From Netflix, a layered and loopy ‘Russian Doll’
We all know hard, abrasive people. Some of us are those hard, abrasive people. Nadia, the central character in Netflix’s hallucinogenic yet moving new series “Russian Doll,” is a hard, abrasive person, New York City-style. Not a please-and-thank-you type, she can drop insults that ring true enough to bruise her friends’ self-esteem. She’s funny, with a knack for quips, and admirably honest, for those who aren’t scared off by her brusqueness. But let’s just say that the hammer is not cloaked in soft velvet.
“Russian Doll” is about what’s inside Nadia’s heart and soul, what you find if you keep opening the Russian nesting dolls to get to the innermost one. We immediately see Nadia’s emotional callouses on the Netflix show, whose first eight-episode season is available Friday, but we know that we’re also going to get to the hurts that created them. And fortunately, Nadia is played by one of the best hard, abrasive actors I know of, Natasha Lyonne, whose Nicky on “Orange Is the New Black” has been a gift of spiky repartee masking inner struggle. Lyonne, who co-created “Russian Doll” with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, was born to play Nadia, and that’s part of the magic of “Russian Doll”; with her frizzy hair, her swagger, and her piercing eye contact, she and Nadia seem to become one very specific, layered person.
The show has a gimmick, which recalls the anarchy that drives both “The Good Place” and “Forever,” similarly death-minded series whose premise always seems to be shifting. The night at the center of “Russian Doll” keeps repeating, “Groundhog Day”-like, as Nadia leaves a party given for her 36th birthday to prowl the wilds of the East Village with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Each time she leaves the party, she somehow dies — from falling, from getting hit by a car, from a heart attack — and each time she is instantly reborn, once again looking at herself in the bathroom mirror of the party, Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” on the soundtrack. The title carries the image of linear discovery, but the story line is set up as a series of loops.
At first, Nadia is crazed by what is happening, and she is alone in her confusion since no one else is having the same experience. She becomes convinced it’s related to the cocaine-laced pot she smoked at the party. Then she begins to wonder about the history of the building in which the party is being held; it was once a Yeshiva, and it may be sending her ancient vibes of some sort, based on her Jewish roots. Is she undergoing a religious phenomenon? Or, as someone suggests, is she suffering payback for moral wrongs in the past? Should she be spending her extra lives apologizing to people and making up for indiscretions?
As Nadia gets used to the death-rebirth cycle, though, her panic disappears and her questioning becomes more inner-directed. Her turmoil isn’t about whether she’s a good person or a bad person, so much as her resistance to self-understanding. Meanwhile, the people in her life, including an old boyfriend (Yul Vazquez), a creepy one-night stand (Jeremy Bobb), a street person (Brendan Sexton III), and her therapist and mother figure (Elizabeth Ashley), begin to combine in ways that are wonderful and surprising. At times, the show, with its vivid New York setting, made me think of Martin Scorsese’s urban epic “After Hours.”
Charlie Barnett — he was on “Chicago Fire” for a few years — is an essential member of the cast, as a neurotic guy named Alan who wants his longtime girlfriend to marry him. I’m not going to spoil his connection to the story, but his scenes with Lyonne are deeply satisfying, as each tease out different parts of the other, with gender stereotypes nowhere to be found. He’s not particularly convinced when she announces, “I don’t want to be attached to anyone,” which is precisely what she needs. Barnett has a gentle face, so his fury, when he feels it, carries a lot of weight.
The elements in “Russian Doll” may sound somewhat familiar, particularly the “Groundhog Day” repetitions; but they are all recombined to form something that is both fresh and revelatory. There’s no sentimentality in the air when it comes to Nadia’s journey, and no reductive life lessons. The show is a great celebration of complexity, of choosing life, and of self-awareness.
Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett, Yul Vazquez, Greta Lee, Jeremy Bobb, Dascha Polanco, Elizabeth Ashley, Brendan Sexton III
On: Netflix, available Friday