Culture Crash 19-10: Netflix’s Russian Doll

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

Streaming TV services like Netflix and Hulu have revolutionized the medium, in part, simply by expanding access. Hundreds more scripted shows are being made right now than ever have before, and this has meant more diverse writers and creators. But Netflix, in particular, is responsible for another revolutionary idea: dropping entire seasons of shows all at once. It’s become something of a signature for the company, which encourages binge-watching entire seasons of shows like Stranger Things and Ozark in a day or a weekend. With that, many creators have started to say it feels like they’re making a 10-hour movie instead of a TV show.

And that line of thinking has been a little controversial. The problem with that thinking is that, of course, it isn’t a 10-hour movie, it’s a TV show. Critic Alan Sepinwall frequently notes that the nature of TV is episodic. Even if you encourage binge-watching, some viewers will go one episode at a time and each episode needs to be entertaining in its own right.

Well, Netflix may have finally answered the bell and delivered a show that truly feels like an actual extended-length film. It’s called Russian Doll, and it comprises of eight episodes that are each roughly 23 minutes in length. This makes the entire season a little over three hours long, which makes it actually feasible for a lot of people to watch it all in one sitting. And that might be the ideal watching situation.

Russian Doll is similar to Groundhog Day or Happy Death Day, in that it focuses on someone stuck in the same moment. Star Natasha Leon plays Nadia, who keeps dying and being reborn into the same moment at her birthday party.

Russian Doll is a bit of an enigma. It’s sort of like NBC’s The Good Place in its mysterious structure and the central theme of what we can accomplish when we all help each other.

Toward the beginning of the season, I was a bit confused, unsure what exactly I was watching. But around episode 3 or 4, the story really kicks in and it sprints through the finish line. 

It is like a long movie, and it works well all at once. It also works well split in half or sure, episodically.

Russian Doll is now streaming on Netflix.

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Culture Crash 18-38: The funny and philosophical TV comedy, The Good Place

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine American culture. What’s new and old in books, film, and entertainment.

Two years ago, NBC debuted a strange new comedy show called The Good Place. It was written by Michael Schur, a writer on The Office and the creator of Parks & Recreation, so people were willing to get it a change… but it’s logline was pretty out-there. It’s a half-hour comedy about people who died in the afterlife and, specifically, about Eleanor Shellstrop, a bad person who made it to heaven the good place thanks to a clerical error.

Usually, sitcoms and comedies are much simpler: A group of friends living in New York. A workplace comedy about a paper company or a superstore. Simpler is better, because each episode can take on a whole new identity. What The Good Place did was different. It was a comedy telling one story instead of endless stories. It’s serialized, every episode needs to be seen in order and, by the way, it’s phenomenal.

Sure, it’s a very high concept show about the afterlife and philosophy and, poignantly, what we owe to each other as human beings. It dives into what thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard and Plato thought about the universe, but it also never loses sight of its mission to entertain. The show began as a vehicle for Ted Danson and Kristen Bell and has evolved into a true ensemble, and now truly allows castmembers William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Darcy Carden and Manny Jacinto to shine.

I don’t want to say too much, because the show is a rollercoaster ride with surprises and fun world-building that will translate better on the screen. Seasons one and two of The Good Place are now streaming on Netflix. Season three premieres Thursday night, that’s September 27, on NBC.

You’ll have a blast, learn actual philosophy, and suddenly enter an inside joke with millions on the internet whenever you watch a Jacksonville Jaguars game. That will make sense, I promise.

I’m Evan Rook. 

Culture Crash 17-38: NBC’s The Good Place and Serialized Comedy

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TV shows or either serialized or episodic. In a serialized show, the main storytelling device is a season or the show itself. It’s when every episode depends upon you knowing the story from the beginning. A few serialized shows are Lost or The Wire.

An episodic is the opposite. That’s when the main storytelling device is an episode. It’s a show where you can pop in and out of a season and still follow the plot.,.like you can with Friends or Seinfeld. An easy way to remember the distinction is that a serialized show has “spoilers,” whereas an episodic show’s episodes are self-contained.

Traditionally, these formats follow by genre. Most dramas were serialized while comedies were more episodic. There were notable exceptions, like procedural dramas CSI or Law & Order which followed the more episodic template.. But in general: for dramas order mattered and for comedies, you were just hanging out having a good time. It’s part of the reason marathons of comedies are so common. You can just turn it on when you aren’t busy and have a laugh, whereas doing that with a Breaking Bad marathon might be confusing.

Comedy writer Michael Schur broke the model last year with his serialized comedy, The Good Place. Schur has been around for a while, writing on Saturday Night Live and The Office before creating Parks & Recreation. So maybe it was his comfortability with the format that emboldened him to take comedy into serialized territory.

The Good Place is centers on Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop, a bad woman mistakenly sent to the good place instead of the bad place when she died. We follow her in the afterlife as she tries to pull the wool over Ted Danson’s character, Michael, the heavenly architect who accidentally welcomed the wrong Eleanor into his good place. We meet Eleanor’s supposed soul mate and their do-gooder neighbors and go along for the ride as Eleanor learns to fit in, despite her selfish past.

The Good Place is a show full of twists and turns that simply won’t make sense when watched out of order.

It’s an interesting balancing act and makes The Good Place, essentially a 30-minute sitcom, feel completely unlike other sitcoms we know and love.

In addition to being a genre-bender, the good place is laugh out loud funny. The Good Place’s second season premiers this Wednesday on NBC…but if you missed season one, don’t fret. The entire first season is streaming on Netflix and with just 13 episode, catching up won’t take long. But once you finish, remember: no spoiling the surprises for your friends.

I’m Evan Rook.

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