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‘Russian Doll’ Is a New—and Excellent—Kind of Mystery-Box Show

The Natasha Lyonne Netflix series is both a star vehicle and an existential journey

Netflix/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

It’s easy, and maybe even lazy, to compare the time-loop premise of Russian Doll to Groundhog Day, and Natasha Lyonne’s jaded, fatality-prone programmer to Bill Murray’s cynical, temporally stranded anchorman. Cocreator and director Leslye Headland recently chafed at the comparison in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: “I’ve noticed as a human woman, when I end up doing press, I’m consistently reminded of how my work is like something else. It feels like they really want to remind me that this genre already exists, and that it was already done by a man. … Of course we knew that was a reference. And we wanted to move past it.”

What Russian Doll moves past in practice is Groundhog Day’s vision of purgatory as a sort of existential time-out, imposed by some unseen authority until the protagonist has learned his or her lesson. “I knew we were being punished!” exclaims Alan (Charlie Barnett), a fellow East Village resident who, like Lyonne’s Nadia Vulvokov, keeps expiring in alternately cartoonish and tragic ways, forcing him to relive a pivotal night of his life. Nadia is celebrating her 36th birthday, marking the point at which she’s officially outlived her mother, who died tragically young. Alan is enduring the painful end of a decade-long relationship due to his partner’s infidelity and his long-term emotional withdrawal. Like cosmic detectives, by the season’s seventh and penultimate episode, Nadia and Alan have finally figured out what ties them together: a chance encounter in a bodega where they had the chance to save one another, her from getting hit by a cab and him from dying by suicide. Nadia, however, rejects the idea that what they’re experiencing is some kind of karmic retribution. “This is not good or bad,” she explains. “It’s just a bug. It’s like if a program keeps crashing: The crashing is just a symptom of the bug in the code.” Or, as Headland put it to The Ringer’s Kate Knibbs: “It’s not that she needs to outwit the powers that be, like in Groundhog Day. It’s about the source of the choices that you made that [in turn] made the life that you have.”

Such concerns put Russian Doll on the same thematic ground as “Bandersnatch,” the Black Mirror installment that uses a choose-your-own-adventure format to explore free will and fate-sealing crossroads. But while Russian Doll shares motifs with “Bandersnatch,” as well as a binge-and-rewatch-friendly platform ideally suited to showcasing them, it ultimately crafts a stronger bridge between television and video game, straightforward story and novel experience.

Russian Doll is the product of a three-way brain trust between Headland, Lyonne, and Amy Poehler, the comedian who’s turned female friendship, both her own and others’, into something of a second career. The concept began gestating when Poehler informed Lyonne that “as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always been the oldest girl in the world”—platonic admiration as television pitch. After an abortive development stint at NBC, Russian Doll would end up at Netflix, where it would acquire the high-concept hook that both obscures and augments its autobiographical roots.

Underneath its sci-fi trappings and somber philosophizing, Russian Doll is a half-hour show firmly in the Louie mode, a transparent vehicle for the persona of its creator-lead. Lyonne takes advantage of the opportunity to showcase her range, but also flex her undiluted star power; like Lyonne herself, Nadia is a lifelong denizen of lower Manhattan fond of first-thing-in-the-morning cigarettes, eyeliner, all-black ensembles, and drugs. (Lyonne is sober, but has been open about her history of substance use.) Lyonne’s barely modulated life story instantly stands out from an admittedly overcrowded field, despite and in part because Lyonne is the kind of performer more typically found in cult films and ensemble casts than at the center of her own series. But even with this built-in head start, Lyonne and her collaborators add an extra level of difficulty to an already enviable cool-kid hangout. The Natasha Lyonne Show could easily have been a beat-for-beat reenactment of her 20s. Instead, it’s about death and destiny—The Good Place as envisioned by the kind of person who has Chloe Sevigny on speed dial.

Such a confident mix of genres gives Russian Doll the best of both worlds, or in this case, multiple timelines. On the one hand, the setting is saturated with finely realized detail. East Village landmarks like Tompkins Square Park or Sunny & Annie’s populate the background, while offhand jokes about sensory deprivation tanks and Jodorowsky’s Dune are peppered into traditional noir banter, like if Bored to Death were less twee and more literal. Even Lyonne’s Judaism makes it into the mix; the apartment building where Nadia’s birthday party takes place is a converted former yeshiva. On the other, Nadia’s and Alan’s journeys quickly lead them to widely applicable, quintessentially human questions: Are we in control of our lives? What would we do if we were? Is there a single identifiable moment when one’s trajectory goes off track?

A game designer and coding whiz, Nadia approaches these quandaries with an admirably bemused remove for someone prone to snapping her spine on a staircase at any given moment. (An underrated part of Russian Doll’s realism is giving its heroine a job that would actually allow her to live alone in Alphabet City in the late 2010s.) She’s perfectly suited to the task. Like a video game, her and Alan’s grisly fates always return them to the same starting point: staring into their bathroom mirrors. And like a video game, the illusion of wide-open possibility quickly starts to narrow down to a predetermined outcome. The more “lives” Nadia and Alan use up, the more people and objects start to disappear from their reality. Pointedly, inescapably, they’re being redirected toward their destinations, which are also their starting points.

Both the maddening repetition and hurtling momentum of Russian Doll’s story feel ideally suited to Netflix, where hopscotching through timelines is as easy for the viewer as it is for Nadia. Streaming’s compressed timeline compounds the effect of choices both big and small, from the blurring together between one version of a night and the next to the insidious earworm of Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up.” Compact, sub-30-minute episodes replicate the feeling of paging through a novel to learn how it ends. And like the best mysteries, a second watch of Russian Doll plays like a richer, enhanced version of the first.

When they finally arrive, however, Russian Doll’s reveals are rooted not in the supernatural or some grand conspiracy, but the quotidian reality of what makes Nadia and Alan tick. Despite what she assures her therapist godmother Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), everything for Nadia really does come back to her mom; no matter how many ways he tries to make her stay, the only way out for Alan is to let his fiancée, Beatrice (Dascha Polanco), go. These epiphanies only land as well as they do because Lyonne and her writers make Nadia and Alan into such textured, well-realized individuals, with quirks and backstories and coping mechanisms all their own. Russian Doll is a mystery box where all the answers are right there in the characters, a new kind of television show with an appeal as old as the form.