Russian Doll review – layer upon layer of dead-good TV comedy

Natasha Lyonne is magnificent as a woman reliving her last 24 hours, Groundhog Day-style, in this endlessly impressive and idiosyncratic show

‘I’m sorry for YELLING,” yells the main character, Nadia, in Netflix’s new drama Russian Doll. “But I’m having a very BAD, NEVERENDING day.” And there, roughly, is the series’s premise.

After leaving her 36th birthday party in New York’s East Village to search for her missing cat, Nadia is killed by a car. She wakes up back at the party in a grandly overdecorated bathroom (all the better to mark the beginning of your new time loop, my dear), and starts all over again. And again. Yes, it’s like Groundhog Day – and Happy Death Day. It has a dash of Amazon Prime’s Forever. But the familiar premise is still fertile and compelling: what would you do? How would you cope if you were caught in a loop, doomed to spend eternity repeating your last few hours on Earth?

At first, Nadia doesn’t overthink things. “The universe,” she roars, after returning to the party a second time, “is trying to fuck with me, and I refuse to engage.” Nadia is a games coder who looks like Cynthia Heimel, talks like Fran Lebowitz and is played by Natasha Lyonne, an actor who specialises in characters who feel profound fury at the world; they are women with not one shit left to give. Nadia is no exception.

Watch the trailer for Russian Doll on YouTube

The first half of Russian Doll is given over to the traditional testing of boundaries, working out how the strange new rules operate, divining the internal logic of the setup and eliminating the most obvious possibilities. Nadia’s best friend Maxine (Greta Lee) – who is, incidentally, the decorator of the bathroom, and consumed with worry that it’s “too vaginal” – gives Nadia a cocaine-laced joint at the party, which she smokes just before her first death. She assumes she is having a bad trip and tracks down its suppliers. It was not laced with cocaine, but with ketamine, they tell her. Nadia, who has tried most things once (including, one suspects, incest and morris dancing, despite Sir Thomas Beecham’s sage advice), is relieved. She has not tried ket, so it must be that. “Except we have done ket,” Maxine reminds her a few deaths later. “Most recently at Louis’s christening.”

If not drugs, then madness perhaps? Nadia’s mother – who died younger than Nadia is now – had mental health problems, and at least that would be a known unknown. But Nadia decides against a trip to Bellevue and heads instead to the local synagogue to investigate possible supernatural shenanigans, as the party venue is a converted Jewish school that might be flexing its mystic muscles.

Things get more complicated when Alan (Charlie Bennett) turns up – a man who is also experiencing time on a loop and quite enjoying the limited horizons it gives him; at least until he finds out how messy life can get even in 24 hours. His girlfriend breaks up with him because she’s sleeping with someone else. Alan and Nadia join forces (he has little choice) and their delicately developing relationship gives the story heart. Having taken off the outer matryoshkas, the second half of the series reveals more introspective and melancholy layers as we get towards its explanatory core.

Russian Doll was created and produced by Lyonne (it marks her writing and directing debut as well), Leslye Headland (writer of Bachelorette, the About Last Night remake and Sleeping with Other People, which she also directed) and Amy Poehler. It has the coherence, confidence and charisma that can only come from a team that has been on the same page from the off. Lyonne can be an exhausting presence when her caustic intelligence and talent have too little to do in too small a part – she takes to bouncing off the walls in all her scenes. Here, though, she has so much to do that the problem never arises. Nadia is a magnificent creation and Lyonne gives a performance to match, and without which the show could not exist. But there is still plenty of room for Lee’s brittly funny turn as Maxine, Rebecca Henderson’s deadpan compassion as their beautifully understated mutual friend Lizzie, Yul Vazquez as Nadia’s complicatedly sympathetic ex, Elizabeth Ashley as Nadia’s longtime therapist and surrogate mother, and assorted other characters whose performers never hit a bum note.

Russian Doll is an acquired taste. But do persist: there is such a fine, idiosyncratic, impressive show nested within.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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