Of all the shows that have redefined the way we think about television, the most invigorating of them in recent years have been comedies with an existentialist bent. Starting with NBC's The Good Place , 1 the subgenre's standouts manage a sort of dual metabolism, punctuating their long-arc ambitions with moments of utter disorientation. Perspectives reset, time doubles back, expectations crash into one another. Things go, in other words, all Jeremy Bearimy . On Netflix's Russian Doll , they do so in the fourth episode. Then again in the sixth episode. And the seventh. And halfway through the eighth and final one. And, of course, the ending itself.
The specifics don't warrant discussion, at least here. Spoilers and all. Besides, if you've watched the show, you know the exact points at which whatever you thought you knew vanishes, figuratively or otherwise. What matters is that such moments exist . Because like so many of these comedies, especially those on streaming platforms, Russian Doll deploys them in the cliffhanging cadence of genre fare. Each revelation, each unexplained oddity, serves to reel you back for another installment of your binge. (That they often occur at the beginnings of episodes rather than the ends is just one of the many tiny upheavals of the show.) Whether a frisson or an outright jaw-dropper, each satisfies in its own way.
With one possible exception. In the (many, many) conversations I've had about the show since it debuted on Netflix last week, most of them featured a very particular phrase. "I didn't like the ending."
In case I haven't been explicit enough about it: Russian Doll is far and away the best original new show of the past two years. (Sorry, Homecoming , you're an adaptation!) The story of a woman (Natasha Lyonne) trying to puzzle her way out of a life-death-rinse-repeat loop, it's a perfect polished gem, a purehearted spacetime meditation that has more in common with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind than Groundhog Day . It's about love and betrayal and forgiveness and gentrification . It's recursive and affecting in ways Black Mirror: Bandersnatch wishes it could be. In order to be all those things, it had to kill its own ego—and to jettison any chance it had of making everyone happy when the credits rolled.
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Nothing new about divisive endings, right? Hospital drama St. Elsewhere ended by implying six seasons had happened inside an autistic kid's snow globe ; people were not pleased . Ditto the Seinfeld gang kibitzing into oblivion in a jail cell. And when "prestige" TV rolled around, David Chase's Sopranos blackout became the stuff of many a hate thread. But genre TV—especially the "mystery box" dramas that began with Lost —changed something. The unsatisfying finale, once the result of a bungled creative choice, became an inevitability. 2
Mystery is the perfect carrot for any showrunner, baiting viewers into curiosity, then investment. You want, you need to see exactly how a world is built. You have your own theories—about Walt's special powers or why Hurley and Libby were in the same institution—and they demand some sort of resolution. But while red herrings come with the territory, 121 hours' worth of loose ends can never be tied up; a few will always drag things down.
Lost , of course, was a drama, fraught with weighty themes and weightier gazes. Comedies have historically shrugged off those kind of expectations—until they started sailing into deeper waters. The ambition was thrilling: Somebody got utilitarianism in my comedy! Freed of laugh tracks and multiple cameras, writers got into it. Death. Afterlife. Aliens. The search for meaning. Most importantly, it was still funny. This wasn't your grand-Sartre's black-bereted existentialism; this was just being out-there enough to look inward.
But with success comes longevity, and with longevity comes the danger. Now four seasons in, The Good Place is up to its interdimensional pancakes in Big Ideas. The show has shunted viewers through an ever-more-ridiculous series of celestial realms and byzantine bylaws, each one explained (or negated) by the next. Yes, that's one of the show's charms; but also yes, each world-building tap dance mortgages the trust of the audience.
And holy forking shirtballs, the stakes were already high. Eternity! Redemption! Free will and morality and our responsibility to each other! Comedy may be less onerous, but pontificating about the Way the Universe Works ain't. It's a big sandbox to play in, and the big brains playing in that sandbox are what give The Good Place and Forever and, now, Russian Doll their firepower.
But take a step back and you've got all the freedom of comedy being used to shoulder all the weight of—well, philosophy and religion and science. It's a trade-off, and sooner or later one of the two is going to win. Either you whimsy your way into nothingness or you buckle under life, the universe, and everything. The longer you last, the surer the reckoning is.
This is the whole point of the single-season show. Construct the world, present the world, and disengage. No ballast, no unredeemable promises. Russian Doll is, as of right now, a shimmering bit of restraint—though with the show reportedly plotted out for three seasons , nothing is guaranteed. If its creators (Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, along with Lyonne herself) are willing to back away, they'll be leaving it in a near-flawless state: a journey through infinity. And infinity can only be bounded so tightly.
Which brings us back to the finale, again. To me, it's satisfying. To me, it hangs together. And if you disagree, that's all the better. The show's success lies in its willingness to take on the Big Ideas and to do so with wit and nuance. Its creators built a world and showed us exactly what it was, with just enough mystery to keep you there. Sometimes, the questions are so big that not everyone likes the answers.
1 Ugh, sorry, I hate footnotes, just wanted to acknowledge that Atlanta, which premiered two weeks before The Good Place, overlaps, if narrowly, with this genre. It may not explicitly wrestle with karmic questions, but its woozy magical realism parks close enough to Russian Doll to scrape side mirrors.
2 Again, sorry, but this really bears mentioning: Reviewing the Lost finale for The Guardian, Charlie Brooker (yes, the creator of Black Mirror) wrote that it "made less sense than a milk hammock.”
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