Leslye Headland’s heroines don’t play nice. They curse. They fight. They f***. They do cocaine casually, drink intensely, ruin weddings and marriages, and spin away with a smirk and a middle finger raised high in the air. But at the end of a wild night, they come out realizing the power of the vulnerabilities from which they run. First came Bachelorette and now Russian Doll, a sort of sister series in that it too is a blisteringly hilarious tale of getting over your own bullshit with a heroine who is deeply damaged yet intoxicatingly cool.
Created by Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne, and Amy Poehler, Russian Doll follows hard-partying New Yorker Nadia Vulvokov (Lyonne) on the most pivotal day of her life, her 36th birthday. It’s a day full of choices, about hitting that coke-laced joint, banging that pretentious professor, reconnecting with a spurned ex, or following a mysterious homeless man. But whatever choices she makes keep ending the same way: death. And just like Groundhog Day or Happy Death Day or a string of other films, Nadia awakes once more, healed but harrowed, trying to discover how to escape the time loop of this pernicious birthday party.
That’s all first ep stuff. I don’t want to dig too much deeper into spoilers because a big part of the fun is the unpredictability of the series. But I can say it’s absolutely marvelous, filled with fantastic performances, big and small. Elizabeth Ashley brings a gruff warmth as Nadia’s adoptive mother who likes to “sit crooked and talk straight.” Rebecca Henderson offers an aloof daffiness as one of Nadia’s eccentric friends, while Greta Lee steals scenes as a deliciously ethereal socialite. And you might well freak out when you realize the vagabond with the cockamamie haircut and the mystical air about him is Brendan Sexton III, who will forever be Warren from Empire Records.
Bolstered by a stupendous supporting cast, Lyonne is on fire as a whirling dervish of depravity. With a crooked smiled and a thick New York accent that turns “cockroach” into a three-syllable word (cock-ah-roach), she shoulders a caustic charm as striking and inviting as the heavy wool trench coats she favors as she barrels down the Manhattan sidewalks. She’s abrasive, arrogant, and wickedly clever with a devil-may-care attitude and a diet of booze, drugs, Red Bull, and cottage cheese. She cracks jokes about TLC and 9/11 with equal breeziness. She’s a mess and she’s marvelous, the kind of trainwreck you don’t want to be but yet envy for her recklessness. But under this tough exterior, Nadia is hiding a broken heart that’s terrified to love again. So, she keeps people at a distance with her jokes and apparent apathy. But in this recurring birthday, she will learn to open up.
That’s one of the many beautiful bits of Russian Doll. Amid its time travel shenanigans, irreverent humor, and crackling performances, its message is about seeking help. Eventually, Nadia will realize she can’t escape this loop on her own. And through this, the show explores themes of therapy. It addresses how many obstacles we put in our own way to get help or to change. Because where you might be now is not great, but what if changing could make it worse? The time loop is a metaphor for the rut Nadia’s made of her untethered intimacy-avoiding life, where she is a freelancer with no boyfriend, flaky friends, few family, and a stray cat that splits time between her, the local bodega, and the wilds of New York streets. To escape it, she has to do the work to change, which spins the story into a fascinating new angle that involves a handsome and melancholy stranger played by Charlie Barnett, who proves a perfect foil to Lyonne’s manic energy and madcap bravado.
As a New Yorker, I fell hard for how this show captures this magical city that is hard and tender, wonderful and weird. Shot on location, Russian Doll relishes Nadia’s stomping ground of sacrilegious apartments, pretentious parties, and bodega cats. The intersection of different worlds all occupying this same crowded and chaotic space is captured with confrontations between Nadia and whippits-sucking gentrifiers, snooty grad students, bumbling drunks, pious Orthodox Jews, and muttering madmen. The buzz of New York is alive in this show, even in many of Nadia’s deaths. Over the course of the first couple of episodes, she dies by cab, wonky apartment stairs, and those horrifying metal doors in the sidewalk that quake when you walk on them like they are just waiting to drop you to the cold, cement basement below. The only NYC nightmare deaths missing here are getting hit by a subway car or kicked in the face by a SHOWTIME SHOWTIME subway performer.
There’s a ruthless emotional rawness to Russian Doll that’s seeded in the writing, flowers in the performance, and is watered by a gritty authenticity of its representation of New York. Its tone is a bit theatrical, yet it feels familiar enough in its atmosphere that you can imagine stumbling into this repeating night. This is the story of that one wild night that felt like a dream, then a nightmare. But instead of waking up, Nadia must return again and again to that awkward start until she gets it right. And thanks to the brilliant humor and humanity alive in this dark sci-fi comedy, we revel in sharing her journey.
Header Image Source: Netflix