Thursday 18 July 2019

What's behind our newfound love for weird TV?

Netflix's new series 'Russian Doll' is barking mad, but TV shows are getting progressively weirder, from 'Black Mirror: Bandersnatch' to 'The OA'. What's behind our newfound love for wacky drama? Ed Power reports shows are becoming weirder and weirder... and it's just the beginning

Natasha Lyonne’s character in Russian Doll keeps dying and coming back to life on her 36th birthday
Natasha Lyonne’s character in Russian Doll keeps dying and coming back to life on her 36th birthday

Ed Power

The hottest TV show of the season is a reincarnation mystery starring former Hollywood bad-girl Natasha Lyonne as a sweary New Yorker who keeps dying and coming back to life at her 36th birthday party. Does that sound weird? It should because it is weird.

Just a few years ago, the premise of Russian Doll would have surely been far too bonkers to pass muster - with critics, but especially viewers. Yet the hype is very real as it debuts on Netflix today. Somehow weird TV has become the hot new thing in binge-watching.

Strange television obviously has a long lineage. The original 1990 Twin Peaks was craziness on a stick.

Remember the dancing dwarf, Kyle MacLachlan and the cherry-pie, the finger-clicking jazz soundtrack?

But Twin Peaks was cancelled after just two seasons - roughly the length of time it took audiences to cop to the fact that it was completely barking and that creator David Lynch had about as much interest in conventional television as the British parliament has in a sensible solution to Brexit.

Today 'completely barking' is just what we are looking for. Russian Doll, produced by Parks And Recreations' Amy Poehler, looks set to prove that point with a storyline so complicated it would take all night and several sheaves of flow-charts to begin to explain it.

The viewer chooses what way the story will go in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
The viewer chooses what way the story will go in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

The basic premise might be described as Groundhog Day for cynical millennials. Nadia - Lyonne playing a version of her cynical Orange Is The New Black character Nicky Nichols - is celebrating her birthday with her irritatingly hip, druggy friends in New York's East Village (imagine a trendy part of Dublin with the self-satisfaction dialled all the way up). Or at least she is until she is knocked down by a taxi. Goodnight Nadia!

Actually, no. It turns out the party - by which we mean the phantasmagorical fever dream - is just getting started. Despite having just died, Nadia wakes up back in the toilet of her best pal's apartment.

Soft-rocker Harry Nilsson blares from the stereo and her best pal is waiting outside with a joint. She's gone back in time and nobody else has an inkling what has befallen her.

So it goes over and over. Nadia falls to her death off a roof, Nadia is killed walking over a basement entrance and so forth. Gradually, she realises that, as per Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the universe has plans for her and she is being brought back for a reason. We're a long way from The Crown or Big Bang Theory. But this is very much part of a wider trend. Consider that one of the big TV talking points last Christmas was a new 'interactive' episode of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror.

As with Russian Doll, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch was out to lunch, and also out to breakfast, supper and dinner.

The backdrop was the early 80s British video game industry - an oeuvre which, it is safe to say, has never featured highly among the historical settings audiences have been keen to delve into.

Weirder yet - and you better believe it gets weirder - Bandersnatch places the viewer in control. At key moments, you decide the course of action Stefan should take. Sugar Puffs or Frosties for breakfast? Ought he take drugs with a work colleague or visit his therapist?

When his dad becomes very annoying, you can chose whether Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) politely asks him to go away or batter his pater with an ashtray. You are unlikely to stop and wonder if you've put on Emmerdale by mistake .

Such is the popularity of cray-cray telly that even David Lynch has had a second bite. Last year, he brought back Twin Peaks and made sure it was twice as unhinged as the original. Even fans of the show admitted it made less than no sense. Indeed, the entire point of Twin Peaks: The Return, it felt, was that it made less than no sense.

How to explain all of this? The lazy hypothesis would be that it has something to do with the internet and how it is frying our brains. Or perhaps it's a backlash against our increasingly regimented existences. With our lives increasingly feeling as if they are on guided rails - our bosses are always in touch via email, our commutes are getting longer, our mortgages stretching towards infinity - could it be that a pinch of curated wackiness is what we need?

Maybe it is simply because television, as an art form, is only now coming of age. It is no coincidence that both Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and Russian Doll are on Netflix.

Both shows work best with full immersion. It takes 90 minutes or so to play all the way through Bandersnatch - assuming you don't rewind to chose among the various options presented to you.

And Russian Doll really needs to be binged. Dip in week by week and the convolutions of the storyline are likely to become a deal-breaker. Only by diving in at the deep end will it make any sort of sense.

And that's just for starters. Soon returning to Netflix is series two of The OA - a completely unhinged science fiction mystery that makes Russian Doll feel like a Zig and Zag boxset. Amazon is bringing us an adaptation of the Terry Pratchett-Neil Gaiman show, Good Omens, about an angel and a demon trying to prevent the world from ending.

A second series of the deeply idiosyncratic spy caper Killing Eve is incoming too.

Television may be zanier than ever but it's clear that the real weirdness has yet to arrive. Buckle up - the rollercoaster is about to get a lot crazier.

Irish Independent

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