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The fatal attraction of new Netflix series Russian Doll

Netflix dramedy Russian Doll is confounding, random and annoying, but stick with it.

Is it her mysteriously missing and reappearing cat, Oatmeal? Is it the joint laced with ketamine she is given by her friend Maxine? Is it her dead mother? Something must be causing gobby, chaotic video game coder Nadia to keep dying, only to wake up back at Maxine’s flat. Nadia has turned 36 and is condemned to keep enduring what looks like the least fun birthday party on the planet. Hell is other people, a sort of social fire where you are eternally burnt but never consumed and there’s no escape.

Netflix’s dramedy Russian Doll is Groundhog Day, sort of, or any of a number of shows featuring wise-cracking dead people and time loops. “This is The Game,” says Nadia at one point. “I’m Michael Douglas.”

It’s set in Alphabet City, a neighbourhood in East Village, Manhattan, for which the term “bohemian” is woefully inadequate. What with all the dying that only she remembers, Nadia is soon doubting her own – admittedly already shaky – sanity. But, then, what is sanity? “I love crazy,” her friend Lizzy reassures her. “Today I’m helping an artist make blood jelly to suspend over a 13th-century mock debtors’ prison.” You get the vibe.

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Nadia is played by Orange Is the New Black’s incandescent Natasha Lyonne with all the subtlety of a kick to the knee on a time loop. Constant dying apart, there’s a lot going on. Nadia’s surname is Vulvokov. The door of the bathroom where she finds herself starting her bad day over and over again features an artwork by Lizzy of an unflinchingly female design. You pull the trigger of a gun to open it. The symbolism is … very symbolic.

Nadia’s chain-smoking, boozing, drugging idea of a good time – or just getting by – achieves the considerable feat of outdoing Benedict Cumberbatch’s epic bender on Patrick Melrose. Self-destructive? There’s a scene where she hurls a raw chicken (don’t ask) and doesn’t wash her hands afterwards. It’s a miracle she’s still alive for the universe to keep killing off.

There’s a backstory involving a dead mother with mental health issues. There’s a therapist, Ruth, a sort of trippy surrogate mother. Nadia pals up with a homeless guy who looks oddly familiar. “Don’t touch me when I’m sleeping,” he advises. “I got serious reflexes. Deadly.” This is a world where anything and anyone are potentially lethal. It’s the sort of show where a description like “a transactional blow-job with a side of rabbi” begins to make perfect sense. Did I mention the building in which Nadia is endlessly trapped in Maxine’s apartment used to be a Jewish seminary?

Nadia doesn’t take any of this lying down, once she’s back on her feet after her latest death. She becomes a sort of disaster-prone detective, stalking the streets, delis, clubs and drug dens – it must be the ketamine – to find out what the heck (substitute bracingly bad language here) is going on. A Hieronymus Bosch version of Manhattan plays a supporting role. Even America is having a mid-life crisis. Lizzy mentions she’s dating a 22-year-old woman. “Does she know what 9/11 is?” asks Nadia. “Does anyone?” says Lizzy.

The universe doesn’t have to try very hard to dispatch Nadia. She never looks where she is going. Maybe that’s a lesson she’s supposed to learn as the Russian doll layers of her existential crisis get peeled away. Her life is a suicide note in snappy episodes taken to its surreally logical non-conclusion.

Russian Doll is, at first – for the viewer as for Nadia – confounding, random and annoying. Stick with it. I haven’t got to the end yet but it’s possibly about watching someone discover how to survive and find some meaning in a crazy world, and we can all use some tips on that. As Nadia remarks, “F---ing clues abound.”

Russian Doll, Netflix.

Video: Netflix

This article was first published in the February 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.