor for nerd culture in 2017

black mirror charlie brooker uss callister star trek jesse plemons cristin milioti jimmi simpson michaela coel netflix toby haynes nerd culture 2017

The escapist fantasy is based on a slavish adherence to the idiosyncrasies of the original, yes – but, crucially, an unthinking and uncritical adherence, without acknowledgement of the flaws inherent to the premise. It’s the same fundamental mentality that prompts outrage and fury at the inclusion of women or people of colour in Star Trek, Star Wars, or Doctor Who; the impulse to curate rather than create, the desire to maintain a static and staid world. Shaped around the ego of a single white man, this is of course a world that equates foreign with alien, dehumanises people of colour, and never lives up the ethos and code of conduct it claims to assert.

USS Callister continues to advance its metaphor, though, and in turn posits a solution of its own. And, in turn, of course said solution comes from a woman.

A piece about Black Mirror I was quite pleased with. (So pleased with it, in fact, I put it into my portfolio, if that’s something you’re going to want to check out.)

Something I didn’t mention at the time, but find interesting, is the fact that this episode is about exorcising toxic masculinity, and then the subsequent five episodes are all very female-oriented. You can see how the order of the anthology shapes the broader meaning of the series, which is neat.

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Why Beryl is the standout episode of The Crown Season 2

Vanessa Kirby the crown princess margaret anthony armstrong jones netflix beryl the crown season 2 hd

It comes back to a portrait – a metonym that the series used to great effect last year, in the widely acclaimed episode Assassins, framed around a lost portrait of Winston Churchill. Here, the series invokes the infamous pictures of Princess Margaret taken by Armstrong-Jones to similar effect.

There’s something ekphrastic about it, as the episode realises the shock and intimacy represented by the photos. More than that, in fact – it’s here that The Crown realises its initial promise, moreso than anywhere else. “No one wants complexity and reality from us,” declares the Queen Mother. But that’s what the photos represent, candid and intimate as they are – and what The Crown delivers for Margaret.

I really enjoyed The Crown series two, much moreso than the first – here’s an article on one of the standout episodes, about my favourite character.

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Babylon Berlin is an absolutely mesmerising piece of German noir

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Babylon Berlin recently finished its first season, and was absolutely stunning from start to finish. It’s a complex paranoia thriller, a noir mystery set against the backdrop of political intrigue, police corruption and revolutionary fervour – drawing each of its threads together into a compelling and skilfully executed larger story. The series carries itself with a certain confidence, and it’s an entirely deserved one.

There’s something almost relentless about Babylon Berlin – not in terms of pace, where the show is considered and measured, but rather in its zeal and dynamic. At times it’s positively electric, centred as it is at the eye of the storm at a time when the world is changing. With its focus on rising extremism from both sides of the political spectrum, Babylon Berlin depicts a way of life the audience knows will soon be cut short – something that adds to the current of urgency that underpins the series.

I absolutely loved Babylon Berlin – it was one of my favourite shows of 2017, and I think the close of the second episode is probably one of the best TV moments ever. Genuinely, it was like I was in a trance state watching that.

I’ve not yet had the chance to watch the second series – it’s sitting taking up space on the television planner right now – but I’m massively, massively looking forward to getting around to it eventually.

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