Russian Doll review: Netflix's existential dramedy is a whole lot better than Groundhog Day on steroids
Russian Doll is among the most exciting and inventive new shows of the past decade
Thank god for Netflix.
It’s only February and the streaming giant has already bestowed upon us a show that most definitely will be among the best you’ll watch all year. And if you’re the kind of person who likes your sitcoms to have a grain of surreal existential dread, a little sprinkling of New York bohemianism and a much-needed heavy dose of no-shit female protagonists, then you’ll rank Russian Doll among the most exciting and inventive new shows of the past decade.
If you’ve watched it already, you want to watch it again. And if you haven’t watched it yet, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your life and then go watch the show.
Nadia Vulvokov (star and series co-creator Natasha Lyonne) is a cynical, nihilistic game developer from NY, who’s celebrating her 36th birthday at a party thrown by her friend Maxine (Greta Lee). Nadia’s idea of celebration involves smoking a joint Maxine hands her that is “laced with cocaine like the Israelis do it”, sleeping with a pretentious professor of literature who’s also having illicit affairs with his female students, and trying to find her only baby - her cat Oatmeal, who seems to be in the habit of running away.
She’s a decidedly independent heroine, enjoying her decidedly promiscuous life. Somewhere in the wee hours of the morning after her birthday, as she takes a need-to-buy-cigarettes break from writing code, she sees Oatmeal across the road, and gets hit by a car as she crosses the street to get to her cat. And so Nadia Vulvokov dies. Except she doesn’t — she wakes up back in Maxine’s apartment at the birthday party, looking at her reflection in the mirror in the bathroom as Harry Nilsson’s ‘Gotta Get Up’ begins playing once again.
Car accident, multiple falls down the stairs, freezing to death, drowning, elevator plunging to death, gas explosions — Nadia dies in several ways, but always wakes up in the same exact moment: on the day of her 36th birthday party, in the bathroom in Maxine’s apartment as Nilsson’s song buoyantly keeps playing as if on loop. In terms of purgatorial hell, it’s not quite as bad as having a mediocre day with people you don’t know/like a la Groundhog Day. But we soon learn that in Russian Doll, things aren’t quite as simple as a TV weatherman becoming a nicer person.
Natasha Lyonne (you know her from Orange is the New Black, But I’m a Cheerleader, and the American Pie movies) co-created Russian Doll along with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland. In an interview, she referred to the show as “a mind-warped version of something resembling a version of an autobiography.” And you can see Lyonne’s life somewhat reflected in her character Nadia: her Jewish heritage (Lyonne’s maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors, so are Nadia’s), Lyonne being estranged from her father and not being close to her mother (Nadia had a very tumultuous relationship with her deceased mother, and is closer to her therapist grandma Ruth than she ever was with her mom), and her drug and alcohol addiction (Lyonne was in rehab while Nadia has, admittedly, tried every drug there is).
Bringing this sense of self-identification to the character and the overall story means that Russian Doll sets itself apart from the standard time loop, die-rinse-repeat fare because it brings a certain level of earnestness to the whole thing. The first few times Nadia dies, she’s obviously confused and uncertain; she considers all possibilities — from realistic ones (she’s not actually dying, it’s just a reaction to whatever’s in the joint she smoked) to the supernatural (the building that Maxine’s apartment is in, used to be a Jewish yeshiva and has strong forces at work that are causing this). At some point, after several deaths, she even rejoices a little; the nihilist in her is elated at the random inconsequentiality of it all. Nothing matters, nobody gives a crap about anything, life’s a chore and she might as well spend all eternity (i.e. the few hours of her birthday) partying with her friends/smoking up/having sex over and over.
This is where Russian Doll - a female-led and female-driven show - exhibits its first stroke of brilliance. Armed with her nihilism, Nadia could easily have become a caricature of the time loop genre. But Nadia perseveres, and when she’s unsure of what’s happening to her and why, she engages in altruistic actions that don’t change her outcome. She befriends a guy named Horse on a street corner (who we later learn used to be a businessman during the dot-com bubble) who runs away from a shelter when someone steals his shoes; Nadia and Horse both freeze to death in the cold NY winter night, so in her next loop, she goes to the shelter early to guard Horse’s shoes all night so that he’ll continue to stay at the shelter and not freeze to death.
Doesn’t matter personally because that morning, she plunges to her death in her office elevator. Nadia Vulvokov reboots, but this time, she’s got company.
Going into any detail about Alan Zaveri (played by Charlie Barnett) — the uptight, life’s-a-routine-and-it’s-so-much-better-now-that-I-can-perfect-it-every-time-I-die-and-come-back-to-life guy who’s in the elevator with Nadia and displays no fear when the elevator starts its rapid descent because, as he tells Nadia, “It doesn’t matter. I die all the time” — would mean giving away many spoilers.
[Some spoilers ahead]
To put it briefly, Alan is the antithesis to Nadia — straight-laced, the non-excitable proverbial “good guy” has been reliving the worst day of his life (his girlfriend of several years, who’s having an affair with her literature professor, breaks up with him as he’s about to propose to her). The Lit Prof turns out to be the same guy Nadia sleeps with, but that’s just a side note. Alan is convinced that they’re in purgatory because of their actions, and if they went back and retroactively redid things the right/correct way, they should reset back to their old lives during one of the loops. Clearly Mr. Zaveri doesn’t watch The Good Place - things are never just that simple, Alan!
Numerous different actions continue to have varied consequences, except for the fact that Nadia and Alan keep dying. Their lives are also sometimes extended in different versions, allowing them to go a little bit further, kind of like All You Need Is Kill, Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s brilliant novel that the Tom Cruise-Emily Blunt movie Edge of Tomorrow is based on. There’s an element of video-game-playing to this aspect of Russian Doll — something that feels overly fresh coming off the heels of Bandersnatch. Having endless lives can naturally make the person reliving the loops, cavalier and narrow-minded about their actions.
Nadia’s game-creator background (one of the games she created is one that Alan has played, and it’s notoriously difficult to get through the multiple levels) comes to the fore as she rationally pitches a “multiple universes theory” to a gobsmacked Alan, a theory that viewers (especially fans of sci-fi) will most likely assume anyway, given the various clues: the decaying flowers/fruits, the disappearing fish/mirrors and eventually the disappearing people in consequent loops. All of Nadia and Alan’s actions have consequences, and they do so in every universe.
What actually happens, the exact way in which Nadia and Alan go about trying to reclaim their lives, and whether or not they manage to do so in the end — these are all questions that are much better answered by watching the show. There’s a lingering sense of sadness to Russian Doll, like the joint laced with cocaine; it’s as if the show’s upbeat cynicism and nihilistic humour is laced with an overarching ennui that feels familiar to anyone who’s had a less-than-perfect life.
The title reference to the Russian matryoshka dolls is so apt, given Nadia’s upbringing, her relationship with her dead mother, and her reluctance to come to terms with how it’s okay to want to live when someone dear to you has died tragically (even when you could see them wasting their life away and were powerless to do anything about it).
The doll-inside-a-doll-inside-a-doll metaphor not only refers to the many time loops, but also the feeling of being inside one’s own head, trapped and unable to break free.
Russian Doll is a remarkable show for various reasons; it completely upends the time loop genre and by veering ambiguously away from the standard sci-fi trope, it actually manages to elevate itself as a human story. The morality aspect of the show is intriguing too, but The Good Place has dibs on the best sitcom with moral philosophy lessons seamlessly threaded into it, and thankfully, Russian Doll stakes no such claim on it.
It’s a staunchly feminist show - besides the "lesbian f**k piles" and casual innuendos, Nadia is a heroine unlike many others we’ve seen. Her raspy cigarette-smoker voice isn’t meant to sound sexy like Greta Garbo’s or Marlene Dietrich’s, her clothes aren’t glamourous (especially given she’s mostly only seen wearing a collared button-up and jacket, or pants and a shirt at her birthday party), the very visible nudity on the show is male. The men are also the sidekicks and flings (not even the boyfriends/partners) - roles usually reserved for women.
Natasha Lyonne plays the flawed-but-good, no-nonsense, matter-of-fact Nadia with unapologetic abandon - Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars and Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black are the only other actresses that come to mind in such unabashedly feminist roles, but even they displayed a more conventional kind of sexiness that is completely (and thankfully) missing from Lyonne’s portrayal of Nadia. 2019 is already better for it.
Russian Doll is now streaming on Netflix.
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