Welcome back to Friday afternoon. I plan to spend the weekend watching the new season of Chef’s Table featuring Mashama Bailey, Sean Brock, Dario Cecchini, and Asma Khan. Stay tuned for more thoughts on that series next week, but for now, here are notes on three shows worth checking out this weekend, including a bona fide Netflix masterpiece, a terrific cable TV comedy that’s back for a new season, and a food show exploring the intersection of Asian cuisine and pop art.
Unpacking the many layers of detail in ‘Russian Doll’
After watching the pilot of Netflix’s latest comedic thriller, Russian Doll, I wasn’t totally hooked — it seemed cool, but emotionally detached from its main character. By the fourth episode, I was sufficiently charmed by Natasha Lyonne’s streetsmart coder, Nadia, and the slightly retro version of downtown Manhattan that she inhabits. And by the final episode, I was convinced that Nadia was one of TV’s best modern protagonists, and that this was (as others have noted) the first truly great TV show of 2019. As its name implies, Russian Doll has many layers. It’s one of those shows that you’ll probably enjoy more if you don’t know much about it ahead of time. So with that in mind, here are some *major-spoiler-free* notes on why this show works as well as it does:
Among its attributes, Russian Doll is a spectacular ode to one of America’s most fabled nightlife neighborhoods: Manhattan’s East Village. It’s a place where tourists, students, and New Yorkers alike have unforgettable experiences that will replay in their minds for the rest of their lives… whether they like it or not. No matter how many waves of gentrification wash over the neighborhood, the East Village still feels ancient and a bit haunted at times, and Russian Doll perfectly captures its nighttime energy.
As Nadia begins to unravel the mystery that has consumed her life, she passes through a number of real-world neighborhood institutions that never go out of style, including Ukrainian stalwart Odessa, fabled dive the Horseshoe Bar (also known as 7B or Vazac’s), and anytime-day-or-night sandwich favorite Sunny & Annie’s. But it’s the scenes at Nadia’s local bodega that rang truest to me for their slice-of-life quality. This is the unglamorous center of her warped universe; a place that’s both familiar and unpredictable, where many epic nights both start and end.
True to her nickname, “the Cockroach,” Nadia subsists on very little food. Like Forever, another show about people who are stuck in a form of purgatory, some of the characters in Russian Doll obsess over food, but nobody gets a chance to really enjoy the act of eating. At one point, Nadia finds herself housing an entire plate of wings by herself, but the meal ends with our protagonist gagging on a bone. Meanwhile, her acquaintance, Alan, orders birthday cake slices for delivery and proceeds to joylessly shovel them into his mouth while playing video games. And one of the show’s best running gags is that Nadia’s friend, Maxine, is preparing a special chicken dish for her birthday, but that poultry feast never comes to fruition. The same rule applies to the tea that Nadia’s godmother, Ruth, keeps promising her as well.
As with all of the best Netflix originals, Natasha Lyonne and her co-creators, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, have made a show that’s not only worth marathon-watching, but also going through a second time to find more clues and Easter eggs (Vulture has an amazing running list, with time stamps). But it’s the subtle details — like the fact that most of the action takes place around three blocks of the East Village — that I admired the most, because they show that Lyonne and her collaborators wanted to ground their extraordinary tale in some degree of reality.
All eights episodes of Russian Doll are now available to stream on Netflix.
Streaming recommendations du jour
At Home With Amy Sedaris, “Teenagers”
The gist: “You’ve seen teenagers hanging out in parking lots and rock quarries, heard their strange youth slang, and in some cases even done their laundry,” Amy Sedaris says at the start of this new episode of her mock lifestyle/entertaining show. “But what do we really know about them?” Throughout the next half hour, the host attempts get inside the head of a real-life teenager named Byron, with the help of her friends and neighbors.
Byron is not interested in the three-tiered cold-cut cake that the host prepares for him, and he’s visibly creeped out by Sedaris’s knife specialist friend, Tony, who stops by to show off his favorite blades. But by the end of the episode, Amy and Byron find some common ground while sitting in a tree and singing a song about how it’s difficult to find a friend.
It’s clear from this season premiere that At Home With Amy Sedaris is still gleefully marching to the beat of its own drum.
Lucky Chow, “Food Is Art”
Watch it on: KCET.org
The Gist: Danielle Chang’s thoughtful series about the Asian culinary diaspora is back for a third season on PBS. In this new episode, Chang explores the overlapping worlds of food and pop culture, with segments featuring origami artist Benjamin Hsu and Instagram-famous sculptor Tish Cherry. The host also heads to Seoul to learn about culinary-themed K-dramas and the local food-truck scene. And, in a segment that I found particularly informative, Chang gets a crash course in mukbang from YouTube star Keemi.
New episodes of Lucky Chow will air on local PBS stations for the next several weeks, but you can also watch them all on KCET.org for free.
In other entertainment news…
- Netflix’s long-in-the-works Green Eggs and Ham series is finally getting released this fall. It has a ridiculously star-studded cast.
- SNL’s cake-fail sketch was funny, although perhaps not as funny as a regular episode of Nailed It.
- World-saving chef José Andrés will present an award at the Oscars on Sunday.
- And speaking of the Oscars, rumor has it that Jay-Z and Beyonce’s afterparty in the Chateau Marmont parking garage will feature “caviar by the gallon” plus fried chicken and waffles from Eleven Madison Park chef Daniel Humm.
- The latest episode of NCIS: New Orleans includes a shout-out to PizzaGate.
- The Golden Girls cruise sounds lit.
- An Anheuser-Busch-produced documentary called Beers of Joy is getting a limited theatrical release next month.
- I was happy to see Michelle Minori re-enter the competition on this week’s episode of Top Chef.
- And finally, Jimmy Fallon sent David Letterman avocado toast for Christmas and he replied with a note reading, “Thanks for the guacamole, kid!”
Have a great weekend, everyone, and if you’re looking for a carb-tastic cooking challenge, perhaps consider making the focaccia from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat using this recipe.