Why ‘Russian Doll’ may be the best show of 2019
Sometimes, when a TV show — or a book or a movie or a painting — really gets to you, it’s a challenge to articulate exactly what has turned you on about it. It hits you on a deeper-than-usual emotional level that is hard to shape into words. That nebulousness, that puzzlement, is part of the strange attraction — the piece baffles you because it expresses something about yourself that’s just out of reach.
That’s what has happened to me with “Russian Doll,” the “Groundhog Day”-esque Netflix series about a woman who keeps dying and getting resurrected on the night of her 36th birthday. The eight-episode comedy-drama, released early this month, has captivated me, after I binge-watched it with passion. It hits all kinds of notes — sorrow, glee, absurdity, slapstick — but keeps dipping back into the gallows humor that I love. It is already on my 2019 Top 10 list, for reasons both crystal clear and somewhat obscured.
There were the reasons that I spelled out in my Globe review, most of them connected to star Natasha Lyonne and her character, Nadia, a tough, wry New Yorker who is estranged from herself. Nadia’s transformation across the season works for me — and TV transformations are often mishandled — as her reanimations bring her closer to her inner truth and, staying with the Russian doll metaphor, more willing to let go of her hard outer shells. She’s a Scrooge, in a way, but instead of one dark night of the soul, she has a dozen or two. I also admire the specificity of the writing, with the many particulars of Nadia’s family history — even back to the Holocaust — and the textures of her neighborhood, the East Village, including a building that was once a Yeshiva. As in some of the best writing, all of the details belong in this particular story, and they get frequent callbacks.
But I didn’t get to the fuzzier stuff in my review, particularly as I needed to avoid spoilers. (I will not be avoiding them here.) One of the key facts in “Russian Doll” is that Nadia’s mother died before she turned 36, and Nadia, now turning 36, is being prompted — and prompted and prompted — to deal with how that death altered her. Up till now, she has been living as if nothing matters to her, like some kind of Borscht Belt nihilist, a cigarette forever dangling from her lips. Everything she says is a quip meant to be clever and subversive, because she is embarrassed at and afraid of sincerity. When her ex-boyfriend, John, says he has missed her, she cracks, “Great, people miss people,” fighting off his appeals with her cynicism. He calls her an abyss, and it gnaws at her because, indeed, she is empty.
That kind of emptiness can hit people who’ve experienced the early death of a parent (my father was 37). They give up and fail to create meaning because they’re much too aware that everything can go in an instant. Fatefulness — the hyper-consciousness of ultimate separation — can certainly get in the way of relationships, which is clear when it comes to Nadia. She is locked inside hard inevitabilities, still clinging to a grieving child’s viewpoint. Some might see her as an “old soul,” a person with perspective on life, but inside she is still a kid — a guilty kid, too, since she feels responsible for her mother’s death. When Nadia lives longer than her mother did, though, it challenges her doomy belief system and triggers the crisis that forms the show.
In a way, “Russian Doll” asks what happens when death is off the table. As her reincarnation loop continues — in episode two, that loop is so speedy that it’s played for farce — Nadia is prodded out of her perpetual sense of pointlessness; her apprehension of death is no longer making her human needs seem futile. The worst happens, she dies, but: It only brings her more life, more chances. A number of shows have similarly taken death off the table recently, as they pursue humans into the afterlife — the philosophically frisky “The Good Place,” the malaise-plumbing “Forever,” and the playful “Miracle Workers.” But “Russian Doll” is the one that always comes back to earth, the one that doesn’t really ultimately seem to be supernatural.
One thing I didn’t want to spoil in my initial review is that “Russian Doll” features the best meet-cute possibly ever. In episode three, Nadia, by now resigned to each death, finds herself in a broken elevator falling fast, surrounded by people freaking out. She looks across the elevator and there is Alan — played so sweetly by Charlie Barnett — as calm as she is. Yup, he is also on a life-death loop, after having killed himself, and now they’re together in the cyclic eternity.
Alan is a wonderful character, and, with his neatness, sensitivity, and moral mindfulness, he is the opposite of Nadia. He and his desolate demeanor arrive on the show just when Nadia’s spikiness begins to grate. But they are both self-destructive — he the fast way, she the slower one — and, after some mutual testing, they pull each other through the crisis. They each need to save someone else in order to save themselves, one of the lovely messages in the show. Rather than letting fear chip away at her desires, rather than simply tolerating life, Nadia’s profound familiarity with death has now become a strength.