The writer and director Leslye Headland seems to be fascinated by characters confined in prisons of their own making. In her 2008 play, Assistance, a cohort of ambitious 20-somethings compromise their own humanity to please a monstrous, legendary film producer (Headland worked for Harvey Weinstein for six years). In 2010’s caustic play, Bachelorette, which became a movie starring Kirsten Dunst and Rebel Wilson, a group of friends faces the various high-school behavioral straitjackets they can’t escape.
In the new Netflix series Russian Doll, created by Headland, Amy Poehler, and Natasha Lyonne—who stars—the trap is a literal one, fated to reset over and over. Nadia (Lyonne) is celebrating her 36th birthday at a strikingly weird Lower East Side loft party (the aesthetic is part Soho House, part Blade Runner). She hooks up with a smug, portentous academic (Jeremy Bobb); she hits up a bodega; she looks for her missing cat. Then Nadia stumbles into the street, where she’s struck by a taxi. She dies, only to awaken back in the bathroom at her birthday party, stunned, discombobulated, and seemingly immortal.
The show’s gimmick feels like Groundhog Day, until a twist midway through jolts the mystery up a level. To reveal too much more would spoil the experience of bafflement and surprise, because Russian Doll is, as its name suggests, a panoply of different things at once. It’s a zany, biting comedy of manners about contemporary bohemians, spiked with lines like “We have done ketamine, most recently at Louis’s christening,” and “Today I’m helping an artist make blood jelly to suspend over a mock 13th-century debtors’ prison.” It’s an existential sci-fi story. Most crucially, it’s a character study of Lyonne’s Nadia that mulls how people get stuck in modes that virtually guarantee their defeat, repeating the same mistakes again and again and again.