How Netflix is reshaping our ‘TV’ series
This analysis was submitted for a narratology class that I took in 2019. It is an examination of the season structure of the Netflix Original Series ‘Russian Doll.’ Spoilers ahead.
It’s the season that shapes a Netflix Original Series. These shows are ordered by season, released by season, and also commonly binged, or consumed by season.
While definitely serial due to still being broken into episodes, Netflix Original Series are premiered by full season. Hence, it’s more like the premiere of a really long movie than the weekly airing of a TV show. When the brokenness of a serial narrative is compressed, like the Netflix Original Series are, how ‘serial’ really is it?
This paper will examine the season structure of the Netflix Original Series Russian Doll in terms of Sean O’Sullivan’s (49) six elements of serial narrative — six terms which can be used to infer the quality of seriality in a particular narrative in any kind of medium, including Netflix. Serial narratives which resist the six elements are considered to have “minimalist seriality”, while the opposite are examples of “maximalist seriality.” This paper will identify whether the Russian Doll resists or embraces these six elements.
The first element of seriality that O’Sullivan (53) identified is iteration, which is a repetition that is a “definitional, [and] recognizable feature of the narrative.” Russian Doll displays a high volume of iterative elements.
The most fundamental is Nadia’s 36th birthday party. The season starts with Nadia standing in Maxine’s bathroom in the midst of her 36th birthday party. Someone knocks on the door. Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” plays. She opens the door handle shaped like a gun. People enter the bathroom as she exits, and then Maxine greets her in the kitchen with the phrase “Sweet Birthday Baby!” (“Nothing in This World Is Easy” 00:10–01:20)
Everytime Nadia ‘respawns’ after dying, she reappears inside Maxine’s bathroom on her 36th birthday party, and the sequence of events is repeated in order to reorient the audience back to the beginning — the beginning of the story for the audience, and the beginning of her loop for Nadia. This is also a device used to let the audience experience Nadia’s own predicament. It’s worth noting that once Nadia respawns, no scenes are again shown from the previous reality where she has ceased to exist. The audience dies along with her, and respawns along with her, too.
When Alan’s character is introduced in Episode 4, another set of iterative elements set up the start of his loop. Like Nadia, he stands inside a bathroom in his apartment. He’s in the middle of brushing his teeth. The water is running. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Number Four in A Major is playing. He swats a fly with a newspaper. (“Alan’s Routine” 00:08–00:24) This sequence is repeated every time Alan loops.
Iterative elements commonly present in traditional serial narratives such as the cold open, and recaps or summaries are not present in Russian Doll. These are consequences of compressing the gaps between episode releases, according to Romil Sharma (106). There is no need for a ‘diegetic retelling’ of the last episode on platforms like Netflix, when one can easily access and rewatch it.
The second element of seriality that O’Sullivan (54) identified is multiplicity, which “indicates the serial’s flexibility in staging itself across spaces and contexts.”
Russian Doll is composed of two major interlocking storylines: Nadia’s and Alan’s. While iterative in design, its multiple quality is made most apparent when Alan is first introduced in Episode 4. By this point, the viewers have spent three episodes in the perspective of Nadia, and consequently, we have grown accustomed to her impulsive personality, her anxiousness, her untidiness, even the rich warm tones that are generally used for her scenes, and the techno and rock music used to score her scenes.
Hence, it comes as a stark contrast when we shift to the perspective of Alan, who is procedural, calm, and very neat. His scenes are generally tinted in pale cool tones, and the music used in the scenes before he meets Nadia are classical pieces. Alan is hereby introduced as a second narrator.
The Alan multiple is quickly merged with Nadia’s storyline in the same episode that he is introduced (“Alan’s Routine” 08:34–09:17). The story continues as a single interlocked narrative with two narrators; we go back and forth between them. This system is uninterrupted until Episode 7 when flashbacks are intermittently used to show Nadia’s past. In episode 8, the Nadia and Alan multiples break into four, where Alan meets the Nadia that has never died yet, and Nadia meets the Alan that has never died yet (“Ariadne” 09:55–10:41). This is the most number of focalizers that the show employs all at once.
Logically, Russian Doll is a collection of multiples — as Nadia says to Alan’s neighbor, ‘a box of timelines’ (“Ariadne” 05:08–05:21). Considering that there are alternate realities in the storyworld, every time Nadia and Alan respawn, it’s a multiple of their original narrative. This is most apparent when irregularities begin to show up as the two keep dying and respawning. Every multiple begins to miss a particular element, establishing it as distinct from the last.
Nevertheless, I would argue that multiplicity in Russian Doll is relatively low compared to shows like The Wire, which moves its entire narrative to a different setting in every season, impacting large changes in character and story development. Even the Netflix Original Series The Umbrella Academy and Stranger Things display a higher level of multiplicity as shown by the number of plots that these shows are servicing and, hence, the number of narrators, backstories, versions, settings and time frames which the narrative is forced to adapt to.
However, Russian Doll isn’t necessarily trying to resist multiplicity, it just doesn’t go beyond what the narrative requires. The message of the story is that we need companionship in order to (literally, in the case of Russian Doll) survive. It could have explored subplots like Nadia’s relationship with her friends Maxine and Lizzy, or Alan’s relationship with his mother, Dr. Zaveri. In a Filipino telenovela like Ang Probinsyano, these plots would be explored as ratings force the story to keep going, but as mentioned, the Netflix series is shaped by season, and in this season, the creators only needed to explore Alan and Nadia’s plots in order to impart their message.
Momentum is mostly self-explanatory. O’Sullivan (55) describes it as “the dynamic storytelling relationship between one serial episode and another — in particular, that part of the story that explicitly demands that we keep watching or reading.”
The first two episodes of Russian Doll are what O’Sullivan (8) describes as ‘end-stopped’, as in lines of poetry which are ended with a punctuation, in which case the punctuation would be ellipses. As Romil Sharma (47) notes, this is a luxury afforded to Netflix Original Series and shows released in other SVOD platforms, which are ordered straight-to-series. Netflix series are not dependent on the momentum of the pilot in order to get produced, so there is less pressure to subscribe to explicit momentum-building devices like the cliffhanger in the first episode. Russian Doll takes its time to build the premise of the show before jumping into high momentum.
Momentum is built in the first two episodes through Nadia’s quest to solve the mystery of her resurrections. Just as how detective stories gain momentum from the discovery of leads, this is likewise how Nadia keeps the viewers watching. In episode 3, her biggest lead is discovered: Alan, who is in the same predicament as her (“A Warm Body” 23:56–24:38). Contrary to Nadia’s solo sleuthing for rational explanations for her resurrections, Alan’s presence is more variable, unpredictable, and supernatural, which effectively spikes momentum forward.
This is when the episodes start to get enjamed, which in poetry is, as O’Sullivan describes (55) it, “moments where the syntax of the thought rushes past the end of one line, spilling into the next.” From here on out, viewers are kept watching by big revelations per episode, which sets the climax in Episode 7. Episode 3 reveals Alan’s existence, episode 4 focuses our attention to the disappearance of certain items in the storyworld (“Alan’s Routine” 23:15–23:43), episode 5 reveals that Nadia and Alan are dying at the same time (“Superiority Complex” 23:24–23:35), and episode 6 reveals that Alan killed himself the first time he looped (“Reflection” 25:11–25:40). As Nadia and Alan piece together the mystery of their resurrections, so does the audience along with them.
After the climax in episode 7, the show comes back to its end-stopped finish, which creates a satisfying resolution to the story, having answered the season’s main inquiry on the purpose of Nadia and Alan’s resurrections.
It’s worth noting that this is not commonly the case with all Netflix Original Series; many of which still subscribe to cliffhangers as explicit messages that there should be more. For instance, every season of the Netflix Original Series Stranger Things is always ended with a cliffhanger. This is a device commonly used in traditional serial narratives in order to make a demand for a new season. Apparently, with Russian Doll’s second season already in production, it is no longer necessary.
Russian Doll settled for a fully resolved yet contemplative ending. While this might not be the case for all Netflix Original Series, the full season-release model has allowed for this kind of momentum pacing to be a real option.
The fourth element of seriality is world-building, which refers to the spatial scope of the narrative. However, O’Sullivan (57) notes that “while explicitly referring to space, [world-building] may also reflect the clearest relationship to time among the six elements, because the nature of many serials is to build gradually.” Hence, world-building in Russian Doll shall be examined in chronology to the extradiegetic experience of the viewer.
Russian Doll is limited to certain spaces in New York, and most of these spaces are already introduced in episode 1, with three interior locations (Maxine’s apartment, Nadia’s apartment, and the Deli) and three distinct exterior locations (the park, New York sidewalks, and a bridge); all of which are recurring throughout the whole season.
The story is spatially expanded infrequently from there. Two recurring locations are introduced in episode 2 (Wardog’s bar, Ruth’s house), two in episode 4 when Alan is introduced as the second narrator (Alan’s apartment, Beatrice’s apartment), and one last recurring location is introduced in episode 5 (the cafe).
The most saturated locations are Maxine’s apartment, and Alan’s apartment.
Considering traditional TV shows like BBC’s Doctor Who, BBC Sherlock, and BBC Merlin, and even Netflix Original Series like Narcos, The Umbrella Academy and Peaky Blinders, Russian Doll ranks low in world-building. However, considering the story that Russian Doll is trying to tell, it doesn’t need to expand that much anyway. The narrative is bound to repetitive locations and, because Nadia never seems to survive beyond the day after her 36th birthday, she logically couldn’t go beyond New York without dying and resurrecting in Maxine’s apartment.
Furthermore, just like in traditional TV, Netflix Original Series are bound by budgetary constraints. There is no public record of how much Netflix spent on the production of Russian Doll, but in an interview with Digital Spy, Netflix vice president Cindy Holland said about the cancellation of the Netflix Original Series Sense8, “At some point if you don’t have the viewership showing up to justify the expense of the series, you’re going to want to end it” (qtd. in Harp).
Despite not having to rely on ratings to create a season, Netflix Original Series are still dependent on a balance between viewership and production cost in order to get renewed. Many things can spike production costs, but the logistical consequences of world-building is definitely a significant consideration.
Personnel refers not only to the characters within the show but it is also, as O’Sullivan (58) says, “concerned with how characters are organized and distributed across a series.”
While the number of principal characters (Nadia, Alan, Maxine, Lizzy, John, and Ruth — as divulged by the opening credits) are small, and the narrative focus is mostly just on Nadia and Alan, their constant deaths and resurrections create a nesting consequence on personnel. Like the characters in NBC’s The Good Place, everyone in Russian Doll who isn’t Nadia and Alan are reset when the loop begins anew. Each character still has their own fundamental personality, but every alteration of the original narrative which Nadia and Alan makes also results to a different version of these characters.
To illustrate, Nadia’s encounters with Maxine after every loop is different after Maxine says “Sweet Birthday Baby!” From then on out, a new, altered, Maxine is created. This is best shown in episode 2, when Nadia is repeatedly dying on the stairs and keeps encountering new iterations of Maxine which has resulted from Nadia’s varied responses to her predicament (“The Great Escape” 11:28–15:17).
Personnel volume in Russian Doll is distributed like in world-building. Most of the recurring characters have been introduced in episode 1, with little additions from then on out except for episode 4, when Alan was introduced as a second narrator, also introducing Beatrice, and in episode 7 when flashbacks introduced Nadia’s mother, young Nadia, and past Ruth.
While briefly seen in episode 1, the marginalized character of Alan was granted focalizing power beginning in episode 4, which was an unexpected shift in the narrative balance of the series.
Personnel, particularly personnel reduction, is used in the narrative to illustrate the irregularities created by Nadia and Alan’s intensifying resurrections. The height of this is when Nadia respawns in Maxine’s bathroom, supposedly at her 36th birthday party, but when she emerges from the door-less bathroom, finds that there is no one but Maxine at her ‘party’; everyone has disappeared (“The Way Out” 12:22–13:41).
Despite the nesting nature of its personnel, I would still argue that this element is low in Russian Doll because, unlike The Good Place’s utilization of its multi-version personnel, there is less narrative focus on these many versions of the principal characters. Nadia and Alan, to whom the narrative is focused, are not affected by the reset the way characters like Maxine are. As a matter of fact, Nadia and Alan are the ones creating these new, altered versions of their friends.
Perhaps if, like in The Good Place, season 1 was spent with one version of the personnel, and season 2 is spent with multiple other versions of them, the personnel element may be considered high, but in Russian Doll, the whole season is focused on two, non-changing personnel, except for the last episode, when Nadia and Alan meet the first versions of themselves in separate timelines.
The only reason that the narrative necessitated multiple versions of characters like Maxine, is to make it clear to the audience that Nadia and Alan are resetting, or looping, and to illustrate how their choices create different outcomes, which they then used to discover more leads about their predicament.
Further, these personnel alterations do not co-exist in the same universe, with the last episode as an exception. In comparison is the Doctor Who episode entitled The Day of the Doctor, when three versions of the same man meet with each other.
In conclusion, Russian Doll, despite having a high volume of personnel to work with, does not show a desire to focus attention outside of its two main characters: Nadia and Alan. Other Netflix Original Series like End of the F*cking World, and Love abide by this two-character narrative focus, but a lot of Netflix Original Series do not. Narcos, Sense8, Stranger Things, and The Umbrella Academy are some examples. Hence, this organization and distribution of personnel could just be the narrative decision of the Russian Doll creators.
The sixth and final element of seriality that O’Sullivan (59) identified is design, which is responsible for alerting viewers of changes in the “machinery of serial construction,” and it is integral in Russian Doll.
The story goes that after every resurrection that Nadia and Alan go through, the universe becomes more irregular, because everytime they respawn, they do so in an alternate parallel universe. Russian Doll executes this by carefully laying down the setting and characters in the first 2 episodes. Perhaps this is why world-building and personnel is low — so that the viewer could get a higher retention of them and, as such, notice that with every resurrection Nadia and Alan go through, things, animals, and people start to go missing, and flowers and fruits start rotting. It’s this gradual decay that subtly takes place behind Nadia and Alan that creates the impact that viewers are hit with when Nadia stands in Maxine’s empty apartment in episode 7 (“The Way Out” 12:22–13:41).
Another aspect of design which is significant to the narrative is the nature of Alan and Nadia’s deaths. The show has made accidents the rule for how Nadia and Alan die. However, after they realize that Alan killed himself the first time their looped, the two protagonists begin dying of internal causes instead of external, signaling that we are likewise diving into the inner layers of the narrative (as one would open a nesting doll).
The Netflix intro animation is also an element of design central to the Netflix viewing experience. Another thing to be discussed about Russian Doll’s design is the extradiegetic title screen that greets the viewers at the start of every episode. Up til episode 3, the title “RUSSIAN DOLL” and the opening credits are shown in a red type color. In episode 4, when Alan is introduced, the type color changes to blue. As the two solve the mystery together, the type colors change per episode — in episode 6, it’s pink, and in episode 7, it’s orange. In the last episode, the type color is red again.
In terms of order, Russian Doll’s design isn’t so prominently defined. Despite essentially being a detective story, it is not told in a formulaic manner like House or Veronica Mars, where in every episode, there is a mystery to be solved, they search for leads, they make a wrong deduction, but eventually stumble upon and unexpected lead which causes them to solve the case. While Russian Doll adopts this kind of sequence in the plot of the narrative, it does not necessarily define every episode. Most of the time, the sleuthing process is enjambed in between episodes. This puts an emphasis on the season as a unit instead of a per-episode narrative design.
In the final tally, the Netflix Original Series Russian Doll exhibits minimalist seriality. While exhibiting serial characteristics, the show is not trying to establish itself as broken pieces or installments, but more so as a long-form narrative with the season as its central unit. This is the consequence of the Netflix model, which encourages (literally, extradiegetically, by auto-playing the next episode after the previous episode ends) binge-watching or watching the whole season in one sitting.
In Romil Sharma’s (88) analysis of this kind of season-level storytelling in the Netflix Original Series Sense8, he notes how the show “crafts a narrative that treats the season rather than the episode as the basic unit of the series, fully embracing the unique qualities of the all-at-once release model.” When considered alongside shows like Friends and BBC Merlin, the structure of the Netflix Original Series Russian Doll shapes the events of its episodes around the premise of the season, instead of vice versa.
As SVODs continue to be a prominent source of content, more of these long-form serial narratives will emerge. Netflix’s model of production, i.e. commissioning shows per season, takes away the variable of ratings and advertising revenue in creating narrative decisions, giving more creative control to the creators.
With the season as the basic unit of the series, it doesn’t have to be as long as how cable networks need it to be. Creators are no longer forced to create filler episodes and stand-alone episodes, although they remain options. The season now only takes as long as the story necessitates. Castlevania is a Netflix Original Series with only four episodes in its first season. Then, in its second season, there are eight episodes. Russian Doll had a message to tell, and this message could be told in only eight episodes, so it only lasted eight episodes.
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