Russian Doll and the Rise of Introspective Comedy
I’ve recently finished watching Russian Doll and it was a brilliantly executed romp that showed both the perfect format for modern Netflix comedies (4 hours split into eight 25 minute episodes really flows well) but also did what a lot of modern comedies do — it hit you right in the feels with the power of an emotional Tsar bomb dropped straight on the emotional center of your brain.
Russian Doll is also a perfect example of what modern comedy does so well, combining the absurdity of a lot of great comedies past, a very successful concept of a time loop first made famous in Groundhog’s Day and some great performances from Natasha Lyonne and co. It is also a comedy that seems to be tailor-made for the snarky millennials of today, with dialogue and characters that are extremely easy to identify with.
Of course, this isn’t a new trick in comedy. Do you identify with Chandler from Friends? Congratulations, you’re a snarky millennial too! However, Russian Doll much like The Good Place and BoJack Horseman doesn’t rest on its laurels by giving us characters we can identify with but instead makes sure that the characters are designed in a way that will force us (willingly or not) into an introspection.
Mild (like jalapeno-on-a-pizza level) spoilers for Russian Doll, the Good Place and BoJack Horseman ahead.
After all, the characters in Russian Doll are very trope-y and stereotypical. We’ve seen Nadia and Alan a thousand times in movies and series. Their basic setup is nothing new. What’s new is the way their personalities are never quite played for laughs (like say, Monica’s OCD is in Friends), but instead are quickly shown to be their ways of coping with a world they can’t seem to grasp. Nadia is self-destructive and snarky since that’s her only way of hiding her fears. Alan’s own fears rest hidden behind an unbreakable routine. If Sigmund Freud watched the series, he’d surely conclude that Nadia represents the id, while Alan represents the super-ego. Where would be the ego?
Well, that’s where we come in.
I feel like the intended audience is capable of identifying with both characters on a certain level. In the end, a lot of us have a bit of Nadia in them, and a bit of Alan. We drink the pain away while fretting over every single thing. We might not all neatly organize our clothes to a tee, but we definitely understand the sentiment that comes with it. We desire both control and freedom, and we’re all sentenced to sometimes be a Nadia and sometimes be an Alan. Or maybe that’s just me.
The point is that Russian Doll will invariably force you to take a look inside. Like the titular matryoshka, the layers of the story will have you look at layers of yourself. The guise of comedy will fade when you realize that you don’t just identify with a character’s traits, but you can feel a genuine connection with their problems and fears. This allows the screenwriters to use these characters as a mirror through which you view your own problems, fears, and attitudes.
A similar dynamic can definitely be seen in The Good Place, where Eleanor’s fork-it-all attitude perfectly contrasts with Chidi’s constant insecurity. Given that The Good Place is more of a traditional comedy, these traits are played for laughs, but also become crucial to the plot and the overarching moral and philosophical themes. Chidi’s fear of making the wrong choice is the wrong choice. Eleanor’s attitude is a result of her fear of being disappointed. It’s easy to connect with these characters since they’re very much things we can easily identify with. Let he who has never considered not giving a shit about anyone throw the first stone. Let he who has never debated a simple choice for hours for no apparent reason throw the second. Rather than just placing us in front of a mirror, The Good Place forces us to consider our own attitudes, yet shows that whatever flaws we may have, we’re still probably decent human beings.
Finally, BoJack Horseman uses its characters for a bit of a different purpose. While yes, BoJack is arrogant and doesn’t care, he’s also depressed, addicted and miserable. Meanwhile, Diane (who inarguably is the second lead in the story) is faced with moral dilemmas and a heavy load of insecurities and anxiety. Given BoJack’s format and season count, these characters are more fleshed out than the ones in Russian Doll or The Good Place, however, they still remain those same mirrors we can view ourselves through.
BoJack also doesn’t play with metaphors or subtlety. With some scenes, it seems like it places that giant mirror I’ve talked about right on the character’s head and essentially says “This is you. You do this too. Now watch it from the outside.” At its finest, the show is a gut-wrenching mess of emotions that seems to hit the nail on the head of the modern human condition. We are afraid. We are insecure. We question ourselves. If Russian Doll and The Good Place are made to motivate us to be introspective, BoJack straight up takes our heads and drowns them in a lake of emotion with pointed, brutal moments that will have you bawling your eyes out. Not because you feel bad for the character, but because you know that you’re not that different.
What’s amazing with all these examples is that these are all comedies. They draw you in with their lighthearted premises and wacky visuals before hitting you over the head with an oversized sledgehammer of emotion. The jokes here aren’t just made to entertain you, but rather to provide a sort of catharsis after your introspection. To loosen the mood when you’re at your most tense. In that, modern comedies eclipse a lot of dramas, since whether it be in an absurd time loop in the East Village, the heavenly plain or anthropomorphic L.A., these shows manage to be more human, and to a degree, more authentic than any drama could possibly be. After all, for those of us privileged enough to have Netflix and watch them, despite all the “typical Millennial pain” we deal with, life’s kinda funny in the most absurd of ways.