Death is many things. Add enough variables and it can be tragic, inconvenient and, given enough time and circumstance, hilarious. Netflix’s Russian Doll juggles every single one of these emotional building blocks and more by utilizing a plot that leaves enough for the viewer’s imagination, rock-solid cinematography and career-defining performances.
The show is the brainchild of Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler, all of whom share in writing and directing duties, while Lyonne takes centre stage as the show’s main character, Nadia Vulvokov, a woman forced to die and relive the same day over and over again.
Lyonne’s turn as Vulvokov, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking software engineer, is without a doubt the role she was born to play. Her dulcet, pack-a-day voice coupled with her room-filling snark and charm drive the narrative. Her manic delivery strengthens the equally manic plot, resulting in both her and the audience often proclaiming ‘what the fuck?’ in unison to the cosmos as the bleak time loop narrative cascades further towards its conclusion.
Yes, the Groundhog Day structure is nothing new and, at this point, the genre’s refusal to die mirrors its subject matter. But Russian Doll manages to stand on its own in such expert fashion that you’re able to forgive it building its foundations on familiar territory.
The writing treats its characters and audience with respect, as each death/day Vulvokov is forced to endure and repeat weighs on her subconscious and has visible impact on the world around her. Side characters are given depth and the supporting cast contributes immensely, avoiding the trope of just being there to make a dumb face while not believing our character’s predicament.
Russian Doll provides such seamless shifting in tone throughout its story that it’s barely noticeable. You’ll go from a montage of whacky deaths, to moments of immense regret and existential anguish—to sincerely cynical lines like “Sure leaving his jacket as a blanket for me is sweet … but so is cyanide.”
In essence, this story isn’t afraid to face the hilarity, heartache and fear of death, even as it becomes more and more trivial for our heroine—which is what makes the show’s final act a little disappointing. After building itself on an identity of the unknown and the unpredictability of circumstance, it starts to become, a little, predictable. Yes Russian Doll keeps its ambiguous nature intact throughout its run but, but its conclusion, it starts to rely a little too heavily on the tropes it was so eloquently tip toeing around.
Despite this hiccup, Russian Doll is a powerhouse of a new series that will stand the test of time as a genre disrupter, and hopefully will be able to reinvoke that same feeling down the line.