‘Russian Doll’ Review: Natasha Lyonne is the Best of Netflix

It’s Natasha Lyonne’s world and we’re just living in it.

Why the lead of Netflix’s Russian Doll, a trippy tale of therapy-by-way-of-Groundhog Day, isn’t an obnoxiously world-famous superstar is beyond me. Lyonne owns the screen at all times, commanding our attention with her funky charm, distinctly New York demeanor, and fireball of hair.

The Orange is the New Black alum plays Nadia, a selfish, witty 36-year-old woman who wears a reminder of her Holocaust-surviving grandparents and mentally unstable mother around her neck. She’s a firecracker, a no-bullshit character with a motormouth and attachment issues. Lyonne, in a powerhouse performance, upstages her own series by managing to be even more memorable than its unique central conceit.

At the start of Russian Doll, which was co-created by Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland (Bachelorette), Nadia is taking a bathroom break at her own hipster birthday party. She looks at herself in the mirror, hyping herself up before rejoining the party. Afterward, she talks to friends, takes some questionable drugs, hooks up with a guy, goes searching for her lost cat, and then dies. This all takes place in the pilot episode, and things get weird from there.

Nadia can’t stop dying. She’s caught in a loop, reliving the same night (and sometimes the day after) over and over. The briskly moving series is perpetually intriguing and never boring as each reset reveals new, unsettling clues about Nadia’s situation and her self.

As played by Lyonne, Nadia is funny and nearly unflappable in these early episodes, moving from theory to theory — bad drugs! haunted house! break in space-time! — at a breakneck pace that’s punctuated by the repeated refrain of Harry Nillson’s “Gotta Get Up” and her own exasperated curses. “This is like The Game! I’m Michael Douglas!” she exclaims at one point in her energetic, brassy East Coast smoker’s voice. Hilariously, cut-to-the-chase Nadia rarely tries to hide her predicament from those around her, instead involving anyone and everyone in various attempts to survive the reboot and adjusting her rapid explanation of the scenario each time.

It’s not just the central mystery of Russian Doll that’s intriguing; the show itself is a bit of a puzzle, too. It’s accessible in that it’s a Netflix show that you can watch in just under four hours, but not really in any other way. It’s dark and weird and metaphorical and ever-changing. It’s welcoming on one level and aloof on another, just like Nadia, and for the most part that’s a good thing.

The series mines metaphysical high concepts for laughs like The Good Place, but its perfect companion piece is actually another Netflix series, Maniac. Listing their shared similarities would spoil the fun of Russian Doll, which morphs several times over its eight-episode run, ultimately becoming something more tense and resolute, but suffice it to say that both series follow a pair of strangers pushed together by either the power of the universe or coincidence, and both are unexpectedly therapeutic.

Russian Doll is directed entirely by women — Headland, Lyonne, and But I’m A Cheerleader filmmaker Jamie Babbit — and their vision of New York is haunting, both recognizable and eerily subjective. The first few episodes seem to be lit and designed around Nadia, with orange lights complimenting her bright hair and lending a noirish mood to scenes of her walking down the street in a dark jacket. Overhead shots are sprinkled in, filmed straight down to make Nadia look like a doll in a dollhouse or an actor on a set, one of many moving parts working beyond her control.

When a character who is mysteriously linked to Nadia enters the story, the cinematography and set design change to reflect that, dealing in crisper blues and grays. Their New York City is populated with the usual drunks, academics, friends, exes, and homeless people, but it also has unnerving glowing-geode doors and rotting fruit and signs of unreality. By the end of the penultimate episode, directed by Headland and co-written by herself and Allison Silverman, what we’re watching looks and feels more like a scene from Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge than the dark but droll comedy we started with.

The problem with series like Russian Doll, which isn’t really a problem at all, is that the less that’s said about it, the better. The series’ second half is deeper, darker, and more surprising than its first, and several key details are left up for interpretation by an ending that’s powerful but leaves a lot hanging (the series reportedly may have as many as three seasons).

Closure isn’t what the series is after so much as healing, the painful, full-body kind of healing that requires something of you every day. “No one can do anything by themselves,” one character tells another during a minor exchange, and although the series and Nadia herself both defy easy categorization, this is just one deeply felt lesson that’s waiting just below the surface of this kaleidoscopic, cathartic, can’t-miss series.

Valerie Ettenhofer :Bay Area freelance writer, podcast producer, TV lover, and cheese plate enthusiast.