At a time of questionable Netflix originals, the big red streaming service slips us Russian Doll. What a sweet little surprise! This eight-episode series stars Natasha Lyonne as Nadia, a woman who repeatedly dies and relives the same night in an ongoing loop. Admittedly, I wasn’t quite wowed with the first two episodes, but Mrs. Buckler convinced me to push through it. I’m glad I did. By the time we concluded the last episode, we both found this series that entertains and maybe restores your faith in humanity a bit. If you’re a subscriber who’s looking for something new, you’ll find plenty of pathos in this Netflix original series.
Russian Doll and “the Loop” of Life and Death
Admittedly, a basic description of Russian Doll would make you think that this series is just a modern-day version of Ground Hog Day starring Natasha Lyonne. Yes, these two films are somewhat similar in terms of its overall scope, theme, and overall meaning. That said, there’s enough going on in Russian Doll to make it stand apart from Groundhog Day. There’s also enough here to make it worth watching for nearly anyone who wants something unique and even heartwarming.
Russian Doll starts with Nadia Vulvokov (Lyonne) standing in front of a bathroom mirror. A knock on the door soon turns to pounding until Nadia opens the door to let two women into the bathroom. As she leaves, we soon find out that Nadia is at her 36th birthday party. Nadia soon leaves the party for the corner deli, where she crosses paths with a very drunk and depressed man. Ignoring him, she leaves the deli and is quickly run over by a taxi cab. This brings her right back to the bathroom mirror at the party.
As Nadia tries to figure out why she’s caught in “the loop,” she encounters the young man she saw in the deli. His name is Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett) and he’s also stuck in the loop. At this point, it would seem obvious that Nadia and Alan would simply team up together to solve this mystery, right? Unfortunately, both of these characters are deeply flawed so they struggle to form and maintain close connections to others. After trying to go it alone and failing, the two decide to work together.
Solid Netflix Original Series Overall
Okay, I can’t say much more about Russian Doll’s plot for fear of spoiling it for you. My cranky colleague Stuart Sweet hasn’t finished it yet, so I can’t ruin it for him. What I can tell you about is what I liked so much about this series. It deals with at least one rather serious issue: the sense of self-imposed social isolation that results from parental neglect, dysfunction, and mental illness. These issues plague Nadia’s thoughts throughout the eight episodes of Russian Doll’s first season.
The way Russian Doll handles its themes is just as complimentary as the subjects themselves. Rather than being heavy handed, the film addresses these topics in a rather understated manner. These elements slowly crystallize over all eight episodes. This leaves it up to the viewer to determine just how much these experiences have shaped Nadia and contribute to her being stuck in the loop. In an age of films that pander to heavy-handed themes and tropes, this subtle approach was certainly appreciated.
As much as I enjoyed Russian Doll, here are some other things that didn’t work for me:
Natasha Lyonne plays the same stereotypical character she always plays. You know the one. She’s a wise-cracking, world-weary nihilist who recognizes the futility to existence so she merely goes through the motions. This has been her shtick from American Pie to Orange is the New Black, and it pops up again here.
Despite Lyonne’s wise-cracking nature, this show is actually rather short on laughs. This seems strange at first because there’s this sort of assumption that Russian Doll will be a comedy. (Likely because of Lyonne’s presence.) This becomes less of a problem once you really get into it.
It won’t take long before you grow tired of the “bathroom scene” and Ty Segall’s song, Gotta Get Up. You’ve been warned!
Many of the supporting characters tend to feel like cardboard cut outs just going through the motions. They’re not there for any character development of their own since you don’t see any of them past the initial night in which Alan and Nadia die, so there’s no real character arc for them. Not much, anyway.
Just when you think the show quickly and quaintly wraps up its premise in eight episodes, you find out it’s scheduled for two more seasons. This might make you wonder if this night will ever end?
While Russian Doll definitely has a few flaws, they are minor compared to the show’s overall entertainment value and touching message. Like I said, if you’re a little burned out from the same old same old from your streaming service provider(s), give this one a whirl. You’ll probably enjoy it as much as Mrs. Buckler and I did.
What’s with the Name “Russian Doll?”
I’m not entirely certain, but the theme of a “Russian doll” is repeated throughout the eight episodes. Let’s start with Natasha Lyonne’s character, Nadia Vulvokov. That’s certainly a very Russian-sounding name, and Natasha has a quality about her that makes her doll-like. I can’t remember if anyone calls her “doll” in the series, but her character does get called a “sweet birthday baby” about 70 times. (When you see it, you’ll know what I mean.)
There’s also footage of Nadia looking at a Russian matryoshka doll, also known as Russian nesting dolls or stacking dolls. These are those small wooden dolls that have a smaller wooden doll inside, which has another smaller wooden doll inside it. Typically, matryoshka dolls are generational, with the largest doll resembling a mother, the next largest a maiden, the next largest a teenager, the fourth largest a child, and the smallest being an infant. From a folkloric point of view, this is meant to illustrate the stages of a woman’s life.
In the context of the series, I think the name and its relevance to the dolls speaks to something else. This Netflix original seems to be about the many different versions of a person that could exist based upon the choices they make. This theme is played out throughout the eight episodes as Nadia and Alan are faced with making different choices and living (and dying) with the consequences of those choices. This all culminates with the last episode, which shows two timelines playing out parallel to each other. (Again, I can’t say any more than that because Stuart.)
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