Netflix is bound to have another hit series with the release of dark comedy Russian Doll. The show stars Orange Is The New Black alum Natasha Lyonne (who also serves as executive producer, co-creator, and sometimes director on the new show) as a woman named Nadia who is stuck in a time loop as she relives the day of her birthday party over and over. While the premise may sound familiar, (some likened it to the classic Groundhog Day or the most recent Happy Death Day when the trailer was released), Russian Doll isn't based on anything specifically. It builds on its own narrative and the meaning of its title as the layers to Lyonne’s character and her backstory are revealed.
Yes, technically, ever since Groundhog Day essentially birthed the time loop genre in 1993, series and films have featured a character or multiple characters experiencing the same day over and over. Example: The Mindy Project had a season five episode titled “Hot Mess Time Machine” (which would also be a great alternative name for Russian Doll). That said, the inspiration for the film came about without visions of Bill Murray endlessly stepping off the same curb. The initial idea, posed by the series' co-creator and executive producer (along with Leslye Headland) Amy Poehler, was worlds apart from where we find Russian Doll in 2019.
"Some years ago, Amy Poehler called me up and she said, ‘As long as I’ve known you, you’ve been the oldest girl in the world.’ I didn’t understand if that was a compliment or an insult. She said, ‘What if we did a show called Old Soul about that?’ I said, ‘That’s great, because I mostly only want to hang out with other 65-year-olds. At the time, I think I was maybe 30,'" Lyonne tells Refinery29.
That first try didn't make it past the pilot stage (though it sounded kind of incredible, and included the likes of Rita Moreno and Ellen Burstyn, according to Lyonne), but that defeat didn't discourage Poehler and Lyonne, who went back to the drawing board.
"Amy and I started talking about ‘What is our dream show? What would we say if there were no restrictions?'" she says. "We started talking about this idea of almost Choose Your Own Adventure style: if you could be at a party and make the decision to go home with each person individually and you didn’t have to see them again. The right choice — what would that look like? You would still be left months later with the same hollowed feeling of ‘I’m still stuck with myself in this life. There is no other person who's really going to fill that in me. There is no one thing that’s going to make this perfect resolution to my own need to seek out a meaningful life.’"
The film also has some cinematic inspiration (no, it's not the beloved Bill Murray movie) that Lyonne referenced on YouTube’s BUILD Series when describing her new dark comedy: Bob Fosse’s 1979 drama All That Jazz. The lead in the musical film wafts between moments of reality and moments in which he imagines what he wished had happened. In a similar way, Lyonne called Russian Doll, “a sort of mind-warped version of something resembling [an] autobiography.”
Russian Doll feels very relatable. The show leans toward the comedic side in the beginning, but as it continues, the funny lines are balanced with the heavier realities that Nadia must confront.
“I think it hits on universal themes that we all sort of think about and talk about,” Lyonne said on BUILD Series. “Something that’s very personal to me is this idea that underneath the surface I think that we’re all sort of a little bit broken inside, yet we live in a this society that demands shame in a way for that very human experience.” She also said she was interested in exploring the idea of a reliable narrator.
And ultimately, influences aside, Russian Doll is simply a well-executed, unique idea. Poehler joined Lyonne on the Today Show and praised the unique perspective of the series saying, “I’m really proud of the fact Natasha plays such an incredibly complex female character. The idea was started really because in many ways we were bemoaning the lack of possibilities and avenues that female characters get to discover in a series.” Lyonne also applauded how women are portrayed in Russian Doll and said it defies “historical tropes” of how her character should handle human experiences.
So yes, you have probably seen the time loop plot device used in a movie and show before. But, Russian Doll’s ability to draw on Lyonne’s personal experiences and teach lessons while being undeniable funny sets the show apart. Trust me, this show will be your new obsession.