Television

Russian Doll

Natasha Lyonne stars in a bright, funny, allergic-to-sentiment comedy about ever-present death.

Still from Russian Doll: Nadia, played by Natasha Lyonne, grabs fistfuls of her long red hair.
Natasha Lyonne as Nadia in Russian Doll.
Netflix

Nadia Vulvokov is a video game programmer with a two-pack-a-day growl, a mop of red hair, and the good kind of bad attitude—the come sit by me kind. As Netflix’s Russian Doll begins, it’s her 36th birthday and her friends are throwing her a big, artsy bash in a sprawling East Village apartment. The alcohol, food, and sexual energy are flowing freely, and Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) weaves through it all—hugging, waving, taking a hit of coke-laced marijuana, fretting about her missing bodega cat, leaving with a dirty-talking professor. Then Nadia gets hit by a car and dies.

Up to this point, about nine minutes in, Russian Doll—which was created by Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland—felt like another slice-of-life dramedy about an appealing-but-defended, sardonic white chick. But then that chick wakes up at that same birthday party, standing in front of the same bathroom mirror, Harry Nilsson still playing. Then she dies again. And again. And again. She slips off banisters and into open street grates, plummets in elevators and is attacked by bees, burns up in gas explosions, chokes on chicken bones, and cannot safely get down one incredibly pesky flight of stairs. It’s as if the whole world’s previously navigable hazards have suddenly become booby-trapped, funneling her back to the same starting place. All of this may sound kind of like Groundhog Day, but Nadia doesn’t get to go to sleep each night. It’s not irrelevant—to Nadia, or the comic-morbid tone of the show—that she’s dying. What’s it like to die over and over again? How does that mess you up? But, also, what opportunities does it afford you?

In Nadia (and Lyonne), Russian Doll has exactly the sort of jaded, bright, allergic-to-sentiment kind of personality you want to walk you through this kind of story. Russian Doll turns out to be—don’t they always!—about change and connection, and Nadia, thankfully, is extremely allergic to hooey ideas about change and connection. Nadia describes herself in the last episodes as a combination of Andrew Dice Clay and the heroine of Brave, which in addition to being very funny captures the way her world-weary swagger coexists with, and maybe covers up, a child-like, even childish, vulnerability. Instead of assuming—or considering—that the universe is trying to teach her some lesson, asking her to revisit her own past and emotionally closed-off present, Nadia approaches her repeated deaths with a zany kind of logic: Is it the drugs? Is she having a psychotic break? Is it because the party is in an old yeshiva? Only slowly, painstakingly, does Nadia make space for some other possibilities.

Without spoiling much, I will say that Russian Doll is a two-hander, and when it gets to that portion of the series—around Episode 4—the whole thing elevates even further, both emotionally and logistically. Russian Doll is a tightly plotted, high-concept puzzle-TV comedy—one of those series a person could obsess over on Reddit, looking for clues as to what is really happening. Perhaps it’s because it’s by and about women that it spanks the whole bunch of “prestigious” puzzle TV shows, by never letting the puzzle swamp its characters or their psychologies. In this way, it’s a bit like a better version of Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph’s Forever (with which it has all sorts of interpersonal connections), another series about the way death may or may not push people to change.

Change is a loaded topic for TV comedies. Seinfeld was famously a show where no one ever changed, and though, over many, many seasons, most sitcom characters do change, they rarely transform because audiences want the same people to show up in the same place week after week (or binge after binge). Russian Doll takes, I think, a different view on this question, not considering change as a dramatic problem for a TV show, but an essential question for human beings. “People are hard to change,” someone says to Nadia, late in the series, and he’s right. Can we change? Can we change if we really need to change? And if so, how on earth does that happen?

Russian Doll’s answer to this question—it takes a lot of trying (in this case, in the form of a lot of dying)—feels substantial, because we can see how hard even the littlest personality change is for its protagonists. In a way that is rare these days for most TV shows—designed to go on forever and ever—Russian Doll has a complete and satisfying ending, so complete and satisfying that when I discovered the show is supposedly going on for two more seasons, I was taken aback. Nadia, of all people, would never overstay her welcome—she doesn’t want to hang out with anyone that much—but I’m provisionally intrigued by whatever comes next. Russian Doll knows there’s power in recurrence.