By Morgan Roberts
What would you do if you had to relive the same night, over and over again, dying in a new way each time? Oh, and what if that day is your 36th birthday?
That is where Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) finds herself. This existentially dark, “Groundhog’s Day”-esque show takes us down a path of self-discovery, alternate timelines, and redemption. I won’t give too much away. “Russian Doll” is a particularly special show, and to ruin the magic of a first time watch would be criminal. So, you’re just going to have to trust me that it is worth going down the rabbit hole for this one.
“Russian Doll” hinges upon Lyonne’s performance. She does not disappoint. Nadia is crass, sarcastic, a little mean. But she is equally scared, insecure, and frustrated. You feel for her. All of her coping mechanisms are the wrong ones. And as you hurl through the most existential of all crises, it is difficult to trudge forward with any semblance of hope. But she does. Lyonne gives a cathartic and authentic performance. You can tell how in-tune she is with this character. Makes sense, as Lyonne co-created this show along with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headlund, the latter of whom directed half of the series.
“Russian Doll” is smart. I hate reducing anything to the term “smart” but it is. It never talks down to you… Despite the dark cinematography and heavy subject matter, at the end of the day, “Russian Doll” is extremely hopeful. Hopeful about people. And I think that is something we need right now.”
Lyonne isn’t the only one giving a rockstar performance. Charlie Barnett shows up a little later in the season as Alan who knows all too well what Nadia is experiencing. Then there are Nadia’s best friends. Maxine (Greta Lee) contrasts Nadia in look – bright, eccentric rather than dreary but chic. However, the two friends possess the same level of manic. Which is probably why Maxine is the host of Nadia’s ill-fated party. Then there is Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson) who is the most supportive friend in Nadia’s life. When Nadia keeps dying on the stairs, she tries to leave from a fire escape. Lizzy, asking zero questions, helps Nadia out. There are many times Lizzy is the voice of reason or at least the most aware of the situation without truly knowing the full scope.
While the acting is out of this world, the directing is on another level. Headlund set-up the style and structure of the narrative so nicely. It is movie-level work on a television show. It is sophisticated, poised, purposeful. While Headlund set the tone, Jamie Babbit and Lyonne (yes, triple threat on this show!) carried that style forward for the latter half of the season. It is truly cinematic art.
“Russian Doll” is smart. I hate reducing anything to the term “smart” but it is. It never talks down to you. And maybe you get some of the plot points right away but if not, that’s okay. They’ll seamlessly put those together in such a manner that you feel like I genius despite being two episodes behind. Despite the dark cinematography and heavy subject matter, at the end of the day, “Russian Doll” is extremely hopeful. Hopeful about people. And I think that is something we need right now.