Russian Doll is one of those delightful surprises that, once you have had some time to get used to, win you over in no time at all.
Centering around a cynical New Yorker, Nadia, trying to get through a party celebrating her 36th birthday, the show takes little time in cutting to the chase, and things get weird pretty fast pretty soon.
You see, Nadia keeps dying and resetting back to the party, at the bathroom of her friend Maxine’s apartment. It’s a premise that’s most famously used in Groundhog Day, but also recently utilized in Edge of Tomorrow and Happy Death Day. Unlike those recent films, which are more plot-centric, Russian Doll is more similar to Groundhog Day, in that it places it characters firmly in the center of the spotlight.
Learning to Grow Up isn’t Easy
The plot picks up when Nadia runs into Alan in an elevator, who is also resetting through the day after dying. As the two try to figure out how to get out of these loops, it becomes clear that the two have to learn how to become better people and face their fears. For Nadia, it’s about opening up and letting people in. For Alan, it’s about letting go of his need for control and accept that sometimes, things just get shitty for no reason.
As the series nears its end, the story rises in urgency as elements from the world start disappearing with every reset, beginning with mirrors and fishes, and then expanding to entire groups of people. It hearkens back to the Matryoshka doll comparison, with each smaller world having lesser space to contain all the details of the previous one.
A Self-Deprecating Look at Death and Sadness
It’s interesting how the show approaches its themes, because although it touches upon love and romance, it’s much more interested in examining mortality and grief instead. There are some thematic similarities to another Netflix show, Maniac, although the exploration here is less high concept and takes time to simmer and settle.
Lyonne, who co-created the show with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, does well in embodying a character that seems normal yet relentlessly adaptive. “You are a cockroach,” her friend Maxine tells her at one point. “You can eat anything, take anything, do anything. It’s impossible to destroy you. You will never die.”
There is an otherworldly feeling to this series that is reminiscent of features such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but has a more low-key nature for the most part.
It’s well constructed, chock full of personality and unfolds slowly at a pace that feels like a pleasant blend of a novella and a limited TV series. Russian Doll is mature without being pretentious, and candid enough to tackle serious questions without being a total bore.
It’s definitely a welcome surprise, and will probably be a strong contender for the best dramedy of the year, when all is said and done.