‘Russian Doll’ Review: Netflix’s Comedy Is a Wickedly Clever Fable of Morality & Mortality

     January 31, 2019

russian-doll-image-sliceNetflix’s next great binge-worthy show has arrived, and it’s a brash, bracing headfuck with just the right amount of heart. Russian Doll, the propulsive new series from Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, is a brilliant tale of morality and mortality that finds an expert balance between sincerity, cutting comedy, and wild genre flourish.

In the first episode, we meet Nadia (Lyonne); an acerbic, chain-smoking software designer in rockstar duds, staring herself down in the bathroom mirror at her 36th birthday party. Outside the walls of the wildly designed bathroom (including a “terrifying” door that looks like a gash in reality with a gun for a door handle), a full-on East Village fête awaits. Nadia throws back drinks and sips on a joint laced with cocaine, she flirts and flaunts, barks sardonic quips at her friends, and hooks up with a repugnant misogynist. Afterwards, she unceremoniously calls him an Uber and things really hit the next level. Nadia takes a walk in search of her missing cat, gets hit by a car, and dies. Horribly. Then she wakes up staring in that mirror and walks back into her birthday party all over again.


Image via Netflix

See, Nadia is trapped a time loop that film fans will quickly recognize; a Groundhog Day rinse-repeat format, where the protagonist is forced to learn a life lesson to break the loop. It’s a classic sci-fi/fantasy construct, most recently seen in movies like Happy Death Day and Edge of Tomorrow. No matter how many times or how many ways she dies (and boy, she dies a lot of terrifying and surprising ways), Nadia always wakes up back in that weird loft with her weird friends, stuck on a reboot cycle until she figures out how to escape. And a big part of the joy is the gumshoe approach Nadia takes to reclaiming her fate between her brutal deaths, investigating every possible reason for her predicament with the methodical mind of a tech genius and the bad attitude of a bitter addict.

If you think the time-loop concept is over-familiar, Russian Doll is way ahead of you. It’s a show that recognizes what it owes to Groundhog Day and tips its hat all along the way. From the release date —  the series drops on Netflix one day before the actual Groundhog Day — to the ear-worm song waiting for Nadia every time she reboots. Not “I Got You, Babe,” but Harry Nilsson‘s absurdly peppy “Gotta Get Up.”

“I’m interested in plagiarism as an art form,” says Nadia’s deliciously daffy and snobby friend Maxine (Greta Lee, stealing scenes and slaying an iconic bold eyeliner look). But just when you think you start to think you’ve seen this all before, Russian Doll delivers a welcome twist in Episode 3 that shakes up the structure and purpose of the familiar time loop narrative, rooting the series in something more heartfelt and poignant (but always with piercing wit). I’d like to write more about the ways Russian Doll evolves after that reveal, and about the potency of its tenderness and introspection, but this is a show best left as unspoiled as possible.


Image via Netflix

Lyonne co-created and co-wrote the series, and like many actors before her, she’s written herself the role she’s always deserved. Which isn’t to say she hasn’t played great roles before; Lyonne has a long, storied career including some iconic cult films of the 90s (speaking of which, But I’m a Cheerleader director Jamie Babbit directs several episodes here. Headland directs the other half, and Lyonne directs the finale.) But if she’s known for playing a specific type of surly, smirking fast-talker, in Russian Doll she flays that persona open and investigates the very guts of it, blending autobiography with inventive fantasy. Aptly titled, Russian Doll is structured like the traditional toy, and each new cycle of death and rebirth further strips away Nadia’s bullshit, ultimately arriving at the core of who she is.

Lyonne is on fire in the role, leaning into all the quirks that make her a singular performer (more than once, Lyonne’s guttural utterances and true blue New Yorkerisms reminded me of that free-wheeling Pacino magic), while diving into the darkest parts of her personal history. As an actress who’s been on screen since she was seven years old, the highs and lows of Lyonne’s life have played out in public, but she isn’t shy about dipping into that well to tell Nadia’s story. Ultimately, it’s a story about the cycles of self-destruction we trap ourselves in and the vulnerability required to break out of them.


Image via Netflix

Lyonne is matched by two exceptional creative partners in Poehler and Headland, and Russian Doll highlights the best and boldest qualities of all three women’s creative talents. Headland, the writer-director behind the woefully under-seen comedies Bachelorette and Sleeping with Other People (both of which you can and should watch on Netflix right now) likes her characters with so many rough edges they’re practically a buzzsaw. You better believe that instinct is a perfect match for Lyonne’s dry delivery and dare-me grin. Of course, we all know Poehler is one of the brightest comedic minds in the business and her playful impishness bleeds into Russian Doll‘s drollest moments. The combination of their creative instincts makes for a show that’s fearless and vulgar, but also sly and witty, with fast-talking dialogue that unfolds like a meticulously wrapped gift, layering jokes on revelations and revelations on jokes at such a rapid-fire rate that you’ll choke on a gasp in the middle of a laugh. This is one of those shows you’ll want to rewatch multiple times, if only to be rewarded with the new jokes and details you pick up on each viewing.

Tightly constructed with a brief eight-episode run, each episode coming in at 30 minutes or under, Russian Doll takes a tight grip and never lets go. It moves fast and, the first few episodes especially, makes you feel like you’re experiencing the insanity in real-time with Nadia. It’s pure binge-watching magic; a show that’s not only expertly designed to compel viewers to the next episode but invests just as much in the integrity of story and character. Try to space out the delights of Russian Doll if you can, but if you blow through all eight episodes (as I did), don’t worry. Like Nadia, you’ll probably just go back to the beginning and start it all over again.

Rating: ★★★★★

Russian Doll premieres Friday, February 1st on Netflix.