By now the concept of a character reliving a particular day over and over again, often dying in the process of determining what exactly is going on, and, in doing so, discovering some (possibly deliberately) deep-hidden truth about themselves, is fairly familiar in popular culture. Groundhog Day is perhaps the most lauded and idealized version of the conceit, in that it told a relatively grounded story about the many shortcomings of one man, who found himself trapped in a fantastical situation that defied explanation, and the film in question rightly declined to provide one. Netflix’s Russian Doll takes a similar approach, putting star Natasha Lyonne in a looping, always-resetting day that affords her character, Nadia, the chance to examine some still lingering issues from childhood and her adult life that have, for lack of a better word, trapped her in a loop of another kind. Oh, and it gives her a chance to die, repeatedly, in some spectacularly bad ways.
Created by Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland (Bachelorette, Sleeping With Other People), Russian Doll is interested in more than seeing Nadia wind up dead as a door nail, though that doesn’t stop the first two episodes (written and directed by Headland) from having some ghastly fun at Nadia’s expense. It’s Nadia’s 36th birthday party, thrown by one of her closest friends, Maxine (Greta Lee), at an incredibly spacious New York City apartment, which is the site of the birthday girl’s frequent resets. Or, rather, the bathroom is where Nadia winds up whenever she dies. It’s a slight shift from the usual start-of-the-day routine seen in Groundhog Day or Blumhouse’s Happy Death Day, but the shift provides the series with a chance to do some clever and surprisingly unnerving things as the series progresses.
Headland starts the series off with a bang, as she recreates the birthday party over and over again, changing subtle details every time an increasingly confused Nadia makes her way through the progressively familiar routine from which she’s begun to deviate. There’s a degree of difficulty in reproducing the same party over and over again, playing the same music until it becomes a disconcerting soundtrack to something that’s gone horribly wrong (or, just maybe, miraculously right). Headland makes the repetition pay off by detailing the biggest deviation first, sending Nadia off for an ill-advised sexual rendezvous with Jeremy Bobb’s odious comparative literature professor Mike, before hitting the reset button for the first time. Nadia’s first death is something of a shock, but the hasty reset is almost more unnerving as it’s quickly followed by the maddening little details that seemed so innocuous the first time around — a woman’s incessant knocking on the bathroom door, the slow walk through the crowd of partygoers, the way Maxine says “birthday baby” before offering Nadia a joint laced with what she thinks is cocaine.
It’s a smart set up to the series, one that isn’t afraid to wring some dark laughs out of Nadia’s inability to navigate the stairs to Maxine’s place, resulting in a series of deadly falls that forces her to rethink her exit strategy. But once Nadia makes it out of Maxine’s apartment, and begins the strange process of examining her circumstances and coming to grips with what’s going on, Russian Doll is afforded a chance to differentiate itself from its conceptual predecessors, relying primarily on the strength of Lyonne’s performance, which maintains a caustic edge no matter what circumstance she finds herself in.
Still, it’s not long before the series begins to feel claustrophobic and the audience feels as trapped as Nadia. Rather than act as a bug, however, this device is a necessary consequence of the series’ intentions with regard to many of the thorny and not-so thorny themes of power and choice and agency it sets out to explore over the course of eight half-hour episodes. Some of those themes are made overt early on, like in scene at Nadia’s work where the male video game programmers are praised by their boss while she’s criticized and forced to correct another guy’s bad code on the spot. The rest of the series follows a similar path, and becomes more fascinating when Nadia discovers she’s not alone in her experience when she meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a depressed twenty-something going through a miserable break-up over and over again.
The addition of Alan not only expands the mystery of what’s going on, but it also affords Russian Doll the necessary space to move around and justify its already reasonable runtime. Eight half-hour episodes isn’t a lot, but it might’ve been more real estate than just a story following Nadia’s bizarre trip through her many deaths could fill. And Barnett’s precise, downtrodden character offers a welcome counterbalance to Nadia’s reckless live-like-it’s-your-last-day ethos that makes the series’ beginning so entertaining.
Over the course of the season, Russian Doll manages to surprise with each new development regarding Nadia and Alan’s unique predicament, throwing in some interesting supporting characters like Horse (Brendan Sexton III), a homeless man who’s obsessed with cutting Nadia’s hair, Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), a therapist with ties to Nadia’s complex past, and Yul Vazquez in a surprisingly vulnerable performance as Nadia’s ex-boyfriend. After a while, the appeal of the series becomes the precision with which it navigates a potentially exasperating plot by effectively imbuing its characters’ with a surprising level of humanity, one that doesn’t undercut the darkly comic and vulgar joy the series can be otherwise.
Russian Doll season 1 premieres Friday, February 1 on Netflix.