I’m a little behind the ball with this one, but please forgive me as I’m finally starting to develop a system. Russian Doll is a dark dramedy released on Netflix in early February, and I’m only just now getting around to reviewing it. Though I’m getting a little fatigued by the constant churning of original content from the company, after noticing the show earned critical acclaim, I felt I should give it a look. The series is created by three extremely talented women, actress Natasha Lyonne, comedienne Amy Poehler, and playwrite Leslye Headland, with Lyonne starring in the lead role as Nadia. The production credits alone should at least warrant a look, but I’ll give a small description of where we start the series.
Nadia is in the bathroom at a party celebrating her 36th birthday. The party is graciously being hosted by best friend Maxine (Greta Lee) at her apartment. After discussing her missing cat Oatmeal and wondering if it’s too early to have a mid-life crisis (prescient considering the events to come), Nadia hits it off with rando-sex-guy Mike (Jeremy Bobb) and the two resolve to go back to her place to bang one out, stopping at the corner market on the way. Later, post-intercourse, Nadia sees her cat chilling across the street, so she runs into the street to nab the feline. She gets hit by a car, dies, and immediately regains consciousness back in the bathroom at the party where and when she started.
I’m afraid to say too much more about the story because part of the fun of this show is experiencing it. A lot of things that you may overlook in the first few episodes become more important as you go through the series. Each episode digs further and further into the main characters’ deep-seeded issues and exposes them. There aren’t a lot of shows that delve into mental illness the way this one does, but it is beginning to be a popular trope the more humanity comes to terms with its particular psychoses. Lady Dynamite on Netflix examined bipolar disorder while Legion on FX was inspired by schizophrenia. The difference with Russian Doll is that the theme is something almost all of us have experience with–burying things we don’t like about ourselves and letting them fester, eventually leading to irrational behavior.
Similar to the recently reviewed Us, there is so much to dissect here that it could easily fill a college course. It would be easy to dismiss the series as another take on Groundhog Day, a plot device which is so overused it borders on cliche, but that is merely the catalyst for making our characters confront the parts of themselves they’ve bottled up. Moreover, as opposed to the one-note movie, there a lot more unexpected twists here that completely change how you view it, such as the appearance of Alan (Charlie Barnett) at the end of episode 3 and his subsequently explored role. Lyonne even manages to flip the viewer’s expectations in the final episode, having directed and written it herself. The way Russian Doll can switch between introspective drama and laugh-out-loud dark comedy is absolutely a feature.
Where I’m less impressed is with how much time is spent pursuing leads that end up going nowhere toward ending Nadia’s predicament. Much like how Phil Connors tries to improve himself, thinking that will break the spell of the groundhog, Nadia initially thinks there’s something in the joint she smokes, that the building is beset by a Jewish curse, or that she needs to befriend the homeless guy, Horse (Brendan Sexton III). None of these threads add anything to the story except to maybe allow for more exposition on how terrible of a person she is or have her learn a lesson. The real story is in her interactions with Maxine, Alan, her aunt Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), and her mother Lenora (Chloë Sevigny). As such, there is so much going on at once, but so little of it actually matters.
The human condition sometimes can’t easily be described with words. In these situations, we often look to references and metaphors to help us understand what is going on. Russian Doll has constructed an apt metaphor for how necessary it is for our mental health to confront and address our inner demons, including drug addiction. However, while the series is short with a roughly 3.5 hour runtime so you don’t have to devote a lot of time to it, the message the creators wanted to convey could probably have been told in half that time or at least be more succinct. That said, it is often hilarious, giving us such lines as “Nothing in this life is easy except for pissing in the shower,” and this is probably the standout performance of Lyonne’s career. Give it a few episodes and see what you think.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
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