There is a certain moment in Russian Doll you’ll encounter again and again—at times in a fit of hilarity, at others in fatal dread. It goes like this: Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) stands at a running bathroom sink, gazing at her reflection in the mirror. Her shoulders are squared in a black blazer, her red hair falls in a perfect mop. It’s the night of her 36th birthday, and outside the bathroom you can hear an apartment full of party chatter while Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” blasts on the stereo.
The reason you will watch this scene so many times—and here comes this excellent, gripping, laugh-out-loud funny series’ ineluctable spoiler—is that Nadia is stuck in a time loop. She can’t stop dying. And each time she does, she finds herself back in front of that mirror with Nilsson chanting “gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get home before the morning comes” in an unending, eerily-upbeat taunt.
Now streaming in all its eight parts on Netflix, Russian Doll is the brainchild of Leslye Headland, Lyonne, and Amy Poehler, and it’s as fizzy and funny as you’d expect a show co-created by these three women would be. It’s also profoundly sophisticated and repeatedly surprising, making exemplary use of its four-hour runtime to unpeel and unpack (like a Russian doll!) both Nadia and her native Manhattan milieu. What it reveals is a shrewdly modern vision of the city, its eccentric nooks, and its complicated creatures of the night.
On the evening before her first death, Nadia seems to be enjoying life. She fluffs her hair and exits the bathroom to find a friendly breed of the hippest, artsiest, party-hardiest of Manhattanites. She greets her two best friends, Maxine (Greta Lee of High Maintenance) and Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson), and takes a hit of a mysterious joint before meeting a pompous professor whom she opts to take home. They go to a Lower East Side bodega for condoms. She tells off some drunk bros. Then she dies, and starts it all over.
So begins a classic time-snare shtick in the manner of, yes, Groundhog Day, but also newly erected touchstones like Happy Death Day and Before I Fall. High stakes and allure are inherent to this type of narrative: Built into the plot is the ongoing puzzle of how to escape. There’s also a video-gamey feeling to the repeated deaths and do-overs, a theme that ties in neatly with Nadia’s career as a video game developer and programmer. As Nadia reexamines her night, testing various theories as to what might have gone wrong—Does it have to do with drugs? Religion? Relationships?—we’re led on a twisty quest that can morph from physical comedy to sci-fi to serious drama within minutes.
A large part of the show’s appeal is Lyonne, who, due to her unique situation, almost never leaves our view. She plays Nadia with acerbic wit and charming New York neuroses, imbuing her with a raspy, rascally charisma. Nadia has a self-aware sense of humor about her circumstances that comes alive in wry commentary: “I’ve got bigger fish to fry. I’ve got to figure out how to get down the stairs,” she says when she can’t seem to stop tripping and dying. Several loops later, she responds to an outfit compliment by saying, “Thanks, I wear the same thing all the time.”
Over time, the series unveils a darker side of Nadia’s relationship with death—both her fear of it and inclination toward it. A raucous party girl who’s done every drug in the book, Nadia is familiar with the feeling of testing fate. Her 36th birthday is a day, she says, that she never thought she’d see. Now that she’s compelled to see it over and over, her programmer instinct drives her to take a crack at righting whatever faulty line of existential code is barring her from moving forward.
Loneliness is almost always a theme in time-loop scenarios, given the solipsistic circumstances. Yet the brilliance of Russian Doll lies in the way it opens up Nadia’s hermetic situation, introducing us to a host of fully-formed characters—from a homeless man named Horse in Tompkins Square Park (Brendan Sexton III) to Nadia’s loving therapist mother figure Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley)—about whom we learn a little bit more with each passing life. If, at the beginning, there were any doubts about how the series would satisfactorily fill its eight episodes with only one night’s worth of activity, Russian Doll proves itself quickly.
Smart, of the moment, and chock-full of clever detail, Russian Doll will be your easiest and most enjoyable binge of 2019 so far. Its many artifacts and sharp one-liners also make it a pleasurable re-watch—I’m already on a second round and will probably get stuck in a loop, coming back for more.
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