Russian Doll (Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne & Amy Poehler, Netflix, 2019)
Updated: Nov 27, 2022
Nadia Vulvokov is celebrating.
Hunched over an ornate washroom basin, she stares blankly at the bathroom mirror and into the camera. From beyond a nearby door, her 36th birthday bash plays out to the sounds of muffled murmurs and Harry Nilsson’s breezy 1971 hit Gotta Get Up. She sighs. So do we.
Mingling with an apartment of drunken partygoers is more formality than fun, but Nadia stomachs the tradition, barging through the door, zig-zagging her way through herds of well-wishing strangers and acquaintances. Eventually, she saunters into a lively loft conversion-cum-living room, replete with inebriated visitors, obscure, highbrow artwork and worn, tattered furniture. It’s all a tad eye-rolling, but the intrigue remains. ‘Sweet birthday baaaaby!’ her friend Stella cheerily exclaims before handing her an ‘Israeli joint,’ or, in simpler terms, a cigarette laced with… something else. She takes a drag. Her head spins.
Mooching around the room, Nadia mingles with a witty aloofness that makes her instantly relatable. She isn’t trying to be something else. There’s no pretence, no shallowness. No matter the situation, she’s unashamedly herself: a brash, plucky New Yorker, navigating one of the most taxing crossroads of her life thus far. After some sharp exchanges with friends, we learn that Oatmeal - her cherished feline companion - has disappeared. Lonesome and forlorn, she ends up flirting with a stout, pretentious guy to plug this hole, misguidedly mistaking his overconfident sleaze for charm. They talk, they leave, they fuck. It’s cheap, boozy and completely unremarkable, just like everything else here. Formulating some silly, farfetched excuse, she shuffles out of his apartment before the encounter becomes any more awkward than it already is.
Wandering down a dreary, rain-soaked Manhattan sidewalk, Nadia pauses at the junction of a busy intersection. This time, that same assuredness is tinged with something else. She looks lost, dejected, out of place. Maybe there are cracks in this façade after all.
Crossing the road without looking, her bender is abruptly cut short when a taxi cab hurtles across the screen. Our gutsy, red-head heroine is flattened with a swift splat. We cut to black, an unfortunate end for a character who was just beginning to peak our intrigue.
First, nothing. Then, something strange.
A sharp jolt of the head reveals an unimpressed reflection as merry echoes of Harry Nilsson fill the air. Four walls. Lavish, spa-style bathroom décor. Nadia pauses, the puzzlement washing over a complexion beginning to pale. Déjà vu swiftly follows distress. What is this place?
Elbowing her way through the door, she storms into an eerily familiar loft space. It’s not just that it’s similar. It’s exactly the same. Cocking her head in bewilderment, she stares at Stella. Stella grins, a tinted cigarette clasped firmly between her fingers. Like Nadia, we know exactly what she’s about to say. ‘Sweet birthday baaaaby!’
Capitalising on the artistic liberties afforded the tried and tested time-loop premise, Netflix’s Russian Doll isn’t an original idea by any measurable metric, but when it’s executed this well, it’s easy to forgive its more regressive leanings. Here’s a concept that’s been exhaustively recycled across various genres for decades, with expectedly timeworn results. Duncan Jones’s high octane sci-fi thriller Source Code (2011) stands as one of the more thoughtful, contemporary incarnations of this ploy; but of course, the most common comparison drawn in this particular case (and let’s face it, an unavoidable benchmark) has been Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day (1993). Perhaps the most recognisably enduring film in this niche narrative sphere, this association ultimately proves redundant – the brilliance of this show lies not in its ostensibly samey premise, but in the directions and offshoots it dares to venture during a lean eight-episode run time. With each segment clocking in at a fleeting twenty-five minutes a piece, one could easily mistake this as just another time-effective sitcom masquerading as art, but that would be wholly off beam. Sure, the customary beats are all here: comical psychic predictions, the slack-jawed amazement of oblivious onlookers, a sense of authority and hindsight that makes each recurrent scenario breathe new energy with every repeated viewing. But what begins as a straightforward comedy gimmick steadily metamorphoses into something altogether darker, stranger and more philosophical in tone: gorgeous, arresting visuals, vivid colour schemes and eccentric, experimental camerawork documenting the emergent cracks in our protagonist's crumbling psyche. As the tale gradually starts to unravel, we’re introduced to interconnecting timelines, dreamlike, childhood flashbacks and a barrage of characters that all seem be connected to these abnormal occurrences in some way shape or form.
Condemned to relive the same night over and over and over again, Nadia’s feverish spiral devolves into strange, nightmarish territory, her alternate realities breaking and fragmenting with every untimely death she’s forced to endure. Her rib-tickling methods of demise quickly lose their humour as the enigmatic facets of the show take centre stage, revealing (as the title aptly suggests) a layered narrative that brilliantly picks apart some unexpectedly weighty themes like depression, infidelity and suicide, reiterating the necessity of human contact and companionship during turbulent times. An apt 2020 time-filler, perhaps…
Without question, I'd be remiss to overlook the sheer brilliance of Natasha Lyonne here. She isn’t just good; she’s absolutely outstanding. A spirited, loud-mouthed powerhouse of a performance, she’s impeccable as Nadia, embodying the kooky, spirited facets of her character with depth, charm and humanity. This really is a problematic role to fulfil without devolving into histrionics, but Lyonne manages to offset any hint of caricature with a fully realised portrait of what is, in effect, a woman’s mental and spiritual undoing. The rest of the cast are great, but make no mistake: this is Lyonne’s show to steal, and a career-defining role for sure.
Penned by an all-female team, Russian Doll features some of the most perceptively funny, insightful content to grace the small screen in years. An excellent first-person character study, Headland, Lyonne and Poehler have fashioned a superb tumult of a tale that will be discussed for decades. With a new season on the horizon, those with an interest in what the alleged ‘golden age’ of television has to offer would be wise to start here.
Russian Doll is available for streaming on Netflix