The common wisdom is that human beings are bad.
We have come to understand ourselves as essentially a slightly more complex form of locust, except more sentiently evil. There we go, a 7.6 billion swarm, making our way on Earth, consuming resources rapaciously without a care, all of us players in late capitalism, whether as hapless victims or unrepentant culprits. All around us are acts of vile depravity on a sliding scale; hell is empty, after all, and all the devils are here, this time sanctioned by governments and/or economical advantage. And because a lot of these current circumstances are the fruits of deep-rooted historical crimes, we appear to be largely inured to it. We have become brutalized on a cellular level; looking fine on the outside while morally decomposing in small increments on the inside. And where better to observe our incremental decay than in the television we make and consume? Explorations of this, the cruelest phase of capitalism and all its ills, recorded and beamed out to remind us that we are born alone and will die alone, while half-heartedly selling the relative “joys” of individualist living.
Except: That’s not all the current TV diet has to offer.
In the last few years a more hopeful genre of TV investigating a less bleak outcome for the human race (well, specific swathes of it) has slowly come into fashion. The best example is Michael Schur’s NBC existential afterlife comedy, The Good Place, which first aired in 2016. It follows a foursome (led by Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop) with a multitude of faults, navigating their way to goodness (or at least, the tipping point into goodness) after they have departed — and reentered, via many inventive twists and turns — this mortal plane. Just a week after the end of that show’s third season, Netflix released (a remarkably tight) eight episodes of Russian Doll, starring Natasha Lyonne as a woman who keeps dying and coming back to life in a purgatorial loop.
Both shows are peddling a somewhat revolutionary idea that counters the millennial “jokes” that see us yearning for the sweet release of death — that we, the human race, may actually have some redeeming qualities; that our moral fiber might not yet have gone fully rancid; that if we come together, it needn’t be via private jet, and set in a snowy Swiss ski resort town, among billionaires: Russian Doll and The Good Place are exploring more ethical avenues for us to travel down, in which our badness is openly acknowledged, right before we are gently nudged back onto the road of rehabilitation, via snappy but casually earnest dialogue.
At the heart of these shows is a radical humanity — selling very convincingly the idea that while we might all die alone, the key to getting through life lies in the collective. That we must seek help, and we must band together, and keep those bonds strong, even when faced with difficult conditions. More importantly, we don’t need to be ~100% good~ to enjoy this privilege of survival-kinship; it is merely part of the essential human contract. It’s a bold statement to make in light of the many fires we have not been able to put out across the globe, but it is very seductive, and eminently watchable.
On the face of it, the synopsis for Russian Doll doesn’t show a marked similarity to The Good Place. The show, co-created by Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and (Michael Schur/Parks and Recreation alum) Amy Poehler is, as its title suggests, a riddle wrapped in an enigma held together by the simple conceit of a never-ending day. It has a distinctly unreligious worldview (none of the world’s great faiths are held up very long as a potential reason for the looping) and isn’t even particularly interested in the afterlife. Russian Doll takes The Good Place’s idea of bad people — self-obsessed Tahani, cripplingly indecisive Chidi, monstrously selfish Eleanor, and comically criminal Jason — deserving a chance to make good, and then expands on it by introducing mental health, psychiatry, and therapy in organic, relatable ways.
The candy colors of The Good Place look almost cartoonish when compared with the grit of Russian Doll’s real New York City sets. But they are cousins in this TV landscape — both are equally effective at showcasing two things specifically: 1) that even “good” people can be fucked up, and 2) the metaphysical value in human connection, while we have the chance.
Russian Doll and The Good Place are exploring more ethical avenues for us to travel down.
Nadia Vulvokov (Lyonne) is a New York–based software engineer who keeps dying on or around the night of her 36th birthday, only to wake up in the bathroom at the party being thrown in her honor. After the initial shock wears off, each new death brings with it a gradual degradation of the universe around Nadia, as well as a little more perspective. Nadia is a complex woman: the type who intentionally gives rude finance bros bad directions in a bodega, who had an affair with a now semi-resentful married man, and who also misses her semi-feral cat, Oatmeal. And her arc is initially littered with errors and very little growth.
At first, Nadia goes the usual routes as she seeks an explanation for her repeated deaths. During one of her earlier loops she turns to her adoptive mother figure Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), a shrink who discourages the use of the word “crazy,” and the two decide the correct thing is for Nadia to be committed. In the third episode, Nadia heads to the office of a rabbi in search of answers, enlisting the help of John (Yul Vazquez), her married ex (offering a blow job as the transactional element that provides a “fun twist” in return), and later asks the rabbi’s assistant to pray for her to keep her from danger. Her response afterward is still less than gracious: “Thank you for the prayer. I appreciate it. I mean, it won’t do anything but, you know, thanks.”
The same loop sees her interacting at length with Horse (Brendan Sexton III), a man without shoes or a home who lives in a nearby park. Her desire for human connection becomes so deep that she allows him to to cut her hair and later gives him shoes to wear. It is this encounter, where she forms a bond and helps out a fellow human, that sets her off on her most productive loop yet. Her time — and an intentional, selfless act — with Horse is what propels her into the next phase of her enlightenment. It’s how Nadia finds out she is not alone in her predicament, aka the cleanest metaphor for the human condition. In Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett), Nadia finds a literal kindred spirit caught up in the same temporal loop. By being her deathmate, Alan also turns out to also be a sort of soulmate, and together they must work to put right what has gone wrong. In episodes that traverse intimate family and romantic relationship breakdowns, the deafening refrain appears to be “Help one another, in order to help yourself.”
The introduction of Alan complicates Russian Doll, and Nadia, marvelously. We get to know Alan straightaway by his environment: He is a man who packs and demarcates his holiday suitcase in clear plastic bags, a man who listens to and repeats recorded daily affirmations (“I am loved and deserve love”). And when we get into the people in his life, more is revealed, via his interactions with them. Thanks to his own repeated loops, we see Alan with his neighbors, like the elderly man he has learned to anticipate and help with the building’s front door, and the young woman next door he pays to feed his single fish. Even more revealingly, we see him with his girlfriend, Beatrice (Dascha Polanco), and briefly with his mother (Lillias White). Both seem to view him as a fragile creature, to be gingerly approached. In these loops, as Alan continues to refuse to change, his friend, bodega operator Farran (Ritesh Rajan) tries to sell him on the value of therapy. Alan out-and-out rejects the idea. “I don’t do therapy,” he says. “I can do it by myself. I can.” Farran looks at him for a beat before pityingly replying, “No one can do anything by themselves.” Alan’s friends and family see him but can’t seem to reach him.
The control he wields over his home and his body — what great posture! — is absent everywhere else in his life. His compulsive tendency to perfectionism has turned into a personal prison, where he beats himself up for not reaching arbitrarily set goals. By the time the show finally reveals how he dies the first time, it has done such a fine job of hiding Alan’s many unresolved issues in plain sight, the feeling is not so much an “aha!” as a much sadder “Oh, of course.”
Where Nadia embodies a refreshingly clear understanding — and acceptance — of a flawed self, Alan seems to suffer under the apprehension that he is a good guy who does not deserve to be trapped in this unknown in-between. To him, this existential limbo he and Nadia are existing in is “a purgatorial punishment for being a bad person,” though he can’t seem to figure out why the universe has got it so wrong in his case. Nadia dismisses his analysis as morally simplistic and narcissistic hokum — badness or goodness is irrelevant in her worldview (“There’s Hitler, and then there’s everyone else”). When Nadia posits a theory that their repeated deaths are harming other people as well, we get an understanding of the “what we owe to each other” at the core of the show. Off the back of this realization, Nadia is spurred to meet her ex’s daughter, whom she’s been avoiding. For his part, Alan confronts an unfaithful romantic foe, and says, “Look, I know it’s not up to me to punish you. But I don’t have to make this easy for you.” These characters’ behavioral growth, and by extension ours, is measured by how successfully they forge emotional connections.
The twist in the tale of Russian Doll is its ultimately squishy core, but that does not mean it’s not wrapped in something more steely. In a manner reflective of the moment, the show does not rush to tell us that everything will be okay in the end. The storyline of Nadia’s mother (Chloë Sevigny) — who remains resolutely psychologically unlabeled but is obviously unwell — is a tad undercooked, but rings of a depressing truth. We don’t always get to save ourselves, or others.
Russian Doll is ultimately the story of how we can save one another, once we have the tools to do so.
Like Russian Doll, The Good Place is also about connection.
Up to and after the grander revelation that the main four characters are in fact in the Bad Place, flashbacks show us the many ways they were awful while alive. Their flaws were enough to consign them to the moral dustbin, but in the Good Place their task, via Chidi’s previous earthly role as a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, is to become better, together. Spoiler: They do. And it’s no coincidence that the note that leads them back to one another after the reset (“ELEANOR — FIND CHIDI”) is written on a ripped out title page for What We Owe to Each Other, a book on contractualism by American philosopher T.M. Scanlon. In fact, there are casual references to Philippa Foot’s “trolley problem,” to Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, John Stuart Mill, and David Hume, among others. If you were looking to make a starter reading list, you could do worse (but also better: it would’ve been nice to see Nigerian philosopher Sophie B. Oluwole casually resting alongside Jeremy Bentham).
Russian Doll doesn’t go the philosophy route, but it is a sort of harshly lit love letter to therapy and self-care. It is a study of human pain and how some of us get up from underneath it (hint: it is often with the acceptance and help of others). Russian Doll is also unabashedly tender, showing the soft underbelly of its protagonists even as it’s poking them to reveal what really makes them — and us, the viewers — tick. The skill of the writers and performers is evident by how it elevates what could be indulgent navel-gazing into a very specific kind of contemporaneously relevant art.
The real miracle of first The Good Place and now Russian Doll is not that they are fluent and self-assured but that they are somehow not stringently didactic, despite their moral transparency. To be better, these shows tell us, we must turn to one another, over and over again. ●