I’ve been awaiting the sophomore season of Netflix’s Russian Doll with both anticipation and dread. Anticipation because I thought season one was outstanding, one of the best shows of 2019. I only mentioned it briefly in a post back then (and gave it a solid Wow! rating). I meant to write a whole post about it but never did.
The dread came largely from how complete the story arc of season one was. It was hard to see more story there. Dread also came from how good it was — a very hard act to follow. Maybe best not to try?
Season two finally came out last month. My best reaction is something along the lines of “Huh?” but the phrase “muddled mess” keeps running through my mind.
Unfortunately, it seems my sense of dread proved the more accurate. It was a mistake to try a second act. They should have let the first one stand.
The first season is an almost perfect sparkling diamond. It was so good I watched it again about a year later (which is when I should have written a post about it — stories like that are so much richer the second time around). It’s based on the Groundhog Day idea of someone returning to a start point every time they die. One big difference, the main character Nadia (Natasha Lyonne, who also did some of the writing and directing) can’t avoid dying over and over, despite her best efforts.
Each time she dies, she’s returned to standing in her friend’s bathroom during her 36th birthday party (thrown by said friend). Each time she exits the bathroom, reality is slightly altered — smaller, like how each nested Russian doll is similar but smaller with less detail.
A brilliant story excellently executed. Two thumbs up, highly recommended, strong Wow! rating.
I don’t lump the Groundhog Day premise with most time-travel plots. One might call it a time-loop story, but I see the notion as more akin to restarting a video game, possibly from a save position.
Season two of Russian Doll, which takes place days before Nadia’s 40th birthday, is definitely a time travel story, but it’s one without much internal logic. Time travel specifics are glossed over to the point of making it a magic wish. In this case, one granted by magical subway trains. (Which is a neat idea, actually.)
The first season obviously was a fantasy. The reset loop premise generally is karmic in some fashion and not under the control of the character. (In the Tom Cruise movie, Edge of Tomorrow, it was due to aliens rather than karma, so there are exceptions.)
The time-travel in season two is even more fantastic — essentially magical wishes. Going to the past requires taking a ride on a New York subway train and… wishing? needing? to be in another time. The universe apparently figures it out.
An aspect of this is that the time-traveler ends up in the body of an ancestor. In Nadia’s case, it’s mainly her pregnant mother, Lenora (Chloë Sevigny), in 1982 (resulting in a scene in which Nadia gives birth to herself and ends up carrying her just-born self around for a while).
The plot involves 150 gold Krugerrands stolen from Nadia’s grandmother, Vera, back in 1982. They were Nadia’s intended inheritance, and it appears fate has given Nadia a chance to recover them. After initially unwittingly helping the conman her mother was dating steal them in the first place.
An unrelated (and I thought gratuitous) B-plot involves Alan (Charlie Barnett), the guy from season one who was caught in the same time loop. After Nadia tells him about her subway time-travel ability, it turns out he has it, too. He chooses? is drawn to? East Berlin in 1962, where he inhabits his grandmother’s body.
Season one, despite its magical time-loop, had a gritty reality that grounded what was often a surreal story. It felt present and connected.
Season two seems without that grounding grit. The story is surreal to the point of being entirely dreamlike. For instance, Nadia goes to Budapest chasing clues, but there’s no real sense that she traveled. The story largely ignores issues of work, finance, and logistics. It just floats along from event to event.
Maybe I need to watch it again, forewarned and forearmed. Taken on its own merits, I might feel differently about my thumbs down, Nah! rating. (I still need to do that with the live-action Cowboy Bebop — another huge Netflix disappointment.)
As it stands, with a three-year gap for a measly seven half-hour episodes, it reminds me of HBO’s Westworld. But on a shorter scale. The second season of Westworld wasn’t up to season one, but it was the third season that really stunk (apparently a fourth is coming; whatever). In both cases, though, an outstanding season one but no follow-through. Perhaps the pressure was just too much.
Recently I finished yet another one-season stand-alone Japanese anime, Last Exile (2003, 26 episodes). Unlike many anime series, this was an anime series first. There is manga, but it came later.
It takes place on a fictional world (which extended material names Prester) where two nations, Anatoray and Disith, are locked in a stylized form of warfare. The rules of which are enforced by the technologically superior Guild (which lives in the sky).
Although “future science fiction” in many regards, the cultural context is steampunk, a 19th century retro-vibe. There are steam pipes and gauges and turning shafts and gears.
Most of the action takes place in flying machines, from giant battleships on down to small two-person craft (called vanships). All fly using Guild-developed anti-gravity devices, not aerodynamics. There are references to “Claudia fluid” and “units” from the Guild.
Steampunk is often big on dirigibles, but these machines are much heavier than air and don’t operate anything like dirigibles. Some are as vast as aircraft carriers (and serve the same purpose). They are presented as if they were ships and submarines — including references to being “sunk” (rather than “shot down”).
The nautical context is strengthened by the sense that the clouds here have more substance than normal clouds, almost as if they were far denser. Ships that impact them make big splashes.
The main characters are Claus Valca and Lavie Head, both fifteen-years-old, both friends since childhood. Their fathers flew vanships, two-person flying machines that look half classic car (with huge front ends) and half race car (with sporty lines). In fact, they’re based on the Junkers A 35, a German plane from the 1920s.
The kids are orphans. Their dads were lost in the turbulent Grand Stream that divides the warring nations. As it turns out, they were on a crucial diplomatic mission. Their kids inherited a vanship, which they fly as couriers for Anatoray. Naturally they become crucial in monumental events involving both nations and the Guild. And naturally there is more going on than at first appears.
Along with the vanship designs, which are as customized as race cars, there is a distinct German influence (not uncommon in Japanese anime). On the other hand, the text uses the Greek alphabet (or a close analogue), which was an interesting look.
It was an engaging change of scene and tone. The story kept my interest okay. I give it a strong Eh! rating. Worth seeing for anime fans or steampunk fans.
Hulu has a Watch List they call My Stuff. It has four screens, TV, Movies, Expiring, and Network. The first two are what you’d expect, the TV shows and movies you’ve added to the list. The third lists any from the first two that are within two weeks of expiring. The fourth I’ve never explored, but it seems to have to do with individual episodes of TV series.
Hulu divides the TV list into three groups: shows with new episodes, shows with unwatched episodes, and shows you’re current on. Within those groups, the shows are sorted alphabetically. It’s a fine system, but it has always been glitchy. It gets confused sometimes. (Movies are divided into unwatched and watched groups and alphabetically within those.)
I added Futurama to the list a long time ago, and I’ve been unable to remove it ever since. Nothing I did made it go away. But the list has behaved better lately, and I also noticed an Episodes screen in the show’s page that had a couple episodes listed. I removed them. That may have done the trick, or maybe it was recent bug fixes, but I was finally able to remove the show from the list.
Netflix lost points with me when they removed the ability to order the Watch List (which they call My List) manually. Now it’s random, no order at all, and no manual ability. I can’t imagine WTF they’re thinking there.
Amazon Prime (My Stuff) uses the order added, newest at top. Which is fine, and one can sort the list by removing and adding shows in the right order.
Stay sorted, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.