A never-ending birthday party forces fierce game developer Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) to face her past as she struggles to look towards to her future.
Russian Doll opens on Nadia in the bathroom of her friend’s apartment, staring blankly at her reflection in the mirror. Its her 36th birthday, and her friends Lizzy and Maxine have thrown a bacchanal-esque party to celebrate.
But the cynical Nadia isn’t enthused. Instead, she hooks up with a stranger, ditches the party, finds her missing cat Oatmeal, and gets hit by a car. Then she’s finds herself once again staring into her reflection in Maxine’s bathroom as the night repeats.
The difficulty of Russian Doll is to make the familiar live-die-repeat trope consistently gripping for its audience in its eight half-hour instalments. But the all-woman team behind the Netflix series (Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland) expertly continue to develop characters and plot threads through each cycle of Nadia’s limbo.
As Nadia figures out the rules of her predicament, we see her lose her come-what-may, sharp-tongue façade and instead find a well-rounded character with multiple layers to her. Lyonne is great at bringing Nadia to life. Her monotone, raspy delivery and slumped back posture conveys that her character really has been through the ringer.
The seemingly endless purgatory acts as a narrative motif as Nadia tries to find a way to break away from her self-destructive patterns. What we learn about Nadia and her relationship with her deceased mother tells a sincere and genuine story about mental health and how it can affect someone’s actions.
Russian Doll doesn’t rely too heavily on its twists, focusing much more on rich, unique characters and their plot threads, but that doesn’t mean the show won’t bring in elements of different genres to keep viewers interested in the mystery, which is: Why is this happening to Nadia?
The show thus decides to blend the humour of some of the over-the-top death sequences with genuine drama as Nadia spirals out of control. Horror elements begin to seep into the story too, as the plot becomes more twisted and we learn more about Nadia’s backstory and that she may not be the only one stuck in this seeming immortality.
This allows the show to diverge into some exciting and artistic directions. The gritty streets and neon signs of New York City give the show a very saturated and colourful look, and several sequences - including one where Nadia has a breakdown and inhales copious amounts of drugs and alcohol - are directed beautifully by Headland and really delve into the creepy undertones of the show.
Russian Doll is a unique puzzle-box show. Inspired by Groundhog Day, it tells a slightly more twisted, real and even hilarious story of a deeply-flawed individual who must come to terms with their past. Its wonderfully put together and the character and story development feel genuine and heartfelt.
You can stream all eight Russian Doll episodes on Netflix today.