I appreciate the whole point of a review is, to sum up, the good and bad bits of whatever it is you happen to be reviewing but this new series on Netflix poses a challenge to this reviewer. The eight-part comedy-drama (a phrase that’s overused but is executed really well here) entitled Russian Doll is best experienced with no prior knowledge of what to expect.
Within the first episode, Nadia, played by Natasha Lyonne, states that she is ‘staring down the barrel of [her] own mortality’, unknown to Nadia she couldn’t be more right, and the series develops into what she describes as ‘a very bad, never ending day!’. Lyonne’s writing and directing debut, Russian Doll — co-created with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland — is a hilariously modern meditation on mortality, and mundanity, set against the backdrop of New York City, along with a healthy dose of drugs, cigarettes and alcohol.
Haunted by the sound of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Gotta Get Up’, Nadia stares at her reflection in a bathroom mirror and then tries to enjoy her 36th birthday party. She attempts to put up with, her heightening age, and over-enthusiastic friends. She ventures out in pursuit of Oatmeal — her missing, pet cat — and meets her demise. Only for her to wake up moments later, and be forced to relive her party and her ever increasingly gruesome death, over and over again. Nadia scrambles for answers as to what is causing her loop of dying and reviving, questioning many things to try to find a solution – religion, drugs (what she thought was a cocaine, but is, in fact, a ketamine laced joint) and her therapist (the brilliant Elizabeth Ashley), to name a few. She comes up with nothing to explain what is happening. After a couple of days, multiple deaths and a great deal of chain-smoking, Nadia soon learns that she is also not the only one who is stuck within this concentrated cycle of recurring life and death. Throughout all of this, and much more, the series remains very funny, and at times touching, but also keeping the tone of being comedically macabre. Gradually and cleverly it develops into a somewhat profound portrayal of society’s attempts at guaranteeing a definite avoidance of death, ageing and the repetitiveness of life.
Lyonne’s performance here is one of the most brilliant cogs of this well-oiled machine of a TV series. The incredible way in which she has brought Nadia to life is undeniable. When watching Russian Doll, it is hard to think of another actor who could play the character with such idiosyncratic charisma, heart and humour. In fact, it is a difficult task to come up with another actor who could play Nadia at all, after being faced with Lyonne’s performance. Needless to say, it is rare in TV to find a programme that doesn’t have a few actors who are simply outshone by the rest of the cast, without making any impact on the audience, this certainly isn’t the case here. Perhaps the great writing and casting have a lot to do with this, but even minor characters in the series have an abundance of layers and depth to them. The cast is not short of recognisable faces either, Dascha Polanco who plays alongside Lyonne in Netlifx’s Orange is the New Black, also has a role in the series. As well as Polanco, Lyonnes best friend Chloë Sevigny makes a guest appearance. As well as a stellar cast, the series has a great soundtrack to accompany the mayhem of Nadia’s night, well, nights. With the likes of Gang Gang Dance, Anika and John Mous playing, the soundtrack is just another detail that makes the series work so well all together. The choice of songs would be enough to transport anyone to New York’s East Village, side by side with Nadia and the rest of the characters.
With what could be considered an emerging, recent trend of puzzle-box TV — started off this year with Black Mirrors feature long episode, Bandersnatch — Russian Doll sets itself miles apart from other series with a similar premise. Without relying on draining, repetitive replicas of scenes – for the most part, it allows audiences to fully connect with the characters and the story without the dazzling writing and directing being overshadowed by the fact of the repetition of the character’s day. It is this depth and movingly funny portrayal of repetition and mortality that gives Russian Doll the upper hand. It is this, that sets it apart from, and makes it much more than just a modern-day retelling of Groundhog Day.
Contributed by Oliver Ridings.
Russian Doll is Streaming Worldwide on Netflix Now.