Culture

Television

A bug in the code: ‘Russian Doll’

By Craig Mathieson
This existential comedy is 2019’s first must-see Netflix series

Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll. Image courtesy of Netflix

After dying in accidental circumstances several times on the night of her 36th birthday party, only to find herself each time unscathed and back at the beginning of the celebration at her friend’s apartment, New Yorker Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) comes to a conclusion. “The universe is fucking with me,” the freelance video game programmer decides. She is both frustrated (she keeps dying) and intrigued (she keeps living) by this development, but Nadia is neither panicked nor suddenly galvanised. This is not the first time, you sense, that Nadia has questioned the universe’s allegiance, and she doesn’t exactly feel that her karma is comfortably in credit.

In other words: things could actually be worse. It’s that figure-eight logic – both loopy in concept and design – that makes Russian Doll, a screwball existential comedy that is the first must-see Netflix series of 2019, such an inventive delight. The show is committed to its metaphysical game structure, where Nadia keeps finding herself back at the start of level one, but it refuses to make the quest for answers into a desperate thriller or a science-fiction investigation. If nothing else, at least she gets a do-over on her questionable decision to take home cheating literature professor Mike (Jeremy Lowell Bobb) the first time around.

Russian Doll was created by Lyonne, independent filmmaker Leslye Headland, and comic actor and producer Amy Poehler. Each contributes to the writing, while Headland directed four of the half-hour episodes and Lyonne the eighth and final one. It has the collaborative tempo and tone of a conversation between close friends, where the elasticity of acceptance allows for loving insults, and quirks of personality are par for the course; Nadia keeps dying, but her best friend and host, Maxine (Greta Lee), is always at the kitchen island, preparing a chicken dish, when Nadia emerges from her bathroom. Instead of severing bonds, the time slippage accentuates them.

In Groundhog Day, the marvellous 1993 Harold Ramis comedy that by law every Russian Doll review must mention, Bill Murray’s weatherman goes to extremes when he gets trapped in the same small-town day over and over. What vexes him the most is the loss of control. But for Nadia, despite her spitfire attitude and salty retorts, a lack of control is something she implicitly understands. It stretches back to a troubled childhood, but there are also reminders that for all her present-day independence, her current conundrum exposes her to society’s habit of doubting women. When her ex-boyfriend, John (Yul Vazquez), arrives at the party, Nadia explains her unique situation to him. “I’m just trying to figure out how I fit into all this,” he dismissively replies.

Even as she searches for clues, which includes checking the provenance of the party’s narcotics and researching the history of Maxine’s building as a Jewish yeshiva, there’s an ambivalence to Nadia’s actions. Sharply sketched, she’s a deeply complex character, and even as the storyline opens up Nadia’s life and outlook, Lyonne embraces hilariously deadpan assessments laced with an exceptional use of expletives (it’s the quality, not the quantity). A cult presence in 1990s movies and more recently part of the incarcerated Orange is the New Black ensemble, Lyonne gives a herculean performance defined by its hard-nosed humanity and heartfelt stirrings. She’s also exceptionally funny, conveying terror at a nondescript stairwell down which Nadia has previously fallen to her death multiple times.

The show’s idea of a meet cute – elevator, terminal plummeting – introduces Nadia to Alan (Charlie Barnett), a control freak reliving his own night with a vastly different strategy. After stabbing him in the leg to ensure he’s not simply a projection of her subconscious, Nadia makes Alan her collaborator. The techniques they employ to right their respective courses aren’t mind-bendingly radical, but they’re delivered with such verve and wisecracking momentum – “let’s slow down,” Nadia tells Alan when he starts throwing drinks back, “Bukowski’s not your greatest look” – that you’re swept along with the pop psychology and need to make amends.

Nadia is defined by female bonds, both in the past and the present, right down to how she avoided John’s daughter during their relationship. The writing doesn’t just call Nadia on her failing, the metaphysical twists make them apparent to her. There’s an incisive moment when Alan reveals that he also has an unfortunate connection to Mike, the libidinous academic, and Nadia mutters “Maxine’s friend” even as she thinks back to how a few incarnations prior she happily had him in her bed. Russian Doll doesn’t merely suggest change, it shows the unvarnished reconsideration that spurs it on. But that emotional reckoning is matched by the boisterous atmosphere, random bodega encounters, and bohemian liberties of the downtown East Village setting. There is joy in the show’s idiosyncrasies and tenderness to its struggles. On a night that won’t end, Nadia is truly inspired company.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

@CMscreens

Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll. Image courtesy of Netflix

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