“I feel empty,” Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia admits during the first episode of a series about grappling with grief, facing your demons and figuring out what it means to be human. Created and produced by Lyonne, Russian Doll also marks the cult comedic actor’s writing and directing debut. Sleeping with Other People writer Leslye Headland is also on hand, with Broad City producer and Parks and Recreation star Amy Poehler making up the triple threat of talent. All of its episodes are also directed by women, including including Headland, Lyonne, and Jamie Babbit.
Lyonne stars as the refreshingly cynical Nadia, who relives her achingly trendy 36th birthday party in a never-ending groundhog day style. Nadia is first killed by a car after searching for her estranged cat Oatmeal, before dying almost 20 times throughout the show’s eight short episodes; ranging from tripping down stairs and falling through cellar doors on the street to exploding gas leaks and falling air conditioners. While the familiar premise of being stuck in a loop has been explored almost endlessly, Lyonne, Headland and Poehler manage to navigate a much more interesting aspect of reliving your final hours on Earth. Russian Doll doesn’t much care about how Nadia actually spends her time, it’s more about the discoveries she unearths about herself along the way. Most notably, Nadia never sacrifices anything about herself throughout this process. She is unapologetically, brilliantly ruthless.
Lyonne’s portrayal of the ever-charismatic Nadia is undoubtedly her best work to date. The actor is known for playing surreal characters, from Orange is the New Black’s Nicky Nichols to But I’m A Cheerleader’s Megan Bloomfield, but these roles arguably only allowed Lyonne to showcase a fragment of her versatility. While her well-known raspy, chain-smoking, take-no-bullshit demeanor is on-hand, it’s Nadia’s vulnerable moments of sincerity that make Lyonne’s performance truly memorable.
This aspect of Nadia begins to unravel with the introduction of Alan, played by relative newcomer Charlie Bennett. He too is living in his own loop and the pair endeavour to find out what connects them in their never ending cycle. Alan relishes his routine, the sense of knowing what’s coming each and every time he wakes up. He’s obsessed with cleanliness and order so naturally, he’s the complete opposite of the unravelled Nadia. However, as is the case when opposites attract, the pair begin to bring out the best in each other, whether it’s Nadia telling Alan’s crappy ex-girlfriend to get fucked or Alan caring enough to ask Nadia about her much-concealed past.
As well as Alan, Russian Doll is packed with a stellar supporting cast. Ruth, Nadia’s surrogate mother and therapist, brings a quirky, maternal warmth to screen, while Nadia’s best friends, Maxine, played by the hilarious Greta Lee, and Lizzy, played by the understated Rebecca Henderson, offer a refreshing and brilliant take on New York hipster stereotypes. Mosaic star Jeremy Bobb is also a dab-hand at playing the particularly unlikeable asshole Mike, while homeless man Horse is played fearlessly by Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s Brendan Sexton III.
Much like the main character in Black Mirror’s recent choose-your-own-adventure release Bandersnatch, Nadia is also a game programmer, who is offered a number of different directions, before ultimately dying. However, the linear narrative of Russian Doll gives a much greater sense of adventure. It reveals that other people and objects are also implicated in this process, that they too can choose which way their adventure goes. The more Nadia and Alan keep waking up, the more fruit starts to rot, the more furniture goes missing and soon, the more people start to disappear too. “How do you know that you’re real?” Nadia asks Horse during a particularly rough moment. “Do you think we need people to be like, witnesses?” Once the show teases these disappearances, it begs a bigger question of how our actions affect others.
With a killer soundtrack that includes the likes of Ariel Pink, Weyes Blood and Harry Nilsson and a fiery guest appearance from Chloë Sevigny as Nadia’s mother, Russian Doll could quickly be passed off as a hipster take on the 1993 movie, but it’s much more than a rehash of a well-known premise. It’s courageous approach to millennial mid-life crises tackles real issues at the centre of many of our collective anxieties. Instead of shying away from the agony of being alone, it tears down the barriers we create for ourselves and dares to asks those big, universal existential questions with quick-witted comedy and a whole lot of heart.
Release Date: 1 February, 2019