I loved video games as a kid. Zelda, Samus Aran, Yoshi; those were my icons. So imagine my excitement when the Super Mario Bros movie came out, starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as the titular brothers, then imagine my disappointment when I actually saw the movie. It was bad, but plenty of movies are bad. No, this was boring, distinctly lacking any of the fun found in the game. What went wrong? As a kid, I couldn’t say. But now, having finished the Netflix series Russian Doll, I think I have an answer. If you’re going to adapt a video game into another medium, what matters is not the content. The licensed characters, the evil villains who appear on lunchboxes and T-shirts. What really matters is the form, the shape of the game. That’s what made playing video games so much fun, and that’s the feeling that needs to be recreated.
Russian Doll is not based on a video game. It is an original series co-created by longtime character actress Natasha Lyonne, who also stars in the show. And in the months since the show premiered, the most frequent comparison hasn’t been to a video game of any sort. It’s been Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray classic about a weatherman who relives the titular holiday over and over again. You can see why. Russian Doll is about a woman named Nadia reliving the same day over and over again. Unlike Murray, though, she doesn’t simply fall asleep at the end of the day only to wake up back at the start. No, Nadia dies. A lot. Car crash, sewer grate, repeated encounters with a particularly dangerous stairwell. Again and again, Nadia dies, only to wind up back the beginning.
And what is the beginning? I see I’ve neglected to mention it. Watching a show where time is looped and braided and folded like pretzel dough can have that effect. In the first moments of the show, we find Nadia standing in the bathroom, looking into a mirror. She is at her friend’s apartment. There’s a party going on, and it’s for her. Today is Nadia’s 36th birthday, and all of her hip, cool New York City friends have come out to celebrate it. I’ll admit I found the first few episodes of the show (there are eight, all told, each of them 30 minutes – the perfect length for a Netflix show, with enough room for variation and experimentation, but not so much that the producers have to pad each episode with filler plotlines that don’t go anywhere) somewhat offputting, as there are a lot New York insider jokes that I didn’t really get. We watch Nadia visit the corner bodega, whose missing cat has been troubling her for days. We see her to go work – at a video game development company, fittingly enough – showing up a bunch of tech bros with her coding skills. We see her visit the therapist who was her childhood guardian, following a mysterious episode that resulted in her mother leaving her. Throughout these mundane activities, Nadia keeps dying through increasingly comical means, arriving back at the birthday party like it’s the start of a level in Super Mario Bros.
But where the show gets really good, where it fully realizes the potential of its video game structure, is when the second player joins.
In the middle of one of her numerous deaths, Nadia discovers she’s not the only one playing this game. Alan, a young man seemingly unconnected to her, has been experiencing the exact same phenomenon. He finds himself in his bathroom, goes about his day, until, inevitably, he dies in some over-the-top fashion, at which point he returns to his bathroom and does it all again. Nadia is perplexed by the game she seems to be stuck in, looking for a way out, but Alan is perfectly happy. A creature of extreme habit, he loves nothing more than to know exactly what is going to happen every moment of every day, even if, in his case, the day he’s reliving is among his worst. His girlfriend is breaking up with him. Every day, he goes to her apartment, listens to her tell him why she has to stop seeing him, and he says the same thing back. Every day is the same, like a uniform, and Alan loves uniforms.
Once Nadia and Alan find each other, the question becomes why the two of them are experiencing this time loop. There is nothing connecting to them, as far as they can tell. They don’t know each other; none of their friends know each other. Eventually, they do find out what their big connection is, which I won’t spoil here, save to say that it’s very affecting. But before that, there’s a minor connection between the two of them, and it’s key to the show’s influences, I think.
While hanging out in Alan’s apartment, Nadia inspects his shelves. Books, DVDS, all of them immaculately ordered. Then something stands out: a video game. One that Nadia herself designed. Alan says he’s played it, but could never finish it. There was one particularly difficult point he could never get past, unable to figure out how to solve the puzzle and finish the dungeon. Sounds a lot like their predicament, no?
That the show explicitly locates the inspiration for its central conceit in a video game, and not a movie or a novel, demonstrates just how seriously Russian Doll takes video games as a form.
Games are not just a reference for a shared joke about Sonic the Hedgehog being addicted to Benzedrine or whatever. They are a medium whose tropes and devices can illuminate aspects of human existence in new and striking ways. How’s that for a power-up?