It’s fitting, since the series is always returning to the start, that Russian Doll exhibits a surplus of patience. Case in point: The funniest moment in its eight-episode arc is a throwaway line in the fifth installment, the humor of which depends on a montage in the second. In “The Great Escape,” our heroine, Nadia (the magnificent Natasha Lyonne)—caught in a Groundhog Day-style loop that begins in the bathroom at her 36th birthday party and resets each time she dies—hits a snag as she tries to leave the building, tumbling again and again and again to her untimely, darkly comic end. (See also: sidewalk doors.) As a result, she’s almost awestruck when she learns in “Superiority Complex” that Alan (Charlie Barnett), a new acquaintance in a similar situation, has no such trouble. “Are you telling me you’re never dying on the stairs?” she asks. “Are you some fuckin’ superhero?”
A coding error, a glitch in the matrix, the tricky level you can’t seem to beat: Whichever metaphor you prefer, Russian Doll builds momentum by leaning on its protagonist’s medium as much as its own. “This is like the game!” Nadia, a software engineer, exclaims at one point, and it’s this grammar, of simulations and cutscenes, that defines the series—at least at first. When the span of time between Nadia’s deaths lengthens in the opening minutes of “The Great Escape,” for instance, Russian Doll introduces the tension of the restart function that erases one’s gains; later in the same episode, as she finds a fire-escape workaround to her dying-on-the-stairs problem, the strands combine to form a devilishly funny lesson about the relationship between learning and the leap of faith, fear and flying blind. In fact, though the series features exchanges on determinism, moral narcissism, mirroring, and the general theory of relativity, discussions of good and evil, heredity, aging, the abyss, one might go so far as to argue that each stems from Nadia’s confrontation with the heady blend of choice and chance that distinguishes us from superheroes. In a sense, “dying on the stairs” is the Turing test of the new videogame TV: a useful reminder to pinch ourselves to make sure that we’re still human.
Of course, TV about videogames—as opposed to televised gaming, from the rise of esports to the streaming platform Twitch—is nearly as old as videogames themselves. Star Trek: The Next Generation featured a virtual-reality game/mind-control device in the 1991 episode “The Game”; in a similar vein, cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Tom Maddox collaborated on a pair of X-Files episodes, “Kill Switch” (1998) and “First Person Shooter” (2000). On the humorous end of the spectrum, both The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon have included plots about gaming, while Felicia Day’s innovative web series The Guild (2007-2013) focused entirely on the participants in an online role-playing game. In fact, as Vulture’s Mark Harris suggests in his recent essay on the pervasive, “reality-denying” influence of The Matrix (1999), “this isn’t happening” has woven itself into the fabric of our denuded discourse, in “Everything You Know About [X] Is Wrong” stories, the notion of the “life hack,” the long tail of the Reddit thread, and more.
To an extent, then, Russian Doll, Black Mirror, and Future Man are simply the latest and most prominent examples of the all-too-probable rise of videogame TV, following dozens of films in an attempt to cash in on the $138 billion videogame industry, or compete, as Netflix claims, with Fortnite. What’s new, in this evolving subgenre, is the adoption—with varying degrees of success—of “prestige” styles, structures, and themes, reflecting the vogue for serialized storytelling, grimdark aesthetics, philosophical questions, and emotional realism over sitcom one-offs and monsters-of-the-week. At its finest (Russian Doll), this approach integrates the logic of games into the characters’ experiences so seamlessly that the resulting analogies (and their limits) register as insights; at its worst (Black Mirror: “Bandersnatch”), it’s so stiff with techno-didacticism it leaches games of their extant appeal.
That’s because “Bandersnatch,” about a young game developer named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), focuses so intently on the scaffolding of choose-your-own-adventure stories—as seen in its repeated root-and-branch motif—that it fails to conjure a sense of adventure, or for that matter of choice. Most of the forks in the road are so inconsequential (between cereals, cassette tapes, vinyl records, nervous tics) that their inclusion depends on a hackneyed understanding of “the butterfly effect”; of those with higher stakes, one of the options (to pour tea on a computer, or jump from a balcony) tends to lead so predictably to a dead end, literal or figurative, that it doesn’t read as a “choice” at all. Where earlier episodes of Black Mirror used similar subject matter to plumb the nature of fear (“Playtest,” starring Wyatt Russell as the guinea pig for a new virtual-reality game), or situate well-wrought, winsome characters inside a false reality (“San Junipero,” with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis as lovers in a nostalgic simulation), the blandly designed, one-dimensional “Bandersnatch” positions its “cosmic flowchart” as a profound comment on free will, unable to see that it’s just a big-budget Pac-Man.
If the form of “Bandersnatch” ultimately diminishes its function—reducing Stefan (and games) to a series of simplistic binaries, and undermining its self-proclaimed complexities in the process—Russian Doll achieves the opposite: Fanning out in countless directions from one starting point, it transforms the framework of games, their repeated snags and momentary triumphs, into the outline of Nadia and Alan’s search for, and grasp of, control. Because they remember the choices made in previous loops, for one, Russian Doll’s protagonists evolve as Stefan cannot; each episode brings new lines of inquiry, new hypotheses, new trials, new clues, such that the series, after the matryoshka of the title, becomes a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it’s this, in the end, that distinguishes Russian Doll, or even Future Man—in which the obsession with unforeseen consequences is the main comic engine—from “Bandersnatch” and the lifeless videogame adaptations that have largely dominated the movies: In its most successful iterations, “videogame TV” doesn’t mimic games, it reinterprets them, recognizing that neither medium maps onto the other—much less onto life itself—with exactitude.
With the genre likely to proliferate further, and the line between the two forms already beginning to blur, Russian Doll and Black Mirror: “Bandersnatch” offer contrasting models, one artful and admirably messy, the other mechanistic and cruel. In both, funnily enough, personhood itself is described as a “fucking nightmare” by a hotshot programmer—Nadia, in Russian Doll; Stefan’s colleague, Colin (Will Poulter), in “Bandsnatch”—but only the former manages to tie the challenges that make it so back to its structuring metaphor. In the season finale, “Ariadne”—an early frontrunner for episode of the year—Nadia and Alan’s timelines split, and reuniting requires a superheroic feat of affection. Sticking with each other despite the obstacles, even when the memories accrued over countless loops are suddenly lost, turns out to be the most consequential choice in the entire series, one that combines the rhythms of life, of stories, of games. “Did you ever hear the one about the broken man and the lady with a death wish that got stuck in a loop?” Nadia asks Alan as he drifts off to sleep, drunk. “Life was too painful. Or they were too fragile. But either way you slice it, they just couldn’t hack it. And then one night something miraculous happened: They made it through alive.” There are times when you can’t seem to stop dying on the stairs, but if you keep at it, you’ll find your footing, or another way out. That’s the miracle, and the madness, of both being and gaming: It never feels like you can hack it, and yet you make it through alive.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.