Netflix’s ‘Russian Doll’: Confusing, But So, So Compelling

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Natasha Lyonne is staring at herself in the bathroom mirror; tap running, someone banging on the door. Harry Nilsson’s lyrics (‘gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get home before the morning comes’) reverberate through her ears for the 10th time.

With her signature curly ginger hair and dressed like some kind of fucking epic modern glam rock star, she paces through the party and hears her best friend Maxine say ‘Sweet birthday baby!’ – for the 10th time.

Netflix’s new series ‘Russian Doll’ sounds like a riff on ‘Groundhog Day’ on paper, and in a lot of ways it is. But ‘Groundhog Day’ didn’t feature this much eyeliner, ridiculously cool pointed boots and strange pronunciations of the word cockroach.

Being created by Lyonne herself, along with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, it’s a very different vision to the Bill Murray-starring original story of someone dying and reliving the same day all over again.

Fans of ‘Orange Is The New Black’ will recognise Natasha Lyonne, and though her character here of Nadia has undoubtedly got her shit far more together than prisoner Nichols, they have a fair amount in common – namely their quick wit, passion for drugs and a hardened exterior that gives way to a much kinder, softer centre. Lyonne is being peak herself here from the get go, so much that at first, before the real character stuff kicks in, it almost feels like too much.

The first three episodes in general do the series as a whole a disservice. They set up the premise well, and quickly, and deliver the whole dying/rebooting in a very comedic and effective way, but it feels hard at first to grasp the reason why everyone has been raving so much about this show.

Episode 4 onwards, however, is a whole different ball game. As soon as Nadia meets Alan – a pivotal character whose relevance will be revealed no further – everything steps up a gear, feels more cohesive and like it has direction, and the two become an unlikely duo that really give ‘Russian Doll’ its heart, and compelling charm.

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Once the two meet and start to try and figure out what’s going on; that’s when the magic happens. In getting to know each other, we get to know them too, and they’re incredibly likeable people.

Far too rarely do we get to see characters as well rounded and crafted as Lyonne’s Nadia on our screens. She’s cool, obviously, with killer fashion sense and withering one liners – but she’s also sensitive, generous and loves her cat. She’s found it hard to commit in relationships, but has a beautiful maternal one with the therapist that raised her. She has trauma around her birth mother, which are a major driver for the show in terms of plot – but hasn’t let it stop her putting her vast intelligence into becoming an incredibly capable computer programmer. She’s good and bad, wrong and right, and it’s inspiring to see. Who’d have guessed that when you give women creative control, they produce remarkable female characters?

The charm continues to dial up as you get through the short and snappy episodes, but when it comes to figuring out why Nadia keeps reliving the same day over again, it’s best not to look too closely. She has a number of realisations along the way, with her past coming back to haunt her (literally) and a growing tension as things seems to deteriorate around her with each rebirth, but none of the threads are really explained and rationalised. It lands on a core concept that is pulled off with such heart and soul in the final episode you’ll be muttering about having something in your eye, but even when the credits finish you’ll feel none the wiser about what just happened.

But maybe that’s okay. Maybe we don’t need everything to be tied up so neatly to appreciate a story as brilliant and engaging as ‘Russian Doll’.

Similarly to the impeccable comedy ‘The Good Place’, this show seems to examine what we owe to each other, in life and after it. Maybe Lyonne, Headland and Poehler felt that all they owed to us, the viewer, was a bloody good show, and to leave us wanting more – and on that front, they certainly delivered.

 

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