We may only be 32 days into the new year but Natasha Lyonne has gifted us one of the most compelling, clever and satisfying TV shows of 2019.
Co-created and co-written by the Orange Is The New Black star with Leslye Headland (Sleeping With Other People), Russian Doll is the kind of thought-provoking and ambitious entertainment we deserve. It drops tonight on Netflix, with all eight episodes ready to binge.
And binge it you will — it’ll only take four hours — because the central mystery that propels this excellent TV show is one that demands to be unwrapped, one layer at a time — hence the name.
Lyonne plays a woman named Nadia, raspy voiced and more than a bit prickly. She carries many emotional scars and at one point even invites people to tell her if she’s a bad person.
She’s not a warm lead character that’s immediately a hero, but in the swirlbucket of neuroses, defensiveness and smarts, she’s very relatable, even if her ex calls her “the abyss”.
On the night of her birthday party, Nadia’s struck by a car and killed — splayed on the street, her neck snapped, dead as a doornail. But then she’s not.
Her timeline resets and she finds herself staring into the ornate bathroom mirror of her friend Maxine’s (Greta Lee) loft. Nadia is a caught in a timeloop, a la Groundhog Day, only it doesn’t reset at the end of the day, it resets every time she dies — sometimes that’s days, sometimes it’s only minutes.
And she dies a lot and while most of these ends are played for laughs — there’s a particular set of stairs she can’t seem to conquer — some that are much harder to watch, especially as the season progresses.
At first, Nadia is single-mindedly trying to solve the mystery of her time prison, wondering if the cocaine-laced joint she’s smoking is leading her to hallucinate her repeated deaths.
But once she meets control-freak Alan (Charlie Barnett), another soul trapped in the same cycle, the story really kicks into gear as it starts to ask existential questions about the relativity of time and morality.
Are we always doomed to make the same mistakes? Are each of us, even in our linear timelines, reliving a cycle of sorts thanks to our emotional baggage, traumas and the wrongs we’ve inflicted on our families and friends?
It’s surely not a coincidence that each time she resets, Nadia is made to confront her own image in the mirror.
Russian Doll is interested in all this and more, but packaged in a sharp and biting dramedy with some exceptionally well-written, insightful and often caustic dialogue. Case in point: “I was going to go home and f**k this guy but now I feel profoundly empty.”
It’s laugh-out-loud funny even when it’s dark and nihilistic, which is a tension that works so well in Russian Doll.
If it owes anything to Groundhog Day, it’s that on each cycle, Nadia, and later Alan, learns something that builds proper character development. That and it’s exceptionally well-paced, coming in at a tight 24-29 minutes per episode. Russian Doll doesn’t waste a moment of its screen time.
By the time the series ends, having taken you on a twisty, manic journey and through at least one horrifying chapter, it’s cemented itself as a beautiful work of real creativity — and one that’s ultimately redemptive for them and for us.
Russian Doll drops tonight on Netflix at 7pm AEDT.