Russian Doll unspools a major layer to the story at the tail end of episode three.
The eight-episode Netflix dark comedy — co-created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland — stars Lyonne as Nadia, a game coder who finds herself constantly dying and coming back to life to re-do the 36th birthday party being held in her honor. The Groundhog Day-style premise quickly reveals itself to be much more complicated, however, once Nadia realizes that the choices she makes in each go-around are impacting everyone, including her, on a larger scale.
After many futile attempts to avoid her death, Nadia finds herself in a plummeting elevator with a group of strangers. That’s when she notices the equally unfazed man next to her. “Didn’t you get the news? We’re about to die,” Nadia says to him. He replies, “It doesn’t matter, I die all the time.”
The elevator car does crash, but the unique meet-cute has been established. from there, Russian Doll shifts over to the perspective of Alan (played by Charlie Barnett) to show that he, too, is stuck in a seemingly endless loop. Eventually, the strangers piece together enough clues from their meeting and find each other, and from there, they become unlikely partners while struggling to solve their similarly fateful puzzle.
“As the actor, I look at it as very real,” Barnett tells The Hollywood Reporter of the magical realism and alternate realities at play. “After knowing and reading the scripts and learning the story, I don’t think this show fits into anything. It’s a little bit of everything kind of mashed together. I hope that it touches people in that true spot, because it has a lot of truth to base it — while also being fun and crazy.”
You are beautiful, you are loved, you are in control. Russian Doll is now streaming. pic.twitter.com/viLzBsEYoG
— Russian Doll (@RussianDoll) February 1, 2019
As viewers get to know Alan, they discover that he is stuck repeating the worst night of his life, when his girlfriend (played by Orange Is the New Black‘s Dascha Polanco) turns down his marriage proposal. Alan lives a life that is organized down to every painfully crafted detail, and her unexpected refusal to marry him sends him into a tailspin, the tragic details of which he uncovers once he meets Nadia and begins to investigate more of the aftermath of that night. Ultimately, he serves as the perfect foil to the wild, no-nonsense Nadia.
Russian Doll, which is set in New York City’s East Village neighborhood, was filmed in block shooting, which meant the actors did not shoot the complicated series chronologically. In order to keep track of how much Alan knew in each scene, Barnett said he developed his own system. “We filmed parts of episodes one, four, six and eight in the same day, so it was all over the place,” he says. “I cannot explain to you how difficult it was to keep track. I had a spreadsheet, and at one point one of our amazing directors, Jamie Babbit, pulled me aside, and she was like, ‘Honey, you’ve just got to let go.'”
In addition to borrowing his character’s penchant for detail, Barnett also had another “Alan” moment when he found himself leaving a bodega in New York City and immediately texted Lyonne. “I was working on another project in New York, and I went to the corner store and bought a piece of white cake, a chocolate brownie and a pint of milk,” he says of the snacks that Alan always turns to after his life goes awry. “I was walking along and my heart was jumping out of my chest.”
Barnett, who appeared in a one-episode pivotal role in the fifth season of OITNB, credits Lyonne for keeping the cast on track amid the many loops of the choose-your-own-adventure-style narrative. The show, which boasts an all-female creative team, stars Great Lee, Rebecca Henderson, Elizabeth Ashley and Chloe Sevigny playing those closest to Nadia. As Russian Doll digs deeper to tackle the affects of trauma, addiction and mental health, Barnett praises his scene partner for the life truths, many of which are personal to Lyonne, that sit at the core of the adventure story.
“With life, there’s always going to be something ahead,” he says of the conclusions Alan and Nadia will eventually reach. “As soon as you get over one mountain, another one is right there in the distance. It never stops. But it’s so much easier to do with a person you trust and who can call you out, and I think this show is really trying to encourage people to build relationships and seek help from the loved ones around you.”
After all, the existential lessons learned by Nadia and Alan might have never been realized had the pair not found each other on that weighty elevator ride.
“We all can give a sense of ourselves in order to help support each other,” Barnett continues. “Especially in this day and age — it’s a little more difficult and layered, but communication and relations are what starts it.”
Russian Doll is now streaming on Netflix.