Shaggy and Triumphant, Netflix’s Russian Doll Is a Wholly Complete Gem

TV Reviews russian doll
Shaggy and Triumphant, Netflix’s Russian Doll Is a Wholly Complete Gem

Netflix, if you’re reading this: Please don’t renew Russian Doll.

Renew Natasha Lyonne. Renew Amy Poehler. Renew Leslye Headland. Renew Charlie Barnett. Renew Rebecca Henderson and Greta Lee as hot mess hipster art friends ready to make parties across the Netflix spectrum that much spikier and sparklier. Renew Elizabeth Ashley as every Netflix heroine’s no-bullshit therapist (but make it fashion) mom-figure. Renew sharp, funny women directing sharp, funny women written by sharp, funny women. Renew that hair. Renew every damn thing about Russian Doll that helped make it such a brambly triumph of black comedy, macabre ennui and existential optimism. (Everything, that is, except Dave Becky in a producer’s chair—if Broad City can change precedent after four seasons, new series can avoid setting one altogether.) Just, please, don’t renew Russian Doll. It is, in the eight shaggy, smartly-constructed puzzlebox episodes of its debut season, nearly perfect.

This, really, is just about all that can be said of Lyonne’s newest vehicle without spoiling the mind- and heart-bending experience of everyone who has yet to sit down and watch it (all of whom I desperately envy). Sure, the official trailer gives a bit more away, but honestly, I wish I’d known even less than that going in. Russian Doll, like the matryoshki that inspire the title, is a finely crafted piece of nested art whose payoff is not just the solid endgame doll embedded deep in the matryoshka’s heart, but all the fresh, often surprising, facets of the doll that are uncovered with each new twist on the way to that dark center. Which is to say: While the trailer is constructed cleverly enough to convey the funniest, darkest and most existentially intriguing parts of Lyonne and Poehler’s show, to catch a glimpse of even one of Russian Doll’s faces before it’s meant to be revealed is to lose the show’s innate magic.

As a person who flips to the end of most books before I’m even halfway through, who seeks out movie spoilers regularly, who hates suspense as a genre because its only goal is to manipulate my adrenaline levels by withholding information (as one of the characters in Russian Doll declares in frustration halfway through the season, “I want to at least maintain the illusion of free will”), I can understand how infuriating that last paragraph might be. The aggressive demand for secrecy accompanying Amazon Prime’s Forever turned me off from investing my interest in that series altogether, and I can absolutely see the same thing happening to similarly contrary people reading this review now. That Russian Doll is broadly similar to Forever, in the thematic engines it uses to charge both its comedy and its emotional narrative, is not lost on me, either. (The universe! It sure has a sense of humor!) Still, I say: Go in as cold as you can.

Which injunction, of course, leaves me, your reviewer, in a bind. I can’t very well get away with ending things here, hardly having said a single real word about what makes Russian Doll such a successful single-season series, but neither can I get too specific with any of the words I do choose.

What I can tell you is this: In Russian Doll, Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black’s Nicky Nichols) plays Nadia, a commitment-averse, substance-abusing New York woman stuck reliving her thirty-sixth birthday party over and over and over again, as a gruffer, more “I’m walkin’ here!” version of her real-life twentysomething self. From the first episode, Greta Lee, Rebecca Henderson, Jeremy Bobb, Ritesh Rajan, Elizabeth Ashley and Brendan Sexton III set themselves up as wholly realized people flitting through and about Nadia’s never-ending life; by the end of the third episode, Charlie Barnett enters the picture as a guy named Alan, and the pitch of the series rises to an new, fascinating register. That Nadia is a computer programmer whose greatest credit is, as Alan dubs it, “an impossible game with a single character who has to solve every puzzle on her own” is relevant to the choose-your-own-adventure puzzle-box story that follows. That Russian Doll is premiering the weekend before Groundhog Day? That’s relevant, too.

Most of the devices that drive Nadia and Alan forward (or, alternately, pull them back) will be familiar to anyone remotely familiar with speculative fiction, but the way in which Lyonne and series co-creators Poehler and Headland style those devices is stunning. Nadia’s fluffed-up hair and Marisa Tomei-meets-Joe Pesci wardrobe (“like if Andrew Dice Clay and that lady from Brave had a baby”) are barely a metaphor for the emotional armor she wears against the violence of other people’s failures and needs, but the look avoids cliché by being so intensely lived in by Lyonne. Mirrors play a big role in the puzzle that is Nadia’s un-life, but they are framed with such care—literally, in the case of one mirror Nadia keeps staring into, with a gilt frame so deep it looks like it’s reaching out of the bathroom wall to swallow her whole—that any clichés they might normally conjure are erased. Similarly poetic sleights of hand occur when the series takes on drugs, or religion, or actual, visual darkness. In the case of the latter, the bulk of Nadia’s clothes are black, and the bulk of her story takes place at night or in deep shadow, but directors Headland, Lyonne and Jamie Babbit manage to film both with a depth and crispness that allows the viewer to see what’s on the screen without losing the understanding that all that darkness is meant to be read symbolically—an understanding that then makes the finale’s light-drenched emotional crest not just joyful, but long-anticipated.

The construction of Russian Doll isn’t always perfect—some of the details about Nadia’s personal history that end up being key to the mystery would have had greater impact by being introduced sooner, and the degree to which Nadia’s programming skills would influence its solution could have been better established, earlier on—but as one of the themes of the series is the fallibility of the human psyche, those imperfections end up working, in a kind of scrappy way, in the show’s favor. They don’t, at the very least, change the emotional truth of the solid, artfully painted matryoshka doll Nadia (and Alan!) eventually uncover at the heart of Russian Doll’s story.

There is so much more that could be said about this show, and I look forward to my smart and funny colleagues getting to say all of it once the show is out in the world, doing its thing. For now, all I can do is exhort everyone reading to turn on Netflix and dive into Nadia’s broken, stylish world. I’ll be there on the other side.

Russian Doll premieres Friday, Feb. 1 on Netflix.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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