Sometimes, Netflix catches ultra bingeable lightning in a bottle. The streaming service did it with the aw-shucks sci-fi joy of Stranger Things and the unstoppable boundary-breaking of Orange Is The New Black. Well, the TV giant has captured indisputable magic once again with one of OITNB’s most valuable players, Natasha Lyonne, and her genre-smashing Russian Doll, which is co-created by writer Leslye Headland and comedy queen Amy Poehler.
Russian Doll, premiering February 1 with eight 30-minutes-or-less episodes, is Groundhog Day for the 2010s with Lyonne’s madcap, downtown-gritty comedy spin. But it’s also a study in grief and generational trauma with some unexpected rom-com flavour thrown in to keep things light. The show is also as philosophical The Good Place, with the nonstop joke volume to match. Russian Doll is more than its trailer leads you to believe, and you owe it to yourself to watch each and every second of its dazzling first season.
Technically, the new Netflix comedy is about Nadia (Lyonne) a whip smart, crass, and rockstar-chic video game designer who just turned 36. Russian Doll begins normally enough, with Nadia walking out of the bathroom at her birthday party, which is thrown by her close friends, Maxine (a scene-stealing Greta Lee, wearing the coolest geometrical eyeliner known to (wo)man), Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson), and a much talked about piece of poultry. Due to a series of very New York-y events, Nadia ends up in the middle of the street. Then, boom, she’s flattened by a cab.
However, in the blink of an eye, Nadia is back in Maxine’s impeccably designed bathroom — she made the door herself! — alive and well, without a mark left on her. The tune of Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” begins to play, taking the mantle of Russian Doll’s unofficial theme song. On the horizon, many, many, many deaths and resurrections are ahead, leaving Nadia in an increasingly maddening form of limbo on her birthday.
The trick of Lyonne and Poehler’s comedy is figuring out what’s happening to Nadia and how she can make it stop. Yet, boiling Russian Doll down to its central mystery is a lot like trying to describe your best friend by their job and current city of residence. Yes, that synopsis may be technically correct, but it doesn’t capture all the quirks and depths that make that person so very special. There is more to this winding series than a death-obsessed puzzle box.
From the get-go, the sheer force of will in Lyonne’s performance will grab your attention. She growls, she parties, she talks faster than a Marvelous Mrs. Maisel character with 16 times the expletives. Although Nadia is surrounded by people, she’s carrying the entire drama of her situation alone. Nadia is often left to telegraph her mounting fear through a quick look in the mirror or a resigned march through the streets of the East Village.
While our confusingly-fated heroine is a powerhouse in her own right, the show really comes into its own in the third episode, with a twist no one should spoil for you. That's when Russian Doll reveals this is a series dedicated to dismantling the nesting doll of emotions keeping us emotionally paralysed. It asks what we owe each other when it comes to collectively getting past those traumas. Somehow, the comedy achieves those lofty aims with characters who are funny thanks to their wild specificity — “He kinda looks like Derek Jeter? Obviously goes to the gym all the time ... but not because he’s vain, he’s just really compulsive,” is a line I’ve thought about daily for months — and physical comedy so deft, it can cause a roaring fit of giggles with a mere mention.
This is why Russian Doll is destined to join the growing slate of recent great comedies about the afterlife. While Nadia’s ultimate fate is a mystery for now, her confounding entrapment in limbo does feel like a soul sibling to The Good Place and Amazon’s Forever. All three series revolve around death and suggest self discovery is only possible through surprising relationships with people you would never meet under normal circumstances. In the place of the Tahanis (Jameela Jamil) and Oscars (Fred Armisen) of the TV world, it’s the ridiculously charming and lovable Alan (imminent internet bae Charlie Barnett) who ends up entangled in Nadia’s metaphysical growth.
If creations like Russian Doll are what we have to look forward to once Lyonne's Orange Is The New Black wraps forever this year, we'll all soldier the loss of Nicky Nichols just fine.
Russian Doll is out on Netflix now.