The Existential Zaniness of Russian Doll

The new Netflix series by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler is a brilliant mix of satire, sci-fi, and sincerity.

Natasha Lyonne in Netflix's 'Russian Doll'
Natasha Lyonne in Netflix's Russian Doll (Netflix)

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.

Russian Doll is remarkably well done, and like most of the best TV works of late, it’s tightly contained, framing its story within eight episodes that run about 25 minutes long. Each installment contains its own small quest—Nadia tries to determine what she could have smoked that would make her hallucinate dying, Nadia seeks spiritual guidance—and snippets of various clues that build in intriguing ways. Nadia works, for instance, as a video-game developer, and the recurring inevitability of her death (sometimes after a lengthy amount of time has passed, sometimes repeatedly in the same spot) makes her career feel significant. Different people from her life come in and out of focus in different loops, adding their various perspectives on Nadia to the show’s larger profile.

If Lyonne often seems as if she’s playing a character who’s much like herself (fierce, frank, indomitable, wounded, passionate about crossword puzzles), it doesn’t make her portrayal of Nadia any less vibrant, or less fun to watch. Sporting deep-red curls and a tweedy gray overcoat, dragging asthmatically on a cigarette, Nadia stalks around the Lower East Side seeking out answers. (“This is like The Game,” she mutters manically at one point. “I’m Michael Douglas.”) But the clues she tracks down start to feel less resonant than the interactions she has with other people: her bruised ex (Yul Vazquez), her Aunt Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), a homeless man in Tompkins Square Park named Horse (Brendan Sexton III).

Lyonne, Headland, and Poehler have a larger purpose in mind, one that elevates Russian Doll from being a simple dramedy about one woman’s wackiest night ever. As the series proceeds, it gets more ambitious and more complicated in a way that’s gratifying to watch. It’s still anchored, though, by its sense of place and time, and by the infinite possibilities that a night walking around New York City presents. Some of Nadia’s loops are stranger than others. But watching her repeat herself, watching her survive, is generally more thrilling than you might ever have imagined.