Describing Netflix’s new series, “Russian Doll” as simply “good” would be doing it a huge disservice. Set in New York City, the series begins with software engineer, Nadia Vulvokov, staring at her reflection in the bathroom mirror at her 36th birthday party. Little does she know that she’s about to fall prey to a time loop, which might just be the most practical birthday gift that the chain-smoking, drug-sniffing, psychologically traumatized pessimist is set to receive. Now while the premise of another Groundhog Day-esque time loop may immediately raise some red flags, “Russian Doll”’s plot is seemingly lacking in any sort of pressing questions or plot holes by the end. The architects responsible for pulling off this impressive feat are none other than Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation”), Natasha Lyonne (“Orange is the New Black”) and Leslye Headland (“Sleeping with Other People”), all of whom serve as executive producers and writers.
Briefly after leaving the party, Vulvokov gets struck by a car, dies and subsequently winds up within the familiar walls of the bathroom at her birthday party. Throughout the span of eight episodes, she routinely encounters death and continues to come back. Feistier with every return, Vulvokov attempts to disentangle the answer to the ultimate question: Why?
On the surface, “Russian Doll” modestly fashions itself as a 30-minute light-hearted dramedy, so it only makes it that more surprising when you find yourself bludgeoned by its metaphorical layers. As the title suggests, the storyline follows the format of Matryoshka nesting dolls, which, in short, must be dismantled and reassembled by size. While Vulvokov runs around the city unravelling the mystery surrounding her deaths, the writers masterfully address themes of existentialism, minimalism and quantum immortality, allowing viewers to experience the perplexity alongside the main character.
In addition to the writers, the set and wardrobe designers offer viewers a myriad of open-ended elements that can connect creatively to posit a variety of complicated theories. One such theory that is subtly hinted at is the video game analogy used in several episodes. Specifically, players that don’t reach the next level have to repeat their current level and navigate through the same obstacles repeatedly, mirroring Vulvokov’s situation. Considering these circumstances, it may not be such a coincidence that she’s a programmer. Adding on to the list of clues are missing fish, disappearing people, mystifying blue glows and, of course, her voluminous red mop-like hair, which, to say the very least, needs its own spin-off show.
The writers do a magnificent job integrating such an abstract concept that still mystifies physicists today with dark humor and emotional relatability. Moreover, the script is tightly packed and sharply written, all while maintaining a balance between joviality and seriousness. This, in turn, reduces the heaviness of the intense themes introduced, which ultimately translates into something comprehensible and still entertaining for the average viewer.
While the writers engineered the framework, it is Lyonne’s chiseled performance as cynical Nadia that makes the script a three-dimensional story. Through Lyonne, we empathize with Vulvokov as she realizes that in order to move forward, she has to confront her past, which includes a disarray of childhood recollections pertaining to her unhinged mother. At the end, whether or not we are left with a favorable impression of the character, it is guaranteed that you will definitely have an opinion of her.
At first glance, “Russian Doll” seems as though it could easily be crowded out by more heavily advertised Netflix originals. However, don’t underestimate the power of the underdog. While the series can be binged within a day, you’ll spend at least twice as much time trying to fully comprehend the implications of each marginal detail. Like Vulvokov, the discovery of each detail might change the way you originally viewed everything, and for clarification, you might have to restart the series all over again.
Verdict: Netflix’s black dramedy “Russian Doll” immerses the audience into a time loop and utilizes every minute productively, making for some quality entertainment. Natasha Lyonne flawlessly transforms into the electric Nadia Vulvokov and her passionate performance, along with the exquisite storyline, make this a must-watch.