Co-created by and starring Natasha Lyonne, Russian Doll is a stew of influences and tones. It’s a very funny comedy, but it’s also a metaphysical journey with existentialist shadings. Lyonne plays Nadia, a woman doomed to repeat her 36th birthday over and over again, but while Groundhog Day made a charming romantic comedy out of a similar concept, Russian Doll is darker. It's not about Nadia “hacking” the day in order to beat it like a video game level; not coincidentally, Nadia is a game coder, making her initial efforts to break out of the loop and cheat death—avoiding a treacherous staircase, warning a friend about a gas leak—all the more frustrating. The easy solutions don’t work. Nadia is forced to look deeper.
Lyonne told Rolling Stone that the show, which she co-created with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, is in many ways a metaphor for her own struggles with addiction. "It’s probably something closer to an autobiographical journey on my many dances with death, and skating around it in such a real way in my actual life, that it didn’t feel like a high concept, you know? This was based on my personal experiences, the rocky road I was living on. The early days of conceiving Russian Doll, I didn’t even realize [the stories were] in any way supernatural. They were just based on my personal experience of nearly dying very often as a result of addiction.”
It’s funny, warm, and strange, growing deeper and more resonant across its eight episodes.
To say too much more about the show, and the various characters Nadia comes into contact with, would be unfair, as it’s a story best experienced knowing very little. But Lyonne’s presence alone should be reason enough to watch. Delivering withering lines in a cigarette-singed New York accent, Nadia's both a familiar character—a melange of tropes, from the boho New Yorker that entered the public consciousness somewhere during the 1970s to the cool downtown scenester of the first decade of the 2000s—and the kind of woman we almost never see in a leading role. She’s glamorous but not overly primped; she’s sarcastic but never cruel; she’s a cat-owning loner who redlines on the gregariousness scale. She's Philip Marlowe by way of Elliott Gould, filtered through L.M. Montgomery, Dorothy Parker, and Kim Gordon.
Russian Doll is also a terrific New York show, and its East Village setting of infinite sidewalks, blind alleys, dangerous corners, and secretive cellars provide an apt metaphor for Nadia’s situation. It’s funny, warm, and strange, growing deeper and more resonant across its eight episodes. You can glance over the metaphorical stuff and experience Russian Doll only as a high-concept comedy, but chances are good that Lyonne, Headland, and Poehler’s story will leave a deeper mark on you. 2019 has its work cut out for it.