‘Russian Doll’ Is a Thought-Provoking Examination of Mental Illness and Drug Addiction

I’m a little behind the ball with this one, but please forgive me as I’m finally starting to develop a system. Russian Doll is a dark dramedy released on Netflix in early February, and I’m only just now getting around to reviewing it. Though I’m getting a little fatigued by the constant churning of original content from the company, after noticing the show earned critical acclaim, I felt I should give it a look. The series is created by three extremely talented women, actress Natasha Lyonne, comedienne Amy Poehler, and playwrite Leslye Headland, with Lyonne starring in the lead role as Nadia. The production credits alone should at least warrant a look, but I’ll give a small description of where we start the series.

Nadia is in the bathroom at a party celebrating her 36th birthday. The party is graciously being hosted by best friend Maxine (Greta Lee) at her apartment. After discussing her missing cat Oatmeal and wondering if it’s too early to have a mid-life crisis (prescient considering the events to come), Nadia hits it off with rando-sex-guy Mike (Jeremy Bobb) and the two resolve to go back to her place to bang one out, stopping at the corner market on the way. Later, post-intercourse, Nadia sees her cat chilling across the street, so she runs into the street to nab the feline. She gets hit by a car, dies, and immediately regains consciousness back in the bathroom at the party where and when she started.

I’m afraid to say too much more about the story because part of the fun of this show is experiencing it. A lot of things that you may overlook in the first few episodes become more important as you go through the series. Each episode digs further and further into the main characters’ deep-seeded issues and exposes them. There aren’t a lot of shows that delve into mental illness the way this one does, but it is beginning to be a popular trope the more humanity comes to terms with its particular psychoses. Lady Dynamite on Netflix examined bipolar disorder while Legion on FX was inspired by schizophrenia. The difference with Russian Doll is that the theme is something almost all of us have experience with–burying things we don’t like about ourselves and letting them fester, eventually leading to irrational behavior.

Similar to the recently reviewed Us, there is so much to dissect here that it could easily fill a college course. It would be easy to dismiss the series as another take on Groundhog Day, a plot device which is so overused it borders on cliche, but that is merely the catalyst for making our characters confront the parts of themselves they’ve bottled up. Moreover, as opposed to the one-note movie, there a lot more unexpected twists here that completely change how you view it, such as the appearance of Alan (Charlie Barnett) at the end of episode 3 and his subsequently explored role. Lyonne even manages to flip the viewer’s expectations in the final episode, having directed and written it herself. The way Russian Doll can switch between introspective drama and laugh-out-loud dark comedy is absolutely a feature.

Where I’m less impressed is with how much time is spent pursuing leads that end up going nowhere toward ending Nadia’s predicament. Much like how Phil Connors tries to improve himself, thinking that will break the spell of the groundhog, Nadia initially thinks there’s something in the joint she smokes, that the building is beset by a Jewish curse, or that she needs to befriend the homeless guy, Horse (Brendan Sexton III). None of these threads add anything to the story except to maybe allow for more exposition on how terrible of a person she is or have her learn a lesson. The real story is in her interactions with Maxine, Alan, her aunt Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), and her mother Lenora (ChloĆ« Sevigny). As such, there is so much going on at once, but so little of it actually matters.

The human condition sometimes can’t easily be described with words. In these situations, we often look to references and metaphors to help us understand what is going on. Russian Doll has constructed an apt metaphor for how necessary it is for our mental health to confront and address our inner demons, including drug addiction. However, while the series is short with a roughly 3.5 hour runtime so you don’t have to devote a lot of time to it, the message the creators wanted to convey could probably have been told in half that time or at least be more succinct. That said, it is often hilarious, giving us such lines as “Nothing in this life is easy except for pissing in the shower,” and this is probably the standout performance of Lyonne’s career. Give it a few episodes and see what you think.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

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‘Love Death + Robots’ Is a Short but Riotous Romp Through the Apocalypse

To Lacie, thanks for the suggestion

The anthology series succinctly titled Love Death + Robots (LDR) requires a little bit of context to fully appreciate. Back in 1981, there was an animated anthology movie released called Heavy Metal. It was based on the dark fantasy adult magazine by the same name, was produced by said magazine’s publisher, and featured a heavy metal soundtrack that was released simultaneously. Though the film received a lukewarm reception from critics, it’s become something of a cult classic and is notable for moving American animation in a more R-rated direction. A sequel by the name of Heavy Metal 2000 was eventually released. It was not well-received.

In 2008, there were talks of a reboot of the original film with directors David Fincher and Tim Miller involved in some capacity. Subsequently in 2011, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez announced that he had purchased the film rights. As of this writing, that production is in limbo. It seems that LDR is largely inspired by what Fincher and Miller had created before Rodriguez bought the property, an anthology of shorts more science fiction in nature vice Heavy Metal’s fantasy themes. The general premise feels like Miller, as creator, sat down in a conference with all the other directors and said, “Future dystopia…and…go!”

Keep in mind that this animated anthology is not your dad’s Bugs Bunny. Heck, it’s not even Family Guy. There’s gratuitous nudity, blood and gore, and flagrant language. That said, the animation is often outstanding. There were times when I couldn’t tell that the CGI wasn’t real life. In fact, when Topher Grace stepped into one short, I wasn’t initially convinced he was flesh and blood (he was). Many of the episodes were great fun as well in spite of, or perhaps because of, the nudity and gore. My eyes were glued to the screen a number of times when scenes were just too dazzlingly displayed to look away or I didn’t miss what would happen next.

Though many of the episodes are amazing and sometimes emotional, there are others that are either forgettable or nearly pointless. One episode uses a concept that was better-executed by the Futurama episode “Godfellas”. Still another has a woman running around naked for nearly the entire short. I get the symbolism of her being defenseless, but a lot of the violence toward women and the full-frontal nudity of both sexes throughout the series feels like it’s just inserted for shock value instead of serving the story. The numerous F-bombs also get a little irritating. I curse like a sailor myself, but using the word constantly makes a script sound lazy. I mean, there are a bevy of curse words out there besides just the one.

Love Death + Robots is a very mixed bag with some outstanding episodes–Three Robots, Zima Blue, Lucky 13–and others that are just barely worth watching–Blindspot, Sucker of Souls, The Witness. Generally speaking, this show feels perfect for the YouTube generation; Black Mirror or Aeon Flux-level concepts in short, bite-sized chunks. But its length is definitely in its favor, as what makes this show worth watching is the fact that all the shorts together are only around 3.5 hours, and for that amount of time, any viewer will be thoroughly entertained.

Score: 4 out of 5

The Punisher Season 2 Review

CAUTION: I’m going to get into some spoilery territory in this review, so if you don’t want to know anything that happens, just skip to the last paragraph.

The Punisher wasn’t one of the original properties Netflix signed up to make with Marvel, but there was such a clamor from fans after season 2 of Daredevil that they wanted to see more of the character. The character has notoriously never been a hit with general audiences when it came to film adaptations, but this version of the anti-hero was different. He seemed to have a moral complexity which made him more relatable and entertaining than past incarnations. We could sympathize with his struggles even though we didn’t support his methods. In response, the streaming service decided to take and a chance with the character and develop his series as a spinoff.

Season 1 was a success. Though it didn’t reach the highs achieved by the first seasons of contemporaries Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Frank Castle’s (Jon Bernthal) particular intricacies and backstory took to the forefront. The character ended up being more of a reluctant hero than the villain he was made out to be initially. As such, even though law enforcement didn’t approve of his ways, they let him walk free as a sort of necessary evil. The acting and character development were strong points, as was the action choreography, but the season suffered mostly from its grim atmosphere, length, and drawn out plot.

Season 2 picks up where the first left off, with Frank attempting to move on with his life after putting the past behind him. To that end, he stops off in a random backwater town and has a chance encounter with a teenager by the name of Rachel/Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham). Though she seems anxious about something, she saunters off alone. After an attempted abduction by and shootout with an as-yet-unknown group of nefarious people, Frank takes an unwilling Amy under his protective wing. Simultaneously, a mask-wearing Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) has awoken from his comatose state and is being stalked by distrustful Special Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) while Dr. Krista Dumont (Floriana Lima) tries to heal his broken psyche.

I have a lot to say about this season and not much of it good, so let’s get that out of the way first. The action is still as great here as it was in season 1, so there’s no worry there. It really feels like I’m experiencing every punch and gunshot as they’re inflicted on their victims. Bernthal still embodies the Punisher just as well as he ever did even if he seems to yell “RUSSO!” twice every episode. In fact, most of the acting is pretty spot on for a low-budget TV show, including a great performance by Josh Stewart as John Pilgrim. I really like how the season starts out with a small-scale conflict that wouldn’t be out of place in the Punisher comic–the man just happens into a gunfight while trying to live his life as a drifter and wants to protect the innocent by any means necessary.

This one conflict, and everything that goes along with it, would have made for a decent movie in a series of Punisher flicks. Hell, so would the conflict with Russo, aka Jigsaw, if the screenwriters would have played that story properly. Instead, we get two completely different stories told concurrently which each would have comprised 2-3 hours’ worth of content but are stretched out over 13 hours. Though there are breadcrumbs of Amy and Pilgrim’s low-key story scattered about, Russo’s story is portrayed as the main conflict until the very end of the season, when Pilgrim takes center stage and becomes more fleshed out. The whole narrative is so boring and slow, with characters either complaining about things already covered in season 1 or repeatedly fighting after resolving disputes in the previous scene, that I was able to do other things on the side while mostly following the show. I needed something else to pass the time. Even the end to Russo is anti-climactic.

Maybe this narrative style would have worked if either of the stories would have been fully compelling. Amy’s story is interesting until we find out that the reason she is being desperately hunted, which doesn’t get revealed until 6 hours into the season, is because she has photographic evidence that a Senator is secretly gay. (The SCANDAL!) I understand the Schultzes are super religious and power-hungry and have groomed David since birth, but in the real world, we now have an openly gay mayor, Pete Buttigieg, who is running for president. Not to mention the fact that other industrialized nations have already elected openly gay heads of state. It strikes me as especially absurd because exactly 500 people were killed in the show in order to keep the information from getting out. Seems extreme. Apparently, there’s a theory that this plotline was supposed to be an allegory for the Trump Administration, with the Russians having dirt on the future presidential candidate mirroring real life, but even that line of thinking comes off as sort of half-assed because I didn’t get that impression on my own.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Jigsaw plot is similarly out of touch. In the beginning, Russo is unhinged and kills a few people breaking out of police custody. Yeah, that’s bad. But after that, he unwittingly adopts a style similar to the Punisher. First, he kills a pedophile who abused him when he was young. Then, he and his buddies beat a tow-truck guy. Again, that’s bad, but if he has health insurance, he’s fine. After that, they rob a payday lender. This seems bad at first, but in the real world, these businesses are so flagrantly predatory that there was recent legislation to curb their practices. (Of course, the Trump Administration subsequently hindered those efforts to protect consumers, but that’s another story.) It’s worth noting that no one was killed or injured during the robbery. So Russo actually comes off as a modern-day Robin Hood on closer inspection until Frank shows up, guns blazing, and starts shooting people, as he does. PTSD-sufferer Russo then flips out when he sees the skull vest and starts a gang, which by the way only seems to target other gangs.

So the concurrent stories are largely boring and not well thought out by the screenwriters. The action, set design, and character portrayals are all decent, but if there’s nothing compelling or realistic to tie those things together, what’s the point of even watching? As such, this season is right down there with the Defenders and Iron Fist’s first season. Your valuable time would be better spent watching something else.

Score: 1.5 out of 5

The Umbrella Academy Season 1 Review

CAUTION: I’m going to get into a little spoilery territory in this review. Nothing too specific, but if you don’t want to know anything that happens, just skip to the last paragraph.

Netflix has been in some hot water lately with comic book adaptation enthusiasts due to their sudden cancellation of all Marvel shows. It wasn’t a huge surprise after the somewhat lukewarm, but still watchable, sophomore seasons of Iron Fist and Luke Cage were axed. When the streaming service followed up with canceling Daredevil after its explosive third season, it became clear that the company was not just clearing mediocre entertainment from their lineup but all shows from which they weren’t benefiting financially. Now that The Umbrella Academy has been released, an adaptation of the Dark Horse comic by the same name, it’s a little clearer what Netflix had in mind for its future in adaptations, as this deal was signed in 2017 well before the Marvel cancellations.

The first episode of the season recounts the significant occurrence that resulted in the events of the series; 43 women around the world, who were not pregnant when the day began, gave birth at the exact same time. The billionaire industrialist Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) tracks down and adopts/purchases 7 of the newborns to bring back to his mansion and raise. 6 of them were trained in combat to form a team of crime fighters. Their adventures and lives continued until one-by-one, each of the children left for their own reasons. At the sudden death of Sir Hargreeves, the now 30-year-old Academy students–Luther (Tom Hopper), Diego (David CastaƱeda), Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Klaus (Robert Sheehan), Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), Ben (Justin H. Min), and Vanya (Ellen Page)–reunite to put him to rest, subsequently unearthing old skeletons.

The character setup could basically be described as Watchmen by means of dysfunctional X-Men with a small side of Preacher. If you enjoyed all 3 of those, as I did, you will probably like this series as well as it doesn’t stray too far from the paths already tread by its predecessors. That being said, the show definitely has its own distinct style to it; while it can get thematically dark at times, juxtaposing heavy moments with an uplifting musical track, that doesn’t keep it from being bright and funny the next moment or action-packed after that. The acting and delivery are top-notch from all the actors, but especially Page and Hopper, which is something we’ve come to expect from them already given their chops. Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton certainly impress in their roles as Cha-Cha and Hazel, respectively.

The unexpected highlights of the show come from Sheehan and Galagher. Sheehan, I didn’t realize until after the fact, starred in the cult hit British TV show Misfits. He has been cast in a few badly reviewed movies but also in very well received series, so he is worth looking into. His emotional beats here seem so heartfelt and real that the viewer can’t help but empathize with his character’s struggles. Gallagher is a breakout star in the making, having gone straight from a few small Nickelodeon shows to a starring role in the Umbrella Academy. He proves himself to be completely capable as the time-traveling Number Five despite his young age, and I think we can expect great things from him in the future.

Overall, the show looks and sounds great, but not all is perfect. My main issue is with the story and pacing. Sir Hargreeves started Umbrella Academy, but having done so, he is responsible for the chain of events that lead to the thing that he was supposedly attempting to stop. We are given a small amount of backstory for him very late in the season, but it doesn’t explain anything about who he is or what he planned to do. Our heroes aren’t much less culpable as even though they are trying to stop it as well, they only end up making matters worse. If they would’ve done absolutely nothing or, you know, stopped excluding Vanya, they would have prevented this entire thing. Ending the season on a cliffhanger is an irritating leftover from network television that shows up here and feels very out of place when so many questions are left unanswered.

One of the great things the show does is give us a number of fully-realized characters. Each of them has their own arc and development that makes you empathize with their struggles. The flipside of that is there is so much going on that it starts to weigh down the middle of the season. It seems like the creators tried to give us a little levity at times, but compared to all the heavier scenes, the lightness tends to come off as slow. And then we get to one episode whose events are almost completely undone by Number Five due to time travel. That is a sign that writers have written themselves into a corner: all these horrible events are completely undone by traveling back in time. It’s one of the laziest tropes in TV. Except then, events start playing out a little differently and we’re not sure which version is occurring. Does the character know they’ve done this already or don’t they?

The Umbrella Academy is quite a mixed bag. While the action, script, and cinematography are superb, the story leaves a lot to be desired. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it though. There were moments when my eyes were glued to the screen wondering what was going to happen next. If you like superhero shows, you will like this one as well. Even people who like character dramas should get a little something out of it. I’ll be interested in seeing what happens next season, hoping more nagging issues get resolved.

Score: 3.5 out of 5