A fun game would be attempting to review Netflix’s new dark comedy Russian Doll without mentioning Groundhog Day, to allow viewers to discover every nook and cranny of this twisty, tone-juggling series with completely fresh eyes. Since that probably isn’t possible, I’ll endeavor to describe this series revealing no more than Netflix’s own trailer.
Natasha Lyonne, who co-created Russian Doll with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, stars as Nadia, a game coder on the precipice of her 36th birthday (a weighty milestone that aligns somehow with her mother’s death). Nadia’s party, thrown at a friend’s apartment, includes lots of drinking and a so-called Israeli joint and quickly brings her into contact with a married ex-boyfriend (Yul Vazquez), a potential one-night stand (Jeremy Bobb), a scruffy homeless stranger (Brendan Sexton III) and a distraught guy (Charlie Barnett) freaking out at her local deli.
Oh, and Nadia gets hit by a car, dies and immediately returns to find herself staring in the mirror, accompanied by Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up,” playing the crucial “I’ve Got You Babe” role as musical touchstone in this peculiar blend of Groundhog Day and Amazon’s Forever.
Throw a little of TBS’ Search Party into the mix, because Russian Doll is a down-and-dirty New York City Neighborhood show, basing most of its action in and around Alphabet City and the East Village. With Headland (Bachelorette) directing early episodes (there are eight total, each roughly 30 minutes), Russian Doll plays out as a looping odyssey into a world of overlit bodegas, rusty fire escapes and the verdant-yet-threatening wilderness of Tompkins Square Park as Nadia attempts to figure out the limitations and rules of this phenomenon she’s experiencing. Is it drugs? Is it the budding of a mental illness that plagued her mother as well? Is there an element of Jewish mysticism involved?
Actually, toss a dash of Bandersnatch into this intriguing stew. Nadia’s job gives her a perspective on code glitches and the nature of repetition in video game narratives that’s significantly more complicated and in-depth than anything that buzz-y Black Mirror installment was able to explore. And while the series isn’t explicitly political per se, it captures the sense of waking each day to a recurring and resetting nightmare that surely will be familiar and relatable to anybody who spends any time on Twitter.
It’s an amusing footnote that while the characters in Russian Doll are very culturally savvy, Groundhog Day isn’t in Nadia’s frame of reference. Her immediate instinct, as she takes in what’s happening around her, is to compare the situation to The Game and herself to Michael Douglas. It would make life much less complicated if Nadia and the character from Happy Death Day could just tell people, “You know Groundhog Day? I’m like that!” and I guess that “less complicated” would also be “less fun.”
For the first several episodes, Russian Doll is mostly geared in the direction of “fun,” frequent casualties aside. It’s that “How can I make sense of this situation I’m in and what can I do in it?” arc that’s familiar to the genre, though rarely conveyed with quite this level of caustic, profane irritation, a tone anchored by Lyonne’s star turn. It’s formulaic in moments, but so tartly observed and absurd that the familiarity rarely bothered me.
Lyonne, in her TV writing debut, knows the strengths of her brassy, stylishly disheveled, no-fucks-given persona and steers aggressively into them, which may be off-putting for viewers with a certain threshold for abrasiveness. But there’s also a sad, introspective and raw side to her performance in the second half of the season, as Russian Doll veers toward tragedy and at times even horror. If the success of a high-concept premise like this is defined by how close it comes to sticking the ending/solution, Russian Doll is a near-total triumph. The finale, a fine melding of pain and catharsis, explanation and extrapolation, captures the spirit of the show’s title and marks a notable and assured launch for Lyonne’s directing career as well.
Russian Doll isn’t a total one-woman show, of course. Greta Lee gets laughs as Nadia’s party-throwing best friend and Tony winner Elizabeth Ashley, as a shrink and maternal figure in Nadia’s life, steals several scenes. The series is generous enough to give Vazquez, Bobb and especially Barnett’s characters chances to grow alongside Nadia as her encounters with them change.
As a show with a particular and confrontational attitude, Russian Doll won’t stick for all viewers. For those with early doubts, my own nesting doll of reactions went from “This is reasonably clever” to “This is actually good” to “Huh, that was pretty impressive.” Go in knowing as little as possible and stick it out for the ride.
Oh and Netflix, I know I say this a lot, but: There’s absolutely no need for a second season of Russian Doll. It’s good and it’s right. But please go to Lyonne, Poehler and Headland and say, “What else ya got?”
Cast: Natasha Lyonne, Greta Lee, Yul Vazquez, Elizabeth Ashley, Charlie Barnett, Brendan Sexton III, Jeremy Bobb
Creators: Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland
Premieres Friday, Feb. 1, on Netflix.