All the stories in the world are made of tropes — recurring narrative devices like themes or character archetypes. And although good writers know how to take tropes and manipulate them to say something new, they can also lead to lazy, repetitive writing. The police procedural format is particularly guilty of this, constantly churning out new shows comprising tropes like the reckless rookie, the grumpy chief, and the goofball male detective paired up with the much more serious, no nonsense female detective. We see these repeatedly in shows like Bones, Castle, and Lucifer.
But sometimes a story will perform a bait and switch. It will set up a trope with the implication that it’s going to be played straight, but then veers into an entirely different situation, giving the story a unique twist. While subverting tropes isn’t a novel storytelling method, what makes a show like Double Decker: Doug and Kirill stand out is the tropes it subverts. The show doesn’t just go after harmless clichés. It also goes after stereotypes that have been used to demean and marginalize, instead turning them into devices that can uplift and represent those who have been the victims in the past.
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A Different Class of Heroes
Double Decker follows Kirill Vrubel, a cocky, over-eager new investigator on his mission to become a hero in a specialized drug investigation agency tracking down users of a dangerous physical enhancement drug called Anthem. He’s paired up with Doug, an aloof older detective whose approval and admiration Kirill craves. The show lines up an unusual cast of characters forged from archetypes most of us are familiar with. There’s Deana del Rio with her pink ponytails and a fashionable flower motif, along with her plain-looking partner, Kay; Max, the boxer with an undercut mohawk and Yuri, her android girlfriend-slash-partner; Sophie, the classically feminine secretary, and Travis, the sexist boss who’s convinced she’s in love with him.
The show begins by setting certain expectations for the audience. Kirill is the goofball rookie who doesn’t take things seriously and is prone to dangerous mistakes. Doug at first appears too serious as the veteran cop and older mentor. Max seems tough and aggressive, Sophie seems like a subservient pushover, etc. There’s even a missing sister — Milla Vrubel — who may be involved in the drug problem running rampant through the city. But piece by piece, the show dismantles the expectations it sets, highlighting common tropes and then going, “But we’re not going to do that.”
Kirill, the lead of the show, may be modeled after the typical hot-headed idiot goofball, but over time it’s shown that he takes his job very, very seriously and cares deeply about the work that he does. Although he can be a gullible dumbass, he’s academically brilliant in the field of genetics, having written a lauded research paper on the topic. His design is feminine and pretty, and although he resents being misgendered, he does nothing to alter his feminine appearance and behavior and is comfortable in female clothing from time to time.
Although Doug is modeled after the serious, older mentor type of character, it’s revealed that much of his aloofness is due to how oblivious he can be in his friendships, and that although he’s quiet, he’s not serious by nature. One of the funniest reveals of the show has the narrator declaring, “Doug is actually kind of an asshole!” He enjoys pranks and jokes, such as when he convinces Kirill that no one knows Yuri, Max’s girlfriend and investigative partner, is a robot.
Other characters have depths that contrast their archetypes. Max, the rough and tumble boxer is a great cook and gentle soul who only adopted her current style as a favor to her trans friend from high school, to make her feel more comfortable with herself. Deana, although feminine in design, is one of the most aggressive, violent, foul-mouthed characters on the show, prone to reckless behavior and often disregarding rules. Sophie, rather than being subservient to her boss, openly despises him and steals his wallet constantly, treating herself to lunch and spa days on his dime as retribution.
Unbury Your Gays
But it’s not just through the characters that Double Decker plays with audience expectations. The story itself is full of plays on common tropes, often ones that have become rote and unpopular over time. In one episode, Yuri, the android who is Max’s partner and girlfriend, appears to sacrifice herself to save the rest of the team, invoking the “Bury Your Gays” trope. This cliché — in which characters who are gay are likelier to die in a story than characters who are not — is controversial because gay representation is still not common in the media and killing off a rare gay character feels even more like an insult because of it. But rather than leaving it at that and having Max grieve the death of her girlfriend, the show turns around and reveals that the android who died was a clone of Yuri, and that the real Yuri was fine all along. As someone familiar with and exhausted with this dynamic regarding gay characters , my delight at seeing that Yuri was okay and never even in danger to begin with was heightened because my expectation going into the show was that she wouldn’t make it to the end of the series.
The show also borrows the set up for stereotypical tropes and then takes the plot in a different direction. During one episode, Yusef, a wealthy Middle-Eastern man, is throwing a party at a hotel and the squad goes undercover to apprehend a potential Anthem dealer with which Yusef appears to be involved. I spent the entire episode holding my breath and praying he wouldn’t turn out to be a criminal or terrorist, the way so much modern media treats Middle-Eastern characters.
As it turns out, Yusef is not only kind, charming, and sweet, but he only wants to buy Anthem to improve himself due to his feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. A conversation with Kirill — who is disguised as a beautiful girl — changes his mind, and he cooperates with the investigators who apprehend the Anthem dealer. The show makes it clear that Yusef is a great person who is a victim of his circumstances, and that while he almost makes a mistake that could have gotten him and innocent people hurt, he catches it in time to not suffer any long-lasting repercussions. A far cry from the traditional terrorist plots that Middle Eastern characters are often shoehorned into.
But one of the best trope subversions happens in the last bonus episode. Kirill spends a trip to the hot springs — with the entire agency in tow — agonizing over the fact that Derick, a local bar owner and Doug’s former partner, doesn’t know that his beautiful, feminine employee who is also Kirill’s sibling, Valery, is male. This worries Kirill because Derick seems to harbor some intense feelings for “Milla,” who he’s grown very close to in the time they’ve been working together. Eventually, Doug casually reveals that “Milla Vrubel” is actually a man called Valery Vrubel, shocking Derick.
From here, the audience could reasonably expect that Derick might panic and get violent, or at least be visibly upset at having had his heterosexuality “threatened.” At best, the show might just sweep his feelings under the rug and never address them again. But when Valery approaches Derick about still working at his restaurant, Derick blushes and tells Valery that he doesn’t care what gender someone is as long as they’re nice, leading Valery to blush as well. The implication is that Derick’s feelings are still very much alive, regardless of whether Valery is female or male. The closing credits of the show have Valery and Derick going on a romantic walk alone, just the two of them, the way Derick wanted throughout the entire episode, making for a plot twist and a casual introduction of a bisexual character all in the same breath.
Raising a Very Low Bar
Sometimes stories claim to be subversive and fresh while feeding their audiences much of the same garbage. Cabin in the Woods billed itself as a horror movie that explores and deconstructs common horror tropes and then went on to play many of those tropes straight with a wink and a nudge like, “Look at us, we’re self-aware.” It sets the expectation of a movie where the story would play out differently than in other horror films, but the result was the same as in many teen horror films even if the journey there is unconventional. The attractive blonde girl dies after having sex, the tough jock dies doing something stupid, and nobody lives in the end. The intended message seems to be “the horror genre loves to do the same things over and over again” even as the film does just that. It makes for an unsatisfying experience and there are more effective ways to get that message across without invoking misogynistic tropes played straight.
Double Decker points out that stories love to do the same things over and over again too. But it isn’t content to just lampshade the conventions of its genre. Instead, it actually uses them to do something new, setting itself apart and showing how audience expectations rooted in stereotypes and tired tropes can be wielded to create more compelling stories.