Starring Natasha Lyonne, Russian Doll is a complicated, twisty, and humorous show that exceeds expectations
It is difficult to discuss Russian Doll without resorting to comparisons. It’s Groundhog Day but deadlier. Or it’s Happy Death Day with more intrigue. Maybe it’s Source Code but funny. And this goes on and on like this for almost a dozen movies. The idea of reliving the same day over and over again isn’t unique (Groundhog Day didn’t even do it first), often used as a means of having their main character learn a lesson about living life to the fullest or appreciating what’s in front of them or something of that sort. But Russian Doll doesn’t seem concerned with lessons. It doesn’t even seem concerned with its forebearers. So much is going on under the surface of Russian Doll that you will need to see to believe.
The shows co-creator/co-director/writer/star Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black) plays Nadia, a woman whose 36th birthday never seems to end. Literally. Dying and waking back up at the same part in the middle of her birthday party, she continues to suffer through one of the oddest days of her life. It isn’t the best day or worst day of her life, but just a day. And it never ends. Even when she survives for a longer amount of time, she always winds up back where she began. Lyonne plays through her character like a woman going through the stages of grief. She denies it, gets angry at the people around her, pleads for psychiatric help, attempts to bargain with God, yet all the while she refuses to accept this terrible form of existence. Instead, she keeps fighting to figure out what exactly is going on.
Created by Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Sleeping with Other People writer/director Leslye Headland, the show takes the idea of reliving a birthday to an extreme, turning a seemingly good life in on its head by showing the limits of the way Nadia lives. But with three of the smartest women in Hollywood running the show, it doesn’t allow Lyonne to seem like a victim. Instead, she is just a woman who is trying to survive some of the crappiest set of circumstances possible.
The early episodes of the series (I saw the first three episodes) build mysteries about characters and circumstances and so much more that is happening in this twisty world. The image of the Russian nesting doll isn’t invoked in these episodes, but the idea of revealing layer after layer of complication creates a maze of a show, one you feel the need to solve by the end of the first episode.
It helps that Lyonne is surrounded by some of the best actors and actresses in New York. Greta Lee continues her hot streak of playing some of the funniest women on TV, and smaller roles from Chloe Sevigny and Dascha Polanco later in the series promise further great performances. The series is as funny as it is philosophical, and many of the “death gags” play out really well, especially when repeated over and over again. But it is Lyonne that truly carries the show, taking a concept and making it her own. Russian Doll is in the making to be an instant classic, the kind of comedy/drama that Netflix caters in. And when it becomes a massive hit for the streaming giant, it will have Natasha Lyonne to thank more than anyone.
Russian Doll premieres on Netflix on Friday, February 1st