This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid on 22nd March 2019. If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.
Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) is having the time of her life. On the night of her 36th birthday her best friend Maxine (Greta Lee) throws her an amazing birthday party, Nadia picks up a guy, gets drunk, gets high and…gets hit by a car.
And then wakes up on the night of her 36th birthday. The good news is she can’t stay dead. The bad news is she can die. And when she’s resurrected, the night starts over. And over. And over.
Russian Doll is Quantum Leap‘s sleep-deprived, joyously profane fast talking younger sister. It’s also a clever photographic negative of the Quantum Leap narrative model as well as that of Groundhog Day (That link by the way is to a version of the trailer recut as a thriller. It’s pretty great.). However, where Quantum Leap had Sam as it’s fundamental anchor and Groundhog Day eventually becomes a spa of sorts for Phil, Russian Doll is far less forgiving. The deaths alone feel capricious, cruel, slapstick even. Like the grim reaper from Final Destination discovered a sudden talent for improv. My favorite is Nadia’s ongoing feud with the staircase she dies on several times, although her battles with a gas leak come a close second. Time and again she knows what’s coming. Time and again it doesn’t matter. She falls, she’s run over, she freezes to death, she explodes. Sometimes she makes it through the night. Nothing matters. She always dies eventually. She’s always at the party again sooner or later.
Were this all the show did it would be impressive in a Sapphire and Steel sort of way. But while Nadia is trapped there, Russian Doll uses the party as a close up lens that never stops moving and shows us sides of everyone that we never expected to see. Nadia’s episode one hook up is revealed first to be a libidinous dick and then a painfully aware and self loathing riddled libidinous dick with surprising connections to other events. Her best friends are also her enemies, Schrodinger’s antagonists whose loyalties and knowledge remain deliciously ambiguous. Her boyfriend is her ex is her boyfriend. No one has a good night. No one has an entirely bad one. It’s the same tune played by the same musicians on the same instruments but they change positions every night even though Nadia doesn’t.
Anchoring this constant shift in perspective is a career best performance by Natasha Lyonne. As Ben Blacker pointed out, Lyonne would be an astonishing Columbo. She’s endlessly jovial, clearly constantly FURIOUS and approaches the massive problem her life has become with the long-suffering pragmatism of an unintentionally immortal New Yorker. That in turn changes how you view Nadia. Not only as you discover the truth about her quietly horrifying childhood but how she interacts with people. Nadia, for all her flamboyant bluster, is terrified of being trusted. She will go out of her way to help others but refuses to believe the help coming her way is deserved or without strings. Her friendship with homeless man Horse (Brendan Sexton III! Best known to me as the kid in Empire Records!) is the embodiment of this. He can’t take from her, so she has no problem giving to him. That sort of contradiction is central to all of these characters and gives the show all its best moments.
It also allows for a complicated journey for each character. Alan, played with wide-eyed terrified charm by Charlie Barnett, is the only other person trapped in the loop. The show actually hides him in plain sight before introducing him but when it does we see him through his own eyes (A Good Guy), through Nadia’s (A Clean Freak) and through Beatrice, his fiance’s (A good man whose problems are destroying him and who she is increasingly worried for and frightened of). All of those are true, all of those are contradictory and every character in the show has moments like that. The situation may be unreal, but the characters are people you know.
That approach is also remarkable in its compassion. This isn’t a series about broken people being re-made in the forge of extreme events. It’s a series about broken people demanding to know why the Hell they’re in a forge and taking it upon themselves to do a spot of self rescuing because forges are bullshit. The later episodes in particular, where a couple of visual gags that really deserve to be discovered rather than explained kick in, are especially well done. Nadia and Alan, alone with their lives, trying to build something new out of what they’ve got.
Compassionate but bleak, calm yet frenetic Russian Doll is one of those shows where a second season would be lovely (two more are planned) but not necessary. One endless night in Nadia and Alan’s New York tells you a lot. And it teaches them even more.
Russian Doll is on Netflix now