TV Guide: Life After Life, Russian Doll and TV time loops

As the ‘Time Loop’ hits the world of TV Drama, we look at its origins and the developments in the cyclical storytelling technique on its way to the small screen

Feature by Ellie Robertson | 28 Apr 2022
  • Russian Doll

A self-assured, irritable character lives out yet another average day in their life, or perhaps it’s their final day on Earth before a random accident kills them off. Then, miraculously, they wake up on the morning of the same day. The song that plays on the radio alarm clock is identical, the neighbour gives the same annoying greeting. Over and over again, our protagonist makes it to the end of the day, or the end of their life, then… wakes up. Sound familiar? It’s not déjà vu – this is the Time Loop, a story structure that has been popular in film and prose for over thirty years.

Groundhog Day

This feel-good flick of the 90s blended fantasy and comedy in a continuum not unheard of for its era. Bill Murray, who had tread the path of light-hearted supernatural cinema in Ghostbusters and Scrooged, had an epic falling out with director Harold Ramis during production, but was instantly immortalised by the critical acclaim of the film. A man wakes up on Groundhog Day, the same Groundhog Day, every day, on repeat. 

Thirty years on, and the scriptwriters still get letters from religious leaders and psychologists praising the hidden complexities of the simple premise. For many, it is a metaphor for his general dissatisfaction with life, only being freed once he learns how to appreciate each day for what it is, no matter how similar it is to the others, and see people not as predictable bits of script, but as real, feeling, human beings.

It became a fun trope for screenwriters to play with, with shows like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer having dedicated “Time Loop” episodes. But this wasn’t some cliché critics got tired of after one or two runs around the writer’s room. New variations helped explore the plot device’s potential and it seems a new genre is here to stay, with plenty of recent releases to get stuck into.

Life After Life

A BBC adaptation of the critically acclaimed 2013 novel, Life After Life puts a darker spin on the narrative that Groundhog Day introduced. Set in the early 20th century, protagonist Ursula Todd’s loop lasts far longer than a single day – she is born, she grows up, she is killed. Falling, drowning, succumbing to the Influenza; and that’s not even to mention the times she winds up in a life not worth living. Thomasin McKenzie’s protagonist slowly gains a latent instinct to avoid each death. 

Unlike Groundhog Day, the loop is not necessarily a gift with which to grow and become a better person. Ursula’s childhood is spent manoeuvring out of the reach of death, to the point where the delights of her English countryside upbringing at the beginning of the series seem like a juvenile distraction from the real point of life – survival. She becomes irrational, even violent, when attempting to dodge the circumstantial events that would lead her to another fatal incident, and in the eyes of her mother, she’s gone mad. 

The Time Loop in Life After Life represents a lot of things; how it feels to live with anxiety, being compelled to take every measure to prevent the worst possible outcome. Or the repeating nature of womanhood, where young girls are expected to accept the traditional roles thrust upon them as if they were fate. Either way, in a modern world where we must put away the dread left with us by a lethal, global pandemic, and strive to stand up and break the traditional power imbalances that have trapped us for generations, Ursula Todd’s journey through variations of the 20th century might resonate more than the average BBC teatime period drama.

The pacing can be a little off sometimes: four episodes isn’t a lot to capture such a multitude of lifetimes, and it can feel like some significant events are rushed. But Thomasin McKenzie gets to masterfully jump into lots of different variations of the same character. There’s war, drag queens, a bit of Buddhist philosophy, all done with the stiff upper lip of the Edwardian countryside setting. If you were waiting for the BBC to do something a little bit different, don’t sleep on Life After Life: who knows how soon before the loop resets?

Russian Doll

You may have thought that Netflix’s mind-bending black comedy was all wrapped up, but Russian Doll has at least one season still nested inside. Reception has been mixed, with star/showrunner Natasha Lyonne bringing colourful protagonist Nadia to life one final time, but the first season makes characters grapple with their careless attitudes to life, and just like in other examples of the genre, they are released from the paranormal circumstances as a reward for growing to care about others. 

Season two of Russian Doll struggles to make itself relevant – they even abandon the repetitive structure and have Nadia simply warp backwards to a time when her mother was still pregnant with her. It has incredibly witty dialogue, a mouth-watering wardrobe department and a killer soundtrack, so even if Russian Doll season two can’t justify itself, you’ll still have a good time watching. 

But such a stark change in structure further highlights how the Time Loop is more than just one simple part of a story. It can’t be subtracted or exchanged – it is a genre, and Russian Doll switching lanes into a more ‘Back to the Future’-style narrative just doesn’t work. The first season remains a stellar example of the emerging genre, but Netflix has managed to tread the same ground in a show about… treading the same ground.

Late Night Forever! With Jordan Brookes

But there’s still more magic to come. Channel 4 is set to release a new set of “Blaps” early on in May, and amongst the grassroots comedy start-ups is a microseries called Late Night Forever! With Jordan Brookes

According to the synopsis, the show follows a comatose TV presenter (played by the Edinburgh Comedy Award winner), trapped in episode after episode of a psychedelic chat show; the episode ends, the loop restarts, and the chaos kicks off once again. Reception to their Blaps helps Channel 4 find out which pilots are worth commissioning full series. We Are Lady Parts and Stath Lets Flats got their starts as humble Blaps, so we could be looking at Channel 4’s next big comedy, or we could want off the ride quicker than Brookes does.

We think a lot about how we would do things differently if we could. It’s a fallacy that we need to escape in order to enjoy life, and that’s what the Time Loop genre is all about. But from a creative standpoint, it’s not uncommon to look at iconic pieces of media, classic or contemporary, Bill Murray or Buffy, and hope to put your own spin on it. When enough artists or writers are doing that, it’s how a genre is born. After the streaming service revolution, series are thriving, and there’s no better content for a platform that’s had an unexpected resurgence than a genre which characteristically covers themes of cycles and nostalgia. Both TV and the Time Loop are begging to be repeated.

Life After Life is available to stream on BBC iPlayer
Russian Doll is available to stream on Netflix
Late Night Forever! With Jordan Brookes will be available to stream on All 4 from 6 May