One Long Night: Russian Doll has Perfected the Art of the Binge Watch
There are eight thirty minute episodes in the first season of Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland’s new Netflix series, Russian Doll. In total, that’s about four hours of television. In the past, parents would tell kids that much time in front of the television would rot their brain, but television is a brand new beast these days, running at the same pace as its big brother, the cinema, who would typically leave it behind in the dust. In fact, Russian Doll has a lot more in common with its big sibling, than it does with its fellow television shows, even the more prestigious ones.
Russian Doll may be divided up into episodes, but its quite easy to sit down and watch the entire thing in one sitting without feeling as though you are binge watching a television show. The lack of anything more than brief title cards at the beginning of each episode help create the illusion of one scene seamlessly transitioning into the next.
I typically dislike binge watching television. I feel like it is a disservice to a season of television that many people worked incredibly hard on. There is a distinctive tone and feel to a single episode, even if it is part of a larger whole. I never felt that way about Russian Doll. Once I started the first episode, I knew I wasn’t turning it off until I had reached the end.
It is funny that even in a world where binge watching is a common household term for how we watch television these days, that people still find the idea of a movie longer than two and a half hours a chore. It’s shouted from the rooftops when people find out that movies like Blade Runner 2049 are two hours and forty-four minutes. We balk at the concept of a movie like Satantango having the gall to run 419 minutes, but we hardly bat an eye at the idea of watching all seven seasons of Game of Thrones in one weekend. Typically, this mindset aggravates me, but with Russian Doll, “binge watching” is the only true way to experience the series. I can’t think of another way to watch it.
There is a coherence and consistency in Russian Doll that is missing from even the best television shows of the last five years. There are a few contributing factors for why Russian Doll works so well as a whole, but a lot of it boils down to its small, reliable group of creators.
The show was created and developed by Lyonne, Poehler, and Headland. Although there are episodes that are written and co-written by Allison Silverman, Cirroco Dunlap, Jocelyn Bioh, and Flora Birnbaum, the clear voices behind the story are the show’s main creators. Nothing about this story feels manufactured or work-shopped. Everyone is on the same page, and the characters and story are clearly defined by one, singular vision.
Something that I’m surprised current television shows haven’t tried more often, is the first season of True Detective’s practice of hiring a single director with a clear vision for the story. While Russian Doll was not directed solely by Leslye Headland, there is a clear pattern to the baton pass to But I’m A Cheerleader’s Jamie Babbit. Headland directs the first three episodes, establishing and developing the world of our heroine, Nadia, putting us in the shoes of her struggle. When the end of episode three, A Warm Body, ends on a jaw-dropping moment of discovery, we are immediately thrown into the shoes of a brand new character, Alan, and Babbit steps up to the plate to reset the rules and introduce us to this new, late in the game character. And it is only fitting that the thrilling and emotional series finale would be lovingly directed by Natasha Lyonne.
The directors are of one mind in Russian Doll, and they successfully pull off the job of creating a fantastic story, filled with lovely characters, a pleasing visual sense of style, and most importantly, a beginning, middle, and a solid ending. When I finished watching Russian Doll I felt as though I had truly been told a story, instead of just consuming another collection of streaming content from the endless void of Netflix. This is a special piece of television, and it deserves to be just as popular as Stranger Things or True Detective.
I am a little leery to hear that the series has been pitched as a three-season arc. A part of me is intrigued, but the rest of me is satisfied with the ending we got, and I’d like to keep it preserved that way in my mind. But just like when a movie (however long it is) announces that it’s getting a sequel, sometimes, we just have to trust the creators and know that we are in good hands, even if we’re nervous about the final product. After the wonderful ride I was taken on in Doll’s eight episode run, I would allow them to take me on that ride again. Another four hours spent with Nadia and Alan sounds delightful.