Review by C.J. Bunce
Is it strange that the two latest Netflix series, Kingdom and Russian Doll, play out like they were written from the same story writing prompt? The title is perfect, Russian Doll–the traditional Eastern European nesting doll toy is a metaphor for the repetitive existence of the heroine in the next time loop-centric series. Natasha Lyonne (Blade: Trinity, American Pie) plays Nadya Vulvakov, an emotional, more accessible Jessica Jones–in fact the series might as well be called Marvel’s Russian Doll, because it’s centered on a superpowered heroine with a unique gift (like Deadpool 2’s Domino), the power of the do-over. The twist here is her power is not in her control, as with the dying and re-birth in the wonderful short-lived series Forever. Nadia’s got to make the best of it, and figure out why she’s repeating the same day, before it is too late.
In a month with Groundhog Day and the sequel to Happy Death Day just around the corner, the time loop trope shows no signs of stopping. (Not up to speed on time loops? Start here, then check out all we’ve covered at borg here). Even if you’re tired of the same old Noo Yawker shtick that’s been overused in sitcoms a million times, the hook of Russian Doll will keep you around for the full eight episodes. Vulgar will be your first impression of Nadia. She’s a mouthy 36-year-old who acts, talks, and seems to think she’s lived 85 years and her life is all used up. (It’s more than likely the cause is the chain smoking–the character acknowledges two packs per day and the actor sounds like that’s an underestimate, with one montage making it look like she isn’t going to live beyond the end of the series with all she inhales performing the role). Lyonne plays the accent 25 years older, sounding like Lorraine Bracco, or a brash Rhoda Morgenstern (or Rhoda’s mom?) impersonating Billy Crystal or Don Rickles stand-up routines, with a 1980s hair band orange wig that makes her look like “Andrew Dice Clay and the girl from Brave had a baby,” to top off the vibe. And every time she dies she appears back in front of a mirror confronting herself, looking something like a 1980s Stevie Nicks album cover.
As a time loop twisting tale, Russian Doll is a fresh surprise, providing no linear pathway for anyone to predict what will happen in the next episode. It’s the editing of the splices–the weaving of the scenes shot in the same place but at subtly different numerous times–that the production works into the story beautifully, many more than you’ve probably seen before in a time loop tale. Is it a time loop story of the science fiction, horror, or fantasy variety? You’ll just need to watch to find out.
The story is a mash of many things–so many that five episodes in it’s still won’t be clear what’s behind the repeat of each day. But the themes are there for the taking: choices and squandered opportunities, helping others (like the homeless), facing your fears, confronting the past, the price of being self-centered, and value of kindness. It’s also literally and figuratively a cat and fish story and the payoff is all worth it, with great direction especially in the season finale by Lyonne, serving not only as star but writer and director, too. Other directors include Jamie Babbitt (The Orville) and Leslye Headland (Heathers). The production quality and cinematic placements of Nadia in various New York City environments is all artfully done. Headland, Lyonne, and Amy Poehler (Saturday Night Live) are the show creators.
The series co-stars Charlie Barnett (Men in Black 3, Chicago Fire) as another troubled New Yorker with much in common with Nadia, Elizabeth Ashley (Coma, Evening Shade) plays her grandmother, Ritesh Rajan (Stitchers, Star Wars Rebels, The Last Airbender) plays a co-worker, and it even features a cameo role from Rocky actor Burt Young.
Like most streaming series these days, the series doesn’t need all eight episodes to tell its story, and could just as well be a two-hour movie, so it runs a little long.
A strange, funny story and unusual take on the time loop trope full of funny dialogue, Russian Doll is engrossing and engaging, but be forewarned of the excess profanity (Lyonne explores “Carlin’s seven dirty words,” a lot) and mature themes. The series is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.