The Television of Trauma and Time: Russian Doll and True Detective

The following contains mild spoilers for ‘Russian Doll’ and the third season of ‘True Detective.’

What does it say about American that television’s two best shows of 2019 thus far — the new Netflix series Russian Doll and HBO’s third season of True Detective — are both about trauma and time?

The two shows get to their thematic similarities in different ways, of course. Russian Doll is a thirty-minute comedy (of sorts) set in New York and True Detective is a very heavy drama that happens in Arkansas for its third season.

Both, though, are excellent in the way that they handle trauma, time, and the repercussions of them.

russiandollRussian Doll proves its worth by starting with a fascinating, if previously used, conceit — a hard-scrabble New Yorker keeps dying only to be brought back on the night of her birthday party. It becomes a comment on how unresolved familial issues can put people in a constant loop, a loop that finds them trying to find answers often through the same techniques that caused the very problems that they’re trying to resolve. It can be seen through the lens of addiction, but there’s something better going on there. Russian Doll — and credit to the show’s creator Natasha Lyonne — digs into how life events, particularly those in childhood, really set in to motion the mistakes we often make as adults.

True Detective bounced back from its weak second season and ended this Sunday with a gentle, resonant view on how trauma — in this case, war and murder — sets of a different loop: one that muddies time in our heads and even destroys towns. The murder of Will Purcell and the disappearance of Julie Purcell are only the tips of the iceberg for the show, as writer Nic Pizzolatto allowed his protagonist Wayne Hays to have to deal with family and memory as much as any crime. Academy Award Winner Mahershalia Ali and Stephen Dorff are amazing in their roles as the detectives who frighteningly fight with time as much as anything in a crime scene. truedetective

Both of the best shows of the year so far deal with the issue of time, memory, and trauma so deftly, which is especially nice in the case of True Detective as in previous seasons it wanted to be more of an examination of action and mystery rather an a piece of introspection. Russian Doll is more than the comedy and conceit that will initially draw any viewer’s interest. These are great shows because they don’t just hinge on the jungle of our inner selves, but instead, use that jungle to add more depth and more melancholy.

The shows don’t feel like direct commentary on our times and likely weren’t written to be. Instead, they’re analysis of each of us as individuals and how the events of the past shape who we are today, for better or for worst.

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