Russian Doll spoiler-free review: existential comedy drama

Netflix's Russian Doll, out on Friday, is the Natasha Lyonne showcase long in the waiting...and an interesting little sci-fi yarn to boot.

Russian Doll co-creator and star Natasha Lyonne has been working as an actor since the age of six when she appeared in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. At age 16 she appeared in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You. She’s been a part of the American Pie, Scary Movie, and Blade franchises before finally popping up in her now most famous role as Nicky Nichols on Orange Is The New Black. 

Still for as long as Lyonne has been working, it’s taken a while to get to this point – where her name and face is displayed prominently over the marketing material for her very own show. In fact, the splash page for Netflix’s Russian Doll currently features Lyonne’s visage no fewer than seven times (though that will change once the show is released and Netflix’s algorithms show you what you want to see as the thumbnail image). The reasons why the year of the Lyonne has taken so long to get here are apparent. The “Personal Life” section on Lyonne’s Wikipedia is about as harrowing a read as you can find on the Internet. But the day is finally here… and thank goodness that day is coming in the form of Russian Doll.

Despite its sci-fi trappings, Russian Doll is very much the “Natasha Lyonne” show in the same way that Louie was the Louis C.K. show and Master Of None was the Aziz Ansari show (Woody Allen, Louis C.K., and Aziz Ansari references this early on – man, our pop cultural landscape is a bit of a mess). This time around, however, Lyonne has created the show alongside Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland (Sleeping With Other People).

Lyonne stars as Nadia, a nicotine-dependent throwback of a boho New Yorker preparing herself to suffer through the party her friend Maxine (Greta Lee) is hosting to celebrate her 36th birthday. Nadia mingles with partygoers, meets a truly awful English professor douche who says things like “it’s all just people voting against their own interests, man,” takes to the streets with him, and then… SURPRISE GROUNDHOG DAY!

Ad – content continues below

Yes, Nadia dies in an unfortunate accident on the streets of East Village and finds herself transported right back to the bathroom at Maxine’s party hours before. Of all the ways to adopt the “reliving past events” trope, Russian Doll hews closer to the Happy Death Day and Edge Of Tomorrow school of thinking than the OG Groundhog Day. Nadia’s ‘reboots’ are not bound by time but rather by mortality. She returns to around 11pm on Sunday night only when she dies… which unfortunately turns out to be a regular occurrence. 

Russian Doll has a lot of fun with its reboot-y premise because how could it not? First, Netflix has to get me the name of their font guy. Between Russian Doll’s Quentin Tarantino spaghetti Western typeface and Stranger Things’ Stephen King book jacket opener, the streamer is quickly becoming the go-to place for font fetishists. Then for added enjoyment, in place of Sunny and Cher’s I Got You Babe that welcomes Phil (Bill Murray) back to February 2nd every morning in Groundhog Day, Russian Doll has Harry Nilsson’s Gotta Get Up. If you plan on watching any or all of Russian Doll’s eight episodes, get used to this song now. To describe it as an earworm is an insult to both ears and worms. This song is nothing short of an auditory nerve hijacker. 

It’s probably best to leave the details of Nadia’s reboots there for now. There is a real marvel to how the show parses out its bits of mythological information and the ‘purpose’ of what’s really going on here. The show understands the correct pace to unveil layers of this paranormal and emotional onion so that you actively look forward to more contexts. Suffice to say, if you start Russian Doll, be prepared to finish it. 

The real paranormal thing at play here though is Lyonne herself, as Russian Doll’s emotional and mystical centre. The appeal of Nadia as a character, and really the show itself, begins with Lyonne’s physicality. Lyonne uses the characters’ big, bright red hair and crimson lips as a kind of frame for her eyes, which are always wide open and expressive. From there she is able to build out Nadia as both the quintessential representation of this brand of hipster intellectual New York and a very real person with hidden pain and disappointments. Because of this Russian Doll has the emotional heft to back up its sci-fi flights of fancy. The show possesses a profound understanding of what trauma can do to the human spirit and how sometimes the goal of life is simply to live. 

As one character says late in the season’s run, “You wanted to live and it was the most beautiful thing in the world. Do you still have that in you?” Russian Doll is kind of a compelling quote machine. Watch with a pen and paper if you’re looking to spice up your Xanga page.

Despite Russian Doll’s obvious comparisons to Groundhog Day and other time-screwing art, the performance at its centre reminds me of something decidedly less sci-fi. When Jon Hamm accepted the role of Don Draper on Mad Men, he was almost the very definition of struggling actor. Terminated as a client by William Morris in 1998, Hamm stuck it out in Hollywood for ten more years, working odd jobs and getting the occasional acting role. Once he got a hold of that first big starring role on a network drama, he had to have felt such a strong internal pressure to absolutely kill it. It must have been so tempting to play Don Draper as a grand, larger than life figure, chewing up scenery and secretaries. 

Ad – content continues below

Rightfully, however, Hamm underplayed it. He found the Don Draper that really existed – the small man living in a more powerful man’s stolen skin. Lyonne’s career has been doing just fine all things considered. Still, it’s remarkable to watch her, in this role that she created, find all the little emotional nooks and crannies in Nadia and believably guide her through such an unbelievable situation. 

That is the real appeal of the show. Lyonne’s performance and the assembled creators’ collective skill of observation have created an unnervingly real depiction of a certain kind of time, place, and people…and then immediately subverted that by digging deeper and deeper into one person’s very powerful subjective experience.

It’s like Russian Doll are Nadia are those wooden dolls that can be opened up to find a series of other, smaller figures nested inside. Can’t remember for the life of me what they’re called.

Russian Doll arrives on Netflix on Friday the 1st of February.