Television Review: Fantasy/Comedy/Drama – Russian Doll: Season One
Showrunner: Leslye Headland
Created by Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne, and Amy Poehler
Starring Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett, Elizabeth Ashley, and Jeremy Bob
“Is 36 too young for a midlife crisis?” Nadia Vulvokov asks a friend in the opening moments of the new Netflix series Russian Doll. It’s a few minutes after midnight and Nadia has just turned 36 in the bathroom of the chic East Village loft where a hipster crowd is celebrating her birthday. Nadia has good reason for a midlife crisis. Her life is a mess and she’s lost Oatmeal, her cat. Portrayed by series co-creator Natasha Lyonne, Nadia is the same type of smart-assed, nihilistic party girl the actress portrayed in the streaming network’s groundbreaking Orange is the New Black, minus the life-ruining heroin habit. Unable to deal with her past and refusing to embrace her future, Nadia distances herself from friends and lovers alike, recklessly stumbling through her life or rather, her deaths. Nadia, you see, is dying, not just figuratively and psychologically, but literally. Nadia will die that night. She’ll be hit by a car. But not to worry. She’ll start everything over again at midnight on the same birthday in that same hipster bathroom with the same freaky vortex-to-hell door with the same gun for a handle. And she’ll die again – and again and again and again. She’ll fall down stairs, drown, freeze to death, fall in trap doors – you name it. The cause of her death will change, but the result will always be the same. Nadia is caught in an endless cycle of death.
Russian Doll’s macabre take on Groundhog Day seems like a gimmick at first. The opening two episodes initially seem unfocused, the deaths a pointless excuse for dark humor as Nadia frantically tries to find the reason for her recurring “nightmare.” Is it bad drugs? Is she crazy? Is the once sacred yeshiva the loft now occupies haunted? The show never offers any concrete answers as to the cause of Nadia’s recurring crisis, but each cycle she experiences brings her and us to a deeper understanding of who she is and how she got that way. By the end of the second episode Nadia and her friends have begun to grow on you. By the end of the third you’re hooked. By episode six, the tears start to flow. And by the conclusion of its tightly crafted eight-episode arc, one is left with a deeply satisfying sense of having experienced something meaningful and revelatory. Doll sails through droll comic irony, serious drama, horror-movie creeps, and joyful catharsis with effortless economy and brazen confidence.
Nadia’s journey through purgatory is fraught with perils, not just for herself but those she drags down with her – the talented young chef whose party she abandons, the ex-boyfriend she makes promises to but never keeps, the mother-figure whose sage advice she refuses to absorb. She leaves a trail of hurt and disappointed souls in her wake. And as with the impossibly difficult video games she’s designed as a software engineer, Nadia has set traps and pitfalls for herself by keeping her distance from others and refusing to confront her past. And like a video game, each time she faulters, the game resets, sending her back to that bathroom, the old yeshiva, and another run at solving the puzzle.
Russian Doll is a warning about the dangers of an isolated, emotionally unattached life and a reminder that no one is alone. “No one does anything by themselves,” a minor character reminds us. Nadia has friends and acquaintances galore, but she lives in an emotional shell, a cold fish in a little bowl looking out at the world. She pulls back when things get too hard. “My bad attitude keeps me young,” she quips sardonically, and we all know that person, the one that wears a mock-unsociable veneer when the conversation veers dangerously close to self-examination. But the unusual circumstances in which Nadia finds herself, force her, eventually, to confront her behavior and its dark roots in her troubled childhood. “There is wisdom inaccessible to the intellect,” a rabbi tells her one-time boyfriend. You can only reach it through surrender… embracing the abyss is the only way forward.” Russian Doll is Nadia’s slow embracing of the abyss.
One of the most fascinating things about the show’s repeating construct is how characters come and go with each cycle. Minor characters, even extras in the background, easily dismissed at first (pay attention), become more significant in later cycles. That drunk at the mini mart you barely noticed may be meaningful to you in another universe. The homeless person with no shoes may want to roll you for your belongings in one cycle, or he may only want to cut your hair in another. Russian Doll sees the endless possibilities of the multi-verse and the interconnectedness of every soul in the human tapestry.
In Russian Doll, that tapestry is made up of a wide assortment of fascinating characters brought to life by a rich and gifted cast, notably Hollywood veteran Elizabeth Ashley as the aged psychiatrist and family friend who helped raise Nadia and who brings some well-grounded earthiness to the bizarre events of the story; Jeremy Bob as the horny and pretentious English professor who beds his students, and anyone else, with callous disregard; and Yul Vazquez as the rejected boyfriend who still loves her; But it’s Charlie Barnett, as the forlorn young man whose connection to Nadia is both unique and mysterious, who will break your heart. Behind his frat boy good looks and fragile, “fake it till you make it” optimism is a sad and tortured soul. He’s the series breakout star.
Not all the characters in the series are ones of flesh and blood, but ones of concrete and glass, sound and song. New York’s trendy East Village, where most of the action takes place, is a defining presence throughout the show. The now gentrified neighborhood that still echoes the spirit of its clubby heyday as the center of New York’s anti-establishment culture, lends a drugged-out, punkish credibility to the story. There’s an ominous, yet alluring, presence to a big city at night, and the busy nighttime exteriors of the neighborhood – its creepy Thomson Park, its all-night groceries, the homeless shelters, the endless 24-hour parade of every imaginable walk of life, provide an appropriate setting for Nadia’s dark ride, and ample opportunities for a wide variety of demises.
And there’s the music. If there’s anything trademark Netflix comedies like Orange, Grace and Frankie, and now Russian Doll do well it’s soundtracks. The music directors for these shows have a special knack for choosing relevant, sometimes ironic, often obscure tracks that comment on the story. Credit this to Orange creator Jenji Kohan who’s clever Showtime Series Weeds perfected the concept. In just a few years, Charles Brown’s “Love Bug”, Louisa’s “Under the Wild Sky,” and Sylvan Esso’s “Hey Mami” and others have graced the upper regions of my iPod “most played” playlist via the eclectic Orange soundtrack. And the equally varied Doll has introduced me to songs as disparate as Harry Nilsson’s bouncy ode to party days passed,“Gotta Get Up,” used as the series’ anthem for Nadia’s multiple restarts, retro-hip gems like Mae West’s “My New Year’s Resolution” and Pony Sherrall’s “Don’t Put off Til Tomorrow,” as well as more contemporary post-punk fare like Anika’s twisted cover of “I Go to Sleep,” John Maus’ “Cop Killer” and AlA.NI’s “Cherry Blossom.” These songs not only bring out the flavor of Nadia’s dark urban surroundings but, but they offer insight into her character’s moods and internal conflicts.
But for all the series’ rich trappings, the show belongs to Lyonne. This is her party and she and her partners Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler have fashioned an ideal showcase for her cynical humor and wry persona. She doesn’t embody the character. The character embodies her. One always gets the sense that behind the caustic and nervous exterior, behind the funny wise-cracks and the snarky delivery, there’s a sweet-natured soul struggling to break free. And indeed, like its star, Russian Doll’s clever cold fish story turns out to have a whale of a heart.