‘Russian Doll’ a Heady, Hilarious Dive Into Personal Demons
It’s only February and we have already have one of the best shows of 2019.
‘Russian Doll’ Is a Heady, Hilarious Dive Into Personal Demons
Gotta get up, gotta get out
Gotta get home before the morning comes
What if I'm late, gotta big date
Gotta get home before the sun comes up
Up and away, got a big day, sorry can't stay
I gotta run run, yeah
Gotta get home, pick up the phone
Gotta let the people know I'm gonna be late
Excuse me for including two whole verses from that lovely Harry Nilsson song. ‘Gotta Get Up’ is to Russian Doll what ‘I Got You Babe’ is to Groundhog Day.
Netflix’s new series is about a woman who keeps dying and reliving her 36th birthday party. She’s trapped in a surreal time loop, and staring down the barrel of her own mortality. Groundhog Day is a fair point of comparison for Russian Doll, like so many stories that have borrowed from the classic Bill Murray comedy.
Most recently we had 2017’s Happy Death Day, where college student Theresa is forced to relive not only her birthday, but her own murder. In Russian Doll, lead Nadia (a ridiculously good Natasha Lyonne) is also reliving her birthday; her ‘cycle’ starts at midnight in the bathroom while she’s getting ready for her party outside.
Her misery in this moment is not immediately obvious. She does a fine job mingling and indulging with her guests, at least when we first see her. Pretty early on in the first episode Nadia is hit by a car and... dies. Then she’s back in front of the bathroom mirror, her “what am I doing here” expression a bit more intense and a bit more literal. You see, Nadia’s cycle resets every time she dies, which seems to happen too often all of a sudden.
A whole lot of humour is mined from Nadia’s increasingly disastrous and slapstick deaths, particularly from a stairwell that seems cursed. Every time she is back at that exact moment in the bathroom, with that song blaring outside.
‘Gotta Get Up’, just like ‘I Got You Babe’, has the quality of a repetitive hook that is extremely catchy but also annoying in the way it seems to burrow into your head. ‘Gotta Get Up’ though has additional thematic weight as its lyrics are all about dreary routines, ageing and regret. Nadia is exasperated by her predicament, her thirty sixth birthday holds tragic significance and she keeps running into an ex.
She soon realises that as long as she doesn’t get killed, she has time to figure out what the hell is going on. Desperate as she is, Nadia looks for answers in drugs and religion. But the solution isn’t as simple as a curse or a bad trip. Her problems lie deeper.
Nadia is an unforgettably boisterous heroine. She is hip, sharp, selfish but also compensating for a lot of vulnerability. Behind a thick wall of randy swagger is a shit ton of mixed up feelings.
Creators Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler along with a writers room and directors lineup that is entirely female, have come up with a truly flesh and blood character. Women writing women makes a world of difference and it shows.
It would be a shame to summarise Nadia’s struggle. Nadia’s journey to uncover demons she had long buried away is also the journey of the audience and the series.
Mental health is a tricky subject to fictionalise and so is its treatment. As psychotherapy becomes more mainstream, so do accounts of its almost magical successes. Dealing with past, present and future, trauma and memories, meditation and hypnosis; sounds like perfect fodder to tell stories in a visual medium. Nevertheless, just as depictions of the year 2019 from the 1980s have become laughable now, most depictions of therapy remain ungrounded in reality.
In the otherwise brilliant Get Out, an evil hypnotherapist sends Daniel Kaluuya into a trance, trapping him in a dark void called ‘the Sunken Place’. In Cary Fukunaga’s Netflix series Maniac, Jonah Hill and Emma Stone participate in an experimental retro-futuristic therapy program where they enter alternate virtual realities and slay personified versions of their past trauma (whew). Needless to say, Maniac’s grasp of mental illness is not very accurate.
The journey towards mental health, much like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, is ripe for allegory. That does not, however, mean therapy is literal wizardry. It is a messy, laborious process.
Russian Doll has more in common with Maniac than it first appears. In episode 3, Nadia realises that she is not the only person experiencing the time loop. Alan (Charlie Barnett) is also reliving the same day over and over, although he is extremely comfortable in the situation.
Alan’s routine happens to be the day his long-term girlfriend breaks up with him, right before he plans to propose. An anxiety-riddled control freak, Alan plans to let the worst day of his life wash over him again and again, on *his* terms. Behind his calm and collected exterior is the deep fear that he won’t know what to do if life went on as usual. All that is upended when Nadia barges in on him and insists that they resolve their situation together.
And so they become a difecta on the road to recovery, sometimes together, sometimes apart. Between the two of them lies Russian Doll’s bleeding soul. Nadia and Alan are drowning and can barely face themselves. Helping another person is going to take a lot of work.
As a quirky tragicomedy about two damaged people who find each other through grief and trauma, Russian Doll is infinitely superior to Maniac. It is a deeply humane and affecting piece of work, with as many layers as the title suggests. Russian Doll is also extremely funny. It is brilliantly written. It boasts a killer esoteric soundtrack. Cinematographer Chris Teague strikingly frames every scene with purpose. The first season of Russian Doll is a tight eight half-hour episodes, an ideal binge that will leave you wanting for more.
Natasha Lyonne would be a revelation if she wasn’t already stealing the show in the likes of American Pie and Orange Is the New Black. This is the lead role she has always deserved and was born to play.
Like so many good things, Russian Doll reminds you of others. The show has bits of The Good Place, The Leftovers, Search Party and even Seinfeld in its DNA. Its twisty time paradoxes invoke Black Mirror-esque minute viewing. Russian Doll is the rare piece of work where the text and subtext are in complete harmony. It is a joy on repeat watches and while more seasons are bound to be fun, Russian Doll is already Netflix’s best original series yet.
Season 1 of Russian Doll is now streaming on Netflix.
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