Netflix's Russian Doll Season 1 Review

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Groundhog Day meets Quantum Leap meets Twelve Monkeys meets Interstellar, by way of stand up comedy

by Casimir Harlow Feb 3, 2019 at 11:13 AM

  • Netflix's Russian Doll allows creator/star Natasha Lyonne to take a stand-up comedy-style approach to trying to find a way out of being trapped in an endless Groundhog Day.

    Although it takes a little warming to, Lyonne's pet project has a fabulous building crescendo feeling to it, maintaining surprising momentum as it develops a simple live-die-repeat formula but adds layers to the underlying narrative and characters that subsist within with each successive cycle.

    The premise has Lyonne's lead character, Nadia, repeatedly 'waking' in a bathroom at the birthday party her friends have thrown for her, and finding that whatever path she takes - whether going home with a random man at the party, rekindling things with her ex, or just trying to drink enough that she passes out - it always ends in her dying and waking up in that bathroom back at the start of the night.

    Slow-burning, yet fast-paced, it's a paradoxical production, not just in terms of its underlying time-travel narrative

    Russian Doll initially feels mostly like a comedy, in the vein of Groundhog Day, with Lyonne's Nadia raging the streets, confounded by the fact that she's repeating the same night with a bunch of familiar faces who are doing exactly the same things they do on every time she goes through the night, struggling to figure out whether it's some elaborate birthday ruse - like something out of The Game - or perhaps an added ingredient in the cocaine-laced cigarette she's offered, that's causing her to endure this nightmare.

    It's not long before you realise that there's something different going on here, and the mystery enthrals - somewhat surprisingly - despite the long-form narrative that unravels over 8 twenty-five minute episodes. Perhaps best binge-watched like an epic movie, single episodes never offer any kind of real closure, instead offering revelation after revelation as the story evolves in unexpected directions.

    Russian Doll
    Indeed there's a surprising amount of meat on this bone, and Lyonne picks off every little bit of it, exploring themes familiar to a bunch of other sci-fi/time-travel productions - from Interstellar to Looper to Back to the Future to Twelve Monkeys - almost all of which you would least expect to be a part of this ostensible comedy. It's an interesting blend and much deeper than you might imagine, not merely content to explore interesting characters and dramatic themes of mortality and history, but actually prepared to go to some mind-bending places to get to the bottom of what the hell is going on.

    Although she's clearly the star of the show - and puts in a tremendous 'solo act' performance - Lyonne doesn't really actually have to play it completely solo, bringing with her a bunch of familiar faces, including fellow Orange is the New Black alumni Dascha Paxton, House of Cards' Jeremy Bobb (who is eerily Phillip Seymour Hoffman-esque), American Psycho's Chloe Sevigny, Yul Vazquez (Midnight, Texas), and relative newcomers Greta Lee and Charlie Barnett. What's interesting is the way in which they develop these characters beyond merely repeating the same lines again and again - and the way in which certain revelations in one 'day' inform the main character's interactions with these people on the next cycle.

    There's a surprising amount of meat on this bone, and Lyonne picks off every little bit of it

    Russian Doll isn't perfect - requiring you to stick with it for the long haul as, after just a couple of episodes, there really is very little hint of what is to come. Slow-burning, yet fast-paced, it's a paradoxical production, not just in terms of its underlying time-travel narrative; a surprisingly well-considered and well-written drama which grabs your interest through cheap laughs and witty lines, but maintains it with clever surprises, intelligent ideas, and genuinely heart-wrenching emotion. Neither the trailer nor the first episode really does this show justice; you won't know just how good the show is until it's all over, leaving you with the curious dichotomy of both feeling there may well be second chances out there, but at the same time you have to live each moment like it's the last. Recommended.

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