Review: Russian Doll

Review: Russian Doll

Photo Credits: CAITLYN SAMPLEY / AGGIE

Lyonne delves into the universal human experience

Netflix’s new dark comedy “Russian Doll” aired on Feb. 1 and was met with critical acclaim. The show was created by a powerhouse trio including writer and director Leslye Headland, “Orange is the New Black” star Natasha Lyonne and the award winning actress and producer Amy Poehler. Lyonne stars as Nadia Vulvokov, a snarky, loud New Yorker type who, after leaving her 36th birthday party, gets hit by a taxi and dies — all within the first 10 minutes of the series’ pilot episode.

“Russian Doll” loosely follows the format of the 1993 film “Groundhog Day.” Nadia is forced to relive the same day over and over again, stuck in a constant loop that recycles each time she “dies.” With every cycle, she ends up right back where she started — at the bathroom sink in the middle of her birthday party, with Harry Nilsson’s upbeat “Gotta Get Up” playing in the background. The song becomes more ominous and threatening with every loop, instilling dread in the viewer for Nadia’s fate.

The “Groundhog Day” format was recently made popular with the “Happy Death Day” franchise, but this bizarre creation pushes the format beyond what has been seen before. “Russian Doll” is complex, exploring deep and personal quandaries such as the repression of trauma, the intricacies of interpersonal relationships and the profound sense of existential dread one feels as they age.

The complexity of the series relies on constant layering of characterization, which explains the metaphor behind the series title. The concept of the show comes from the Matryoshka doll, or the Russian nesting doll. Matryoshka dolls come in sets, where each wooden figure fits within one another until they are all stacked within the largest doll. The concept of having layers within oneself drives this Netflix original series. As Nadia tries to find a way out of the perpetual loop she is stuck in, she is forced to wrestle with aspects of herself that she buried behind a successful career, loving friends and a strong personality.

One of the highlights of the series is Lyonne’s expert portrayal of Nadia. After six years of playing a compassionate drug addict on “Orange,” Lyonne seems to have mastered the craft of dark comedy. Lyonne can bring weight and levity to particularly bleak scenes and is able to get the audience to laugh when they know they really shouldn’t. While Lyonne’s talent has always been undeniable, “Russian Doll” pushes her to new depths. Lyonne carries the narrative and much of the show’s success can be attributed to her New Yorker charm and expert delivery of both dramatic and comedic lines.

In an interview with the LA Times, Poehler praised Lyonne’s performance.

“She is one of my favorite actors, and I think that this show is a complete tour de force from beginning to end,” Poehler said. “In showing her range, in showing her vulnerability and showing her real, true comedy chops. It’s very hard to have those three.”

The show also stands out due to its all-female writing and directing staff. While Nadia is an incredibly likeable character, the writers ensure that she is also complicated and flawed. They don’t rely on typical stereotypes of femininity; gender does not seem to play a role at all in the series. At its core, the show is about deeply human quandaries, and how Nadia deals with them.

While she works as a software engineer in a male-dominated office, she never feels inferior; though she may be having a midlife crisis, it is not due to the fact that she is single or childless. All the struggles the viewer expects Nadia to have, as a female character, are quickly deflected in the series in order to get to more profound questions about life and the experience of trauma. She seeks to find the meaning of life that transcends typical male or female exploration.

“It was really important to explore a show about a female protagonist that asked spiritual and existential questions,” Headland explained in an interview with Variety.

Although the series constantly loops one day over and over again, it’s undeniably fresh. Lyonne and the writers keep viewers on their toes as each episode never quite plays out the way viewers expect. While Lyonne carries the show, the supporting cast is brilliant as well. Charlie Barnett plays Alan Zaveri, a man Nadia meets halfway through the series when the two literally die in an elevator together. Alan’s humorous indifference to being in a plummeting elevator tips Nadia off, and she discovers that Alan is stuck in the same loop that she is.

Barnett’s performance is subtle, and may be overlooked at times behind Lyonne’s scene-stealing energy, but is nonetheless intricate and poignant. The two become an unassuming duo, and develop a sweet relationship that, refreshingly, does not become romantic.

“[Alan’s] basically a child that the universe has tasked me with babysitting” Nadia explains in one episode to a confused friend. Alan concedes that it is a fair description.

The two seek to understand why the universe has lined their fates together, while also managing their own traumas and personal issues.

The series also stars Greta Lee as Nadia’s friend and the host of Nadia’s birthday party. Yul Vazquez is Nadia’s ex-boyfriend who, while not literally, seems to be stuck in his own cycle of destruction as he desperately tries to win Nadia back.

The show is delightful, poignant and deeply frustrating. The viewer feels the most satisfying form of dread as they experience Nadia’s perpetual loops. One can sympathize with Nadia’s and Alan’s trauma but also hope desperately that they overcome their circumstances by dealing with their problems.

Elizabeth Ashley plays Ruth Brenner in the series, a therapist and Nadia’s surrogate mother. She has known Nadia since she was a child and upon noticing her distress in one of the many loops, she sits Nadia down and the two discuss a traumatic moment in Nadia’s childhood.

“You were this tiny seed buried in the darkness fighting your way to the light,” Ruth explained to Nadia. “Where is that gorgeous piece of you pushing to be a part of this world?”

At its core, that is what this bizarre and utterly unexplainable show is about: Nadia discovering what it is about life that made her once want to live it so desperately. Lyonne herself is open about her almost fatal struggles with addiction, and Nadia seems to reflect the desire to find a purpose and meaning behind the daily minutiae of life. Just like a Matryoshka doll, that small part of her that once found meaning in it all still dwells within. The ultimate battle in the series is trying to uncover it.

Written by: Alyssa Ilsley — arts@theaggie.org