“Life is like a box of timelines,” – Nadia, Russian Doll.
The latest Netflix assault on boundaries, Russian Doll might appear to be something which is complicated on the surface. Yet, at its core the message is simple – how it feels to be alive. In its delivery of that this clever series shines.
It opens as it repeats with Nadia Vulvokov played by the show’s co-creator and co-writer Natasha Lyonne (Orange Is the New Black), standing in a bathroom on the night of her 36th birthday, staring deep into a mirror. Through a series of events, namely leaving the party for a one-night stand, Nadia is struck down by a speeding taxi and killed. It is then that the loops begin. She wakes again in the same bathroom, staring into the same mirror as it slowly becomes a reflective abyss for her own thoughts.
Left confused and blaming drugs, the panic sets in and Nadia leaves the party again only to die another random way. These loops continue, though each time there is a slight change. Fruit becomes rotten, plants wilt, and even people begin to fade away. The premise of the name Russian Doll is fully explained as through every loop the world gets slightly smaller.
The onscreen presence of Lyonne is electric, matched only by her ability to chain-smoke throughout each episode. Her wit and edgy-carefree existence draws the audience into her world. It’s Lyonne that holds the eight-episode series together as the viewer becomes as frustrated and curious as her to find the answers to what is going on. Although the episodes are short, averaging at the 27-minute mark, the brevity is a very smart move, adding to the frantic pace of the main character’s quest.
A chance encounter with someone who is the polar-opposite to Nadia, brings an extra depth to proceedings. The shy and introverted Alan (Charlie Barnett) – also stuck in this repetitive timeline decides instead of figuring out the cause of the time loops to follow the same heartbreaking routine even if it brings him pain. Though at first it seems an unlikely pairing, the chemistry of the remarkable duo focuses strongly on how opposites are relative to one another.
Although it does share traits with the early-90s Bill Murray vehicle Groundhog Day, these are only elements. Russian Doll is no romantic comedy. Although comedic in nature, the subjects and settings are more realistically portrayed in the series’ modern-day New York City. The use of sexual-promiscuity, drugs and the social divide between the rich and poor all converge to paint a landscape which is relatable to the viewer.
As the stories of both characters evolve, they reveal a deeply embedded emotional turmoil. Although they are from different areas of life, the two are connected in ways which again bring a series of enjoyable twists to the story line. In Nadia’s case her loop stems from a familial tragedy, linked to her age. On the other hand, Alan’s is rooted in the heartbreak of love. Both tales are harrowing and evoke empathy from the viewer, along with a drive for the main characters to succeed in their adventure.
With the use of clever dialogue and imagery, Lyonne – with co-creators Amy Poehler (SNL), and Leslye Headland (Sleeping with Other People) – bring life not only to the characters but that sense of desperation that is felt within the very bones of Nadia. The recent 100 per cent score on the online barometer Rotten Tomatoes, is more than justified as the first original and intelligent series of the year is lauded for the incredible, memorable entertainment that it is.
It’s worth noting too that Russian Doll differs from the last Netflix adventure into the field of time-crossing – Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch. While at times the storyline may get bogged down in the world of Nadia, unlike the-‘choose your own ending’ of Bandersnatch, the viewers ultimate satisfaction is in the actual conclusion with the series’ underlying message. Confront what you are afraid of and only then can you start truly living.