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Russian Doll: Season One 

By Spencer Coile

Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) regards her reflection in the mirror. The moment lingers until a sharp knock at the door pulls her out of it. She stomps her way out of the newly renovated bathroom of her best friend Maxine (Greta Lee) – complete with a shotgun doorknob – to join her comrades for her 36th birthday party. Taking a hit from a cocaine-laced joint, hooking up with a stranger, and searching for her cat Oatmeal eventually lead to Nadia’s death. She is struck by a car when crossing the road.

She wakes up, exactly where she was before.  

Reconfiguring the influential conceit from Groundhog Day in meaningful ways, Russian Doll is groundbreaking in its own right...

The series is assembled by a mostly female team – including Lyonne, Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland, and Jamie Babbit. Equally biting and sensitive, Russian Doll is the television equivalent of a puzzle – one that fits its pieces together in truly stunning ways. 

Lyonne, notable for roles on Orange is the New Black and in Babbit’s queer cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader, has often found herself as a scene-stealing supporting character. With her husky voice and voluptuous hair, she has a gift for transforming any minor character into full person, often with a dry and caustic sense of humor. Her portrayal of Nadia is no different. Now, though, she is front and center. The character might initially feel like a retread of women she’s played before but that's only because Lyonne has such a precise style of acting – one that is catered to her own unique gifts.  

Russian Doll is the perfect vehicle for Lyonne, not only because she helped to create the character, but because it requires her to peel back the layers to Nadia’s insecurities. A video game designer who is superstitious about her 36th, Nadia holds her cards close to her chest – never letting anyone be fully intimate with her. She is brash and rude, she interrupts, smokes profusely, and chalks it up to the idea that she will be dead soon. Little does she know, being trapped in a time loop forces her to relive traumas from her childhood that have manifested in her adult self. And Lyonne is up to the challenge of crafting a woman who is both prickly, but someone we cannot help but to feel some sympathy toward.   

At first, the series feels like a one-woman show. And Lyonne is fantastic in the first few episodes where we follow her exclusively. That said, the beauty of Russian Doll comes from its central premise: what happens when we have the chance to re-do the past day? As we’ve seen from Groundhog Day, the journey comes from the protagonist figuring out how to be a better person and miraculously, break the time loop. Russian Doll is a mystery and its eight episodes are filled with enough clues to help you figure out why Nadia is stuck on that particular day. But it truly succeeds as a short series because there is something far more genuine hiding beneath the surface. 

The introduction of Alan (a very dreamy Charlie Barnett) at the end of episode three could have derailed the conceit of the show, but it somehow only makes it better. When Nadia coincidentally runs into another person who is experiencing the same time loop she is – dying and awaking at the same time – the two become an unlikely pair to solve their own deaths. As the stakes intensify and their relationship develops, we slowly begin to learn the emotional toll this initial comedic premise has on both of them. However, the less I say the better. Not only because the puzzle pieces fit together unexpectedly but because it leads to a stunning conclusion that is equal parts uplifting and realistic. 

Let's hope Russian Doll remains a limited series with just this one season. At only eight episodes (with the longest being 30 minutes), the show unfolds efficiently and effectively. The progression feels so natural and the characters grow and expand in ways many series do not achieve across multiple seasons. It's already a complete, beautiful, and life-affirming story. The connections we make; the relationships we share with other people are what keep us alive. And Russian Doll is here to remind us to cherish them, every day. 

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Reader Comments (7)

What I took away from season one is that I want Ritesh Rajan to raw me for a month. And not February I NEED 31 days.

February 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBushwick

I loved this, and agree that part of its accomplishment is its brevity and how complete it feels. That said: I would not be mad at future seasons, and I hear they are at least considering it. I want more time with these characters, and I think there's still room to grow and explore without the risk of putting too tidy an ending on everything.

February 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

oh only 30 minute episodes? and only 8 of them?! yay

unheard of, I’ll give it a shot tonight.

February 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

This show was honestly amazing. The best part is that it is original even though the premise isn't unique, it's beautifully intricate and spelled out beautifully. And is it just me , or Natasha Lyonne ( as great as usual, here) sounds more and more like Pamela Adlon ? Just wondering....

February 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEder Arcas

I really liked this show too, and at 4 hours or so total, it's not that much longer than an epic-style movie. At the risk of spoilers, I'll say I like the Leftovers-influenced "Let the Mystery Be" style over the Twin Peaks or X-Files influenced mythology show where there are probably more definite answers somewhere in there.

February 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

I have a new (well new again) crush = Charlie Barnett .... swoon!
Great show!!! One season and done is fine with me! Very satisfying ending!

February 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Give it all the Emmys. Those last two episodes are breathtaking.

February 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

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