Russian Doll: Why it’s the must-stream hit of the year

With echoes of Groundhog Day, Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland’s sublime comedy is anyting but ordinary

Death quickly becomes an inconvenience in Russian Doll. Photograph: Netflix

Death quickly becomes an inconvenience in Russian Doll. Photograph: Netflix

 

Death quickly becomes an inconvenience in Russian Doll. At first, it is shocking and apparently meaningless, when Nadia strides on to a crosswalk, in pursuit of her elusive cat, Oatmeal, and into the path of an oncoming car (proving the adage that the first thing that hit you, on arrival to New York, is a taxicab.)

But Nadia immediately finds herself back in the achingly hip bathroom of a friend’s loft apartment, where our tale began. Maybe it’s the bathroom, decorated in sheeny black tiles, with a gun handle where a doorknob should be, and glowing installation art that resembles a tear in the fabric of the universe. (“Is it vaginal enough?” worries its adorably try-hard owner later.) But whatever the reason, Natalie is either doomed or blessed to repeat the moment of her 36th birthday party, again and again, until she finally gets through it.

There is, of course, a tang of familiarity in the concept behind Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland’s sublime comedy, which you might call Groundhog Birthday. But though it avails of the pleasure of repetition, this show is an absorbingly clever iteration of another kind of narrative, one inspired by video games.

Russian Doll, which emerged quietly early this month on Netflix and has quickly become the must-stream hit of the year, has something in common with Black Mirror’s recent, finicky Bandersnatch. Both send their protagonist back to the start when they hit a dead end. In the case of Nadia, a video game designer, dead ends are more literal, and as shocking as they are funny: “Those things are a menace,” she fumes, when she tumbles down the same open trapdoor for the second time (and don’t even start with the stairs).

The fantasy here, in both video games and Groundhog Day, is that practise makes perfect. Eventually, with enough combing for clues, trial and error, exploration and learning, you can perform any action flawlessly and somehow become a better person. But Russian Doll is too smart, knowing and wry to allow anything so neat. “All right,” says Natalie early in the first episode, “let’s make some choices”. Her first, taking home a staggeringly obnoxious academic (a terrifically horrible Jeremy Bobb), suggests her choices are sub-optimal.

With a voice so smoky it should come with a high-tar warning, a cumulus of red curls that graciously accept all lighting, and the declarative, heaven-help-me manner of a borsht-belt comedian, Natasha Lyonne makes a wonderful Player One for this story. Her Player Two, Alan (the sweet, sad-eyed Charlie Barnett), joins in by appropriately karmic accident, another rebooting immortal discovered first in a plunging elevator, who heads daily into romantic humiliation.

They each have their issues, from self-absorption to self-erasure, but the show doesn’t make them overly determining factors: life is just a hand of cards, it suggests over countless variations in their days; it all comes down to how you play them.

Likewise, the show is generous on every level: sharing distinctive characters and humdinger dialogue among a superb cast; beautifully but unfussily framing every shot; asking for no more of your time than 30 minutes across eight episodes; and all with the decency of delivering a resolution where another series would spin out the uncanny premise interminably. It has also provided fans with enough Easter eggs, hymns (Gotta Get Up) and catchphrases (“Sweet Birthday baby!”) to start up a new religion.

Regeneration may also be infectious. When I reached the end of the series, with the finality of an unguarded trapdoor or a rushing taxicab, I went right back to the start again.

Netflix, now streaming

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