It’s fiendishly clever, the latest binge-worthy series from the alleged cultural imperialism monster that is Netflix. It’s also very adult, full of salty language and takes a weighty philosophical turn. That turn is what separates it from anything produced by certain broadcasters who would accuse Netflix of cultural imperialism.
Russian Doll is the series. And, at eight episodes coming in at around 30 minutes each, it’s made to be absorbed in two or three gulps. Created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, it is about virtue and mortality, and delivered with a vicious sense of pungent humour. It’s a brace-yourselves, genre-breaking journey.
At first it feels like another variation on Groundhog Day. Events repeat for the main character until she realizes that something has happened to the time-space thing she exists inside. Then it feels like something different.
To kick off, we meet Nadia (Lyonne); an acid-tongued, chain-smoking woman gazing at her face in the bathroom mirror at her 36th birthday party. The bathroom is designed to be mind-boggling and, outside the door, Nadia’s friends and acquaintances are drinking, taking cocaine, eating and swapping nasty but erudite remarks about art and each other. Nadia is clearly part of this group, swapping sardonic wisecracks galore. The one thing that seems to define her as different though is her worry about her cat, Oatmeal, who has gone missing.
There follows an excursion to a nearby store in a neighbourhood that seems to teem with the mad, the drug-addled and the angry. Nadia thinks she sees her cat, chases it, and is hit by a speeding car. Then she finds herself staring at the mirror in that mind-bending bathroom again. Events repeat.
It’s in the third episode that things truly shift and a layer drops away. It’s not so much that the viewer is left shaken or slapped. It’s that the surface drama laced with acid comedy gives way to something approaching a humane perspective. In fact, a more universal one, taking the dynamic out of its New York, artist-filled milieu, and into matters about existing with some decency. There is also the matter of regret, as Nadia slowly comes to realize that what is happening to her has its roots in past actions.
For all the breezy sophistication of the central characters, what Russian Doll explores, in a way, is the fact that primal behaviour is always there, just hidden away. It is clear that it was entirely directed and written by women, and those women want to go far beneath the codified pop-culture treatment of a woman in crisis in her mid-thirties. In fact, what the creators aim for is about humanity, not female-centric at all. And as the episodes unfold, you begin to figure that it was less inspired by Groundhog Day than by Black Mirror.
Much of the series could have gone sideways and landed in mere eccentricity were it not for both the clever, precise construction of the piece and the absolute comfort of the cast with the material. Lyonne, an underrated actor in movies and TV series that rarely get taken seriously, has the role of a lifetime here. It is incredibly demanding – there’s a raw physicality to Nadia and there is a river of sarcasm that seems to flow from her mouth, but at the same time, the construction calls on her to be part of a drama that is moving and poignant in its attention to self-condemnation.
It’s a hard series to review, frankly, because so little can be given away about the intricate plot. But no one should think that Russian Doll is a kind of sci-fi trick, one that builds and builds and then deflates. With each over-and-over repetition of the central plot device there’s a rebirth and an unveiling of something that is key to understanding Nadia and her predicament. Like the title suggests, Russian Doll is a matter of figures nestled inside other figures and that’s not a trick here, it’s an overture to investigating what’s inside the inside of what appears to be a thick-skinned person.
It’s been called the best new series of 2019 and it’s early days, but Russian Doll is certainly the most entertaining, brainy puzzle in ages.