'Russian Doll,' Netflix's Latest Hit, Is an Early Contender for Show of the Year

'Russian Doll,' Netflix's new series by Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler, starts off as a decidedly Jewish black comedy, before morphing into a surprisingly moving meditation on embracing death

Natasha Lyonne as Nadia in "Russian Doll."
Courtesy of Netflix

Maybe it was the fun trailer or the presence of Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation”) as co-creator that convinced me Netflix’s “Russian Doll” was going to be a hilarious cross between “The Good Place” and “Groundhog Day.” How wrong I was.

This eight-parter turns out to be a far darker proposition than either of those comedies (and, let’s face it, “Groundhog Day” is pretty dark). Yet that shouldn’t deter anyone from watching this ambitious and immensely rewarding show – although it can’t just be me that feels we’ve now had enough “Reliving the same experience over and over” stories to last us a lifetime.

It may seem paradoxical to call a show highly original when it owes such a large debt to films such as the aforementioned 1993 Bill Murray classic, the 2017 horror pic “Happy Death Day” and 2014 Tom Cruise-Emily Blunt actioner “Edge of Tomorrow” (and who doesn’t love that one for seeing the future Mary Poppins whip Cruise’s ass?).  

But “Russian Doll” succeeds in taking a decidedly secondhand concept and creating a new and distinctive experience out of it – although it can’t just be me that feels we’ve now had enough “Reliving the same experience over and over” stories to last us a lifetime. (Sorry, bad joke.)

Natasha Lyonne (best known as Nicky Nichols in “Orange is the New Black”) stars as Nadia Vulvokov – “It’s like Volvo but with more letters and dyslexic,” she helpfully explains – a defiantly single New Yorker who is two minutes into her 36th birthday when we first encounter her staring into a bathroom mirror. She’s celebrating with friends at her best pal Maxine’s apartment, a festive event that includes “an Israeli joint” – so-called because it’s laced with cocaine, “like the Israelis do it,” as the fun-loving, chicken-cooking Maxine (Greta Lee) notes – and hooking up with an Updike-spouting, unctuous lecturer called Mike (Jeremy Bobb).

There is no drug Nadia hasn’t snorted, smoked or shot up (a subject Lyonne knows about, having kicked an almost life-ending heroin addiction), and she is most definitely the life and soul of the party: “It’s my bad attitude that keeps me young,” she rasps, freely admitting that she doesn’t expect to live much beyond 70 due to her unhealthy two-packs-a-day lifestyle.

However, even that forecast seems ridiculously optimistic when, after leaving the party with Mike, she is hit by a car and, well, dies.

Except she doesn’t. No sooner has she been killed than she is right back in Maxine’s bathroom, staring at herself in the mirror and, for the second time that evening, hearing the strains of Harry Nilsson singing “Gotta Get Up.” (Kudos to the show’s music coordinators for picking such a great selection of lesser-known “classics” throughout the series.)

And so it begins. Every time Nadia dies – and it happens rather a lot, initially in highly comic fashion – she is forced to endure this never-ending time loop over and over again. As one might, she starts looking for answers, initially focusing on the fact that Maxine’s apartment is situated in an old Jewish religious school. “Do you ever think it’s weird partying in an old yeshiva school? Because this was once, you know, a secular place,” she says to Maxine, who shoots back: “It’s New York: Real estate is sacred.”

Strong Jewish flavor

The first half of the show has a very strong Jewish flavor, as befits Lyonne’s own childhood growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family – or as she herself once famously put it, "My father's side, Flatbush, and my mother's side, Auschwitz." It’s probably no coincidence that this is when the show is at its sharpest and most laugh-out-loud funny.

Highlights include a visit to a rabbi in search of answers – in which Nadia’s former boyfriend, John, helpfully explains to the spiritual leader how he is Catholic but circumcised – and Nadia’s reaction when she is described as “Jewishy.” “No, not by choice,” she tells her friends. “Hey, come on, religion is dumb as fuck, all right? It’s racist. It’s sexist. There’s no money in it … anymore. Who needs it?” There is also a touching, Holocaust-related story about why Nadia wears a gold Krugerrand on a chain around her neck.

The show gradually moves away from Judaism when it enters the Christian realms of purgatory and hell – both of which are mooted as possible explanations for Nadia’s predicament – although there’s another, more obvious reason for the religious transition that I won’t spoil here (be warned, though, it is revealed at the end of the trailer), and which takes the show on a completely different trajectory.

Natasha Lyonne sitting in an ambulance, about to suffer another near-death moment in the Netflix comedy "Russian Doll."
Courtesy of Netflix

Talking of trajectories, how telling is it that Lyonne had to co-create a show to give herself such a great role? I first encountered her as a striking teenager in the underrated 1998 coming-of-age drama “Slums of Beverly Hills,” yet over the years her unconventional redhead features – which Nadia wonderfully describes as “looking like if Andrew Dice Clay and the little girl from ‘Brave’ made a baby” – have clearly placed her in the pigeonhole marked “feisty friend” or, excuse the vulgarity, “fuck-up.”

Yet she absolutely dominates the screen here, her very unconventionality and whip-smart delivery proving an irresistible combination. If you have to witness the same scene being repeated, Lyonne’s Nadia is exactly the kind of spiky, take-no-shit character you want to be driving the action.

Lyonne told Vanity Fair how she was inspired by the likes of Bob Fosse’s 1979 movie “All That Jazz” and Richard Pryor’s 1986 comedy-drama “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling” – both heavily autobiographical stories about living on the edge and nearly dying because of it – given her own “personal experience with addiction and dancing with death so often.” And it’s this no-BS honesty that gives “Russian Doll” its uniqueness, making it far more than just a jet-black comedy with a well-worn gimmick.

The show actually evolved from an old TV pilot called “Old Soul,” which Lyonne and Poehler developed for NBC five years ago. That uncommissioned show saw Lyonne play a former wild child, again called Nadia (after the great Romanian gymnast Nadia Comneci, apparently), who is now caring for the elderly at a home in New York and finding she has more in common with them than her peers.

NBC’s loss was our gain, because the rejection forced Lyonne to go away and rethink – concentrating on creating a show that wasn’t trying to second-guess what TV executives wanted and focusing instead on finding a story she really wanted to tell. It’s inconceivable (and God bless your soul, William Goldman, for never letting me say that word without thinking of “The Princess Bride”) that any TV network would green light a show as edgy or uncompromising as “Russian Doll,” so kudos to Netflix for making the miniseries – which rattles through its storyline in less than four hours before arriving at its poignant ending.

We may only be a twelfth of the way through 2019, but “Russian Doll” is already an early contender for show of the year. I just hope Lyonne, Poehler and showrunner Leslye Headland give us the chance to enjoy the same experience all over again with a second season.