The immediate reaction when you hear about Russian Doll is “wait, isn’t that a little bit like Groundhog Day?” – or, indeed, “wait, isn’t that a little bit like Happy Death Day?” – but this latest Netflix offering isn’t as derivative as that first impression might suggest. Working within a premise that’s fast becoming a genre unto itself, Russian Doll has a genuinely impressive capacity to surprise – most obviously in the fact that it’s become an early contender for the best show of 2019.
Let’s start, as the show does, with Natasha Lyonne – indeed, in a sense Russian Doll begins and ends with Lyonne, who’s not only star but also co-creator, frequent writer, and director of the stellar finale. If any show could be described as a star vehicle, it’s this one; it’s difficult to think of a recent programme that achieves as much on the strength of its lead performance as Russian Doll does. Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, a woman caught in an endless (and, yes, Groundhog Day-esque) loop, dying and reliving the same night over and over again – the night of her 36th birthday party. Lyonne is caustic and abrasive as Nadia, but deeply, deeply funny; Russian Doll delights in her idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, as well it should. (A whole article could be written specifically to celebrate the way Lyonne pronounces “cockroach”, enunciating it as a three-syllable word.) There’s a certain clomping psychicality to her performance too, an awareness of motion and body language that anchors the character with a certain leaden weariness: it’s obvious that Nadia is carrying something with her as she moves through each successive loop.
The first three episodes of Russian Doll revolve more or less entirely around Nadia, an exercise in establishing a premise and pushing its boundaries (although the first episode does include a vital link to the second half of the series). It’s a testament to the skill of all involved that this doesn’t feel like a show spinning its wheels right out of the gate – Russian Doll even manages to avoid the characteristic pacing problems Netflix shows so often suffer from. No, those first four episodes are a necessary piece of groundwork, and an excellent showcase for Lyonne’s knack for physical comedy; an extended sequence of Nadia trying and failing to go down the stairs safely is one of Russian Dolls best recurring jokes. (One of Russian Doll’s less obvious strengths, in fact, is a keen awareness of repetition as a comedy tool – of both its potential and how best to use it.) It all adds up to four episodes of television that are genuinely very funny, if not necessarily something that would be remembered as one of 2019’s standouts.
It’s the third episode cliffhanger, though, where Russian Doll really starts to sing.
Within a premise like Russian Doll’s, the supporting cast could very easily be thankless roles – resetting with each loop, stuck repeating different variations on the same lines over and over. It’s worth noting the quiet, understated skill of the wider supporting cast that Russian Doll largely avoids this; within relatively little televisual real estate, as it were, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley and Yul Vazquez, amongst others, are all able to quickly define their larger than life roles.
Nonetheless, though, one of Russian Doll’s key twists on the familiar premise is in giving Nadia a companion in her repetitions – Charlie Barnett plays Alan Zaveri, also continually dying and reliving a single night. Introduced at the close of the show’s fourth episode, Alan is, in many ways, the perfect foil to Nadia; Barnett gives a mannered, controlled performance as an individual who’s so insecure and nervous he seeks refuge in the strict routine of the loop. Alan is just as neurotic as Nadia, ultimately, it just manifests in different ways. Lyonne and Barnett complement one another well – it’d be dull to suggest that a female character’s story becomes more interesting with the addition of a male one, but that’s not what’s happening here anyway. No, it’s simply the case that giving a talented performer a similarly talented foil elevates the show – a rising tide lifts all ships, in this case.
The relationship between Nadia and Alan is ultimately key to Russian Doll’s spiky story of self-destruction, the heart of a character study that’s like a matryoshka doll in more ways than one. Across the latter half of the series, Russian Doll gradually pares back the layers of its lead characters as it moves from dark comedy to existential angst – there’s a rising intensity that comes with it, a result of touchingly introspective reflection. In a finale with more than one impressive directorial flourish, Russian Doll makes a bold declaration of intent; a move away from Nadia and Alan’s tragically isolated solipsism at the beginning of their loops, and towards a quiet embrace of what they share. At the heart of this Russian doll, there’s not one person, but two – and that makes things better, a little bit.
And with that, Russian Doll becomes the first meaningful contender for the best show of 2019.