REVIEWED: SEASON 1 (ALL EPISODES) | WHERE TO WATCH: NETFLIX
The post-streaming era has seen a leap in what television is capable of, both on Netflix, Amazon, and the like, and on network television, internationally. Freed from the need for instant, ratings-friendly hits, programme makers have been given the freedom (and, often more importantly, the budget) to test boundaries. Whether it’s a long-form, fantasy epic on HBO, or superheroes-done-right on Hulu, the twenty-first century has been marked by innovative TV across the genre spectrum.
Russian Doll, an eight-part series on Netflix, is a prime example of just what can be achieved given the latitude to explore. Beginning from a simple, Groundhog Day-like premise (apologies, it’s impossible not to get into mild spoiler territory!) the series opens with Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia standing in front of a bathroom mirror at a birthday party thrown for her by her best friend, Maxine. As Harry Nilsson’s ‘Gotta Get Up’ blares its happy tune, Nadia whirs through the party like a mingling dervish, and ends up going home with lecturer Mike for a one-night stand. Popping out for cigarettes, Nadia is killed by a car when she crosses the road without looking, whilst in pursuit of her missing cat.
So far, so sad, so nothing. Nadia is an interesting enough character, played with aplomb by Orange is the New Black’s Lyonne (who also co-created the series, with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland), but it’s little beyond an acutely-observed caricature; well-acted, tightly-scripted, beautifully-directed. Then Nadia once again finds herself at the bathroom mirror. Nilsson is blaring, the same people are banging on the door, wanting to use the facilities, and she enters into a party every bit as swinging as the one she’d just been it. The same party. Although she remembers what just happens, Nadia is living that time over again. And again. And again.That’s when Russian Doll gets special.
The ensemble cast – which also features Wayward Pines’s Greta Lee, Midnight, Texas’s Yul Vasquez, and American Horror Story’s Chloë Sevigny – interlaces through the story, which abruptly expands to include a second lead in Charlie Barnett’s Alan. Alan, too, keeps dying, and how and why he and Nadia are linked is the heart of Russian Doll’s story.
Where Nadia is abrasively flamboyant, Alan is frustratingly restrained, and it’s difficult to imagine them sharing a city, let alone a tightly-woven story. It’s a testament to the strength of the dialogue, the performances of the leads, and the direction from Headland and Jamie Babbit, that it becomes as believable as they also make the show’s central, fantastic premise.
The series was released in its entirety last month, to almost universal acclaim. Netflix’s algorithm recommended it to fans of The Good Place and Black Mirror, and it’s easy to see why, using some very dark humour to grasp with BIG QUESTIONS while also being frank about modern relationships. In truth, though, it’s recommended for anyone who loves a well-crafted tale, with a bit of magic thrown into our mundane world. There’s talk of two more seasons so hopefully we’ll all come to in front of that bathroom mirror again soon.