It was Groundhog Day this week. Inevitably that became an excuse for media outlets to return to the 1993 movie, in which Bill Murray’s misanthropic weatherman becomes trapped in an endlessly looped February 2nd. It’s hard not to draw parallels to the rhythms and routines of COVID lockdown.
The New York Times had a feature on the top five time loop movies, saying that they might feel “a little too close to home this year.” Tor.com also reheated a Groundhog Day piece from three years ago, and at the tail end pointed towards two more recent examples, Palm Springs and Russian Doll.
The Times suggested this was a genre “you may not want to relive” under current circumstances, but there’s something to be learned about repetition and release from these oddball shows and pictures.
Thursday, what a concept
At my place, we just rewatched Russian Doll, the 2019 Netflix series in which Natasha Lyonne plays Nadia, a software engineer forced to relive the night of her 36th birthday over and over, returning to the bathroom at her party each time she dies.
Nadia eventually encounters Alan, a man who is also dying and reliving the same day. Together they try to understand and escape the situation – which forces them to reevaluate their relationships to each other, and those around them.
Putting these characters in apparently inescapable loops takes them out of the normal rules we live by. There is no consequence to your actions when death provides a reset; the same event can be observed from different perspectives each time a character revisits it, and learning from one loop can be put to use in another.
Russian Doll reminded me of another uneasy comedy in which a character leaves their routine for a series of increasingly bizarre experiences, and an existential journey.
“Personally, I don’t think we’re ever going to reach the time that you’re in”
Gurney Slade screened on Britain’s ITV network for one series of six episodes in 1960. Praised by David Bowie, who was a fan of its star Anthony Newley, the show maintained a lasting impact as a cult oddity, despite its brief run.
In its first episode, Gurney walks out of the mundane sitcom he inhabits – much to the consternation of the other characters around him, who keep trying to feeding him lines – and escapes into an increasingly weird self-created freedom. (He conjures his own theme tune by waggling his fingers to play an invisible keyboard). Able to break the fourth wall and address the audience, he summons a girl to life from a poster advertising a vaccuum-cleaner and conjures another living woman from mannequin parts he has assembled; he meets a talking dog and a sharp-suited fairy with pointy ears, wings, and a magic wand; he is put on trial for his show not being funny enough and, in the final reckoning, comes face-to-face with the “real” Anthony Newley.
Gurney’s experience, like that of Nadia and Alan in Russian Doll, shatters some of the fictions and conventions we choose to live by. But where Nadia and Alan are always enmeshed in a web of relationships – even when they don’t want to be – Gurney is ultimately alone.
The peak of horror in Russian Doll is when people begin to disappear from Nadia’s world with each repetition of the birthday loop. By the final iteration, Nadia’s friend Maxine is almost reduced to an automaton, dancing alone in an apartment that was previously crowded with friends, unable to leave: “I am the party”.
Gurney Slade also has an episode in which its protagonist is largely alone. A dancehall which Gurney visits is represented by the bleak, blank landscape of a derelict airstrip. He acts as if the place is crowded, but the figures he interacts with – a girl he fancies, the friend who is with her – only appear when he notices them.
In the episode’s final moments, Gurney is left alone with no company but the viewer, so he chats us up with the same lame lines he had tried on the girl, and ends up dancing with the camera on that empty airfield.
Nadia’s world is restored and repopulated when she comes to terms with her troubled past. In the final episode, having escaped the loop, she and Alan must try and save one other from deaths which will not now reset – except that the other is now a stranger to them. The moments in which they respectively manage to avert Nadia’s car accident and Alan’s suicide are anticlimactic, because the real climax has come at the moment when each of them succeeds in getting the other to recognise and listen to them.
No such escape exists for Gurney. In the show’s final episode, he knows that he only has twenty-five minutes to live. He appears in an empty television studio. We see the hands of mysterious men working controls which affect the production we are watching. All the characters from previous episodes reappear, but they are lost and confused. A lawyer created for the trial episode of Gurney Slade complains that he hasn’t been given a full existence, couldn’t even go to a restaurant: he only knows how to prosecute.
Things seem hopeless, but Gurney succeeds in finding new on-screen homes for the characters who will be obliterated at the show’s end. There is sadness – a husband and wife are separated to appear on different shows – but Gurney manages to keep the children together. (Gurney has an affinity for children, refusing as he does to become an adult on the terms proposed by the world he finds himself in).
When the twenty-fifth minute arrives, the others are gone, but Anthony Newley himself arrives to “collect” Gurney, and in a disturbing moment, the character gradually transforms into a painted puppet, losing the power of speech by increments, pleading with Newley for them to continue making the show – until finally he is just a wooden doll, which Newley then carries away.
Our endless repeating days
Both these shows play quite differently in the lockdown of 2021. Days in the same apartment, fielding Zoom call after Zoom call, cooking for yourself, taking the same walks in the same park, can feel like a very mundane version of Russian Doll. And like Gurney, we can find ourselves dreaming of escape, shaking off rules and impositions to create a world of pure personal freedom.
But Gurney Slade screened more than sixty years ago, to a Britain just a decade and a half out of world war. It’s no surprise people might have dreamt of breaking free from convention, living life their own way. There’s also the question of who gets to be protagonist of the televised dream. Gurney is unambiguously a straight white man’s fantasy: several of Gurney’s escapades involve his pursuit of women, and the character’s “innocent” lovelorn ways lose some of their shine when you know that Newley abandoned Anneke Wills, the 17-year-old actor playing the girl Gurney fails to woo on the airfield dancefloor, after fathering a child with her. (By comparison, Russian Doll offers a world that is visibly queer and sex-positive, with Nadia clearly in control of even her most wayward sexual encounters, and partygoer Lizzy – played by the wife of the show’s co-creator Leslye Headland – emerging satisfied from a tangle of bodies in the morning-after of one repetition.)
The Sixties call for personal liberty rings more hollowly when it’s made against regulations and norms put in place to prevent a 21st-century global health crisis; a COVID-19 protestor who bore a placard citing Sixties TV show The Prisoner rightly got mocked online.
By contrast, Russian Doll‘s Nadia has known great liberty – she’s dubbed a “cock-a-roach”, indestructible and uninhibited in her appetites for sex and drugs – but fears connection with others. Her redemption comes in her ultimate choice to be there for someone else, however imperfectly.
It’s interesting to wonder if time loop stories like these depend on an individualistic society, given how much they’re driven by the idea of personal growth. Adam Roberts has said that “time travel is a fantasy of narrative control”, and that includes the fantasy of a personal do-over. Were there time loop stories before the age of individual choice, consumer “freedom”, and talk of personal responsibility?
Sixty years on from Gurney Slade, we can see the limits of the kind of escape he offers. Russian Doll has a different promise, more obviously in tune with the times we live in: it tells us there is always hope that we might truly connect with one another. This belief is not just visible in pop storytelling (I’m reminded of the heroes of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, joining hands to survive the movie’s finale when they couldn’t alone), but in the growing attention to ecosystems, social networks, and the circular economy. You see it in the hopeful assertion that COVID-19 and the climate crisis will cause us to reevaluate the profit motive in favour of a deeper, more authentic recognition of one another and the relationships in which we are all embedded.
These Covid times have got more of us thinking about the importance of connection, connectedness and connectivity. What it means to feel connected, disconnected, more connected. About how we develop and maintain our connectedness without physical proximity. The importance of our connection to the rest of the natural world. Like never before, we are experiencing just how interconnected our personal and global challenges are. There is a brighter light shining on the stickiness between us. The glue between ourselves.
Yet no story perfectly maps the world; every story is of its time, and is likely to share the blindspots of that time, speaking to today’s concerns with no guarantee that they will still seem valid or vital within a generation.
We can see the limits of Gurney’s world most clearly now. But in sixty years, what limits will we see to Russian Doll?