‘Russian Doll’: Programmer, Debug Thyself
If you prefer to be totally surprised by your TV shows, put down this review and watch “Russian Doll” when it comes out on Netflix on Friday. It’s eight short, acerbic, wittily profound episodes with a richly satisfying ending(s).
If you don’t mind a teensy spoiler, without which we can’t really discuss the series: The protagonist dies. This is not as big a surprise as it might seem. Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) is at a party for her 36th birthday, downing booze, sucking down a joint laced with a certain something and contemplating her self-destructiveness and mortality. “I smoke two packs a day,” she tells a friend. “I have the internal organs of a man twice my age.”
Good news: Her lungs don’t kill her. Bad news: A car does, later that night.
Disorienting news: She comes back to life, in the bathroom of the same downtown New York apartment, at the same party. Then she dies again and materializes in the bathroom again, over and over, reviving each time to the tune of Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up.”
While this might seem to tell you everything about “Russian Doll” — another variation on “Groundhog Day,” premiering, wink wink, the day before Groundhog Day — the story is barely getting started. It’s the way the series twists and complicates the premise that makes it much more than a copycat.
And that, finally, I will not spoil.
A party is the right place to meet Nadia. She’s a gregarious loner, warmly embracing her boho friends but allergic to any long-term attachment or dependence. She keeps a still-devoted former lover (Yul Vazquez) at arm’s length. Her longest-running relationships are with Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), a family friend and therapist, and Oatmeal, the cat whose custody she shares with a local bodega. Like Nadia, Oatmeal likes to keep things open-ended.
Lyonne created “Russian Doll” with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, and it’s a terrific match of performer and character. Lyonne’s throaty rasp sounds like a cigarette would if it could talk, but she also has a presence and an impish spark that cuts Nadia’s cynicism. She’s both ancient and brand-new, or as Nadia describes herself, “like if Andrew Dice Clay and the little girl from ‘Brave’ made a baby.”
When Nadia first dies and comes back to life, she suspects it may be a bad drug trip. When it happens again — well, kill me once, shame on you. Nadia, a video game programmer by trade, approaches her Groundhog Night dilemma accordingly. To break the loop, she needs to figure out the rules by which this recurring game works. Then she needs to debug it, and thus herself.
Life, Nadia discovers, is a very complex program, and her attempts to relive it take on a different cast from the romantic comedy of “Groundhog Day.” “Russian Doll” is more a detective story, with elements of slapstick, sci-fi and even horror. She’s not trying to mechanically create the perfect day so much as to, per the title, delve through her concentric shells and find her kernel.
If you watched, and I use the term loosely, Netflix’s interactive “Black Mirror” fiction “Bandersnatch,” you will recognize a parallel. That story too was about a game programmer, and it invited the viewer to send him down different life pathways — many of which ended with him dead — before starting over.
“Russian Doll” is a linear story, yet it has a greater sense of possibility and variety than that choose-your-own-adventure. It acknowledges that the other characters in Nadia’s story also have volition, that they too are capable of choosing differently — of having their own do-overs — when the same scenario repeats.
This becomes important when Nadia strikes a connection with Alan (Charlie Barnett), an uptight stranger wrestling with his own crises, whose path crosses and recrosses hers in significant ways. Nadia tells him that her idea of hell is to have to depend on another person, and he points out that she’s said as much through one of the games she programmed, “an impossible game with a single character who has to do everything on her own.”
For all its memento mori philosophy, the show is a hoot, as adept with physical comedy as with its quips — watching Lyonne navigate a flight of stairs on which she’s met several demises is priceless. If you spend a lot of time walking in New York (or anywhere else, probably), “Russian Doll” will leave you conscious of the myriad ways death could be around any corner, or teetering on any windowsill.
Which is not the worst service a TV show can provide. “Russian Doll” joins a boomlet of eschatological TV comedies (“The Good Place,” “Forever”) that use death and rebirth to attempt screwball inquiries into how to live.
Like its peers, “Russian Doll” resolves on the necessity of human connection, a familiar homily, but it’s too inventive and irascible to feel pat. This is a show with a big heart, but a nicotine-stained heart that’s been dropped in the gutter and kicked around a few times.
“Russian Doll” is lean and snappily paced; it even managed the rare feat, in the era of streaming-TV bloat, of making me wish for a bit more.
Would it kill Nadia to keep the story going just a little longer? The answer, of course, is yes.
Streaming on Netflix on Friday
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