Netflix’s new dramedy is a virtuoso experience in meta existentialism and a fuck you to the spiritual cotton wool of synchronicity, writes Damon Boyd
When Groundhog Day was released in 1993 it came as a warm stab to the heart of nihilism; a man flailing against his predicament until he zens out and accepts the inevitable. It was and still is a blissed-out piece of Clinton-era nonconformism. Russian Doll, Netflix’s new dramedy series riffs on that irrepressible idea of the time loop, but cranks it up for an audience hankered down. This isn’t just a story about dying, coming back to life ad infinitum until the protagonist finally breaks purgatory; no, Russian Doll is in communion with the universe – about a woman not only reliving a moment in time, but carrying with her the emotional inheritance of a generation.
The series begins with Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) standing in front of the mirror at her 36th birthday party her friend Maxine (Greta Lee) is throwing for her. Ambivalent and unsettled, she leaves the party and over and over, dies one way or another – breaks her neck, gets shot, mangled in a hit-and-run, drowns, then hypothermia, an elevator plummet, chokes, a heart attack… the list goes on as you sit back and enjoy it.
Nadia is a ‘why-shouldn’t-I-do-what-I-want? kind of boho; truculent, with a dose of punky paranoia. Lyonne, with a cig permanently dangling from the mouth, has never been commercial: that is, she’s always been in popular comedies and such, but she’s always kept her profanity; her tawdriness – it comes through with such transcendental indifference in Russian Doll that you find yourself looking to Lyonne as the bolshy older sister you never had. Lyonne breathes into her character such a cynical buoyancy, that her living out the same string of time becomes the perfect metaphor for the human condition in Trump’s America. I don’t think this kind of series, with these kinds of questions could have been so thoughtful or quite so darkly hilarious with anyone else.
It is during the 4th episode – and the elevator plummet – that we have Nadia meet Alan (Charlie Barnett), who also seems stuck in a time loop. The elevator is in free fall when he states: “I die all the time.” Nadia has met another and in meeting him checks herself: what the fuck is going on? Who is this guy? Why us? What does it mean? Lyonne’s influence within the scripting and story frame-out succeeds in making every existential moment so anxiously immediate that they give off a powerful jolt. This makes Russian Doll great in a pop-2019 kind of way; it doesn’t need to function below the conscious level, yet it makes you feel alive again, in contact with the world; allowing the plot to suggest an important idea rather than knock us over the head with it.
As the episodes unfold a gallows existentialism permeates, built out of a series of poignant interactions that express shock and panic, but without the depth or mystery of Kant and Satre; rather these moments owe themselves to the kinds of expressionist exasperations Charles Bukowski or Hunter S Thompson used to put down on paper – Ham on Rye and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas come to mind.
Who the fuck knows how we’d react if we came back from the dead again and again, but Russian Doll give us an inkling, and it’s not often that a series can take you out of the edgelessness of the everyday; the empty hopelessness that so often goes with getting home from a day’s work and slipping into domesticity.
In an age of FOMO, YOLO and the social deluge Russian Doll makes a deliberate choice to step back, contemplate and believe in the prospect of getting all the things you got wrong, right. It makes you believe in living. It speaks to you, breaks through, with its indignation, its cynicism, even its one liners. When Nadia learns to reach out and be accountable for someone, it frees her to be an everyday hero. And, yes, she does it her way.
Russian Doll makes you wonder: is it better to get on with the pointlessness of our lives or be conked out by a truckload of possibilities?
In today’s world? You damn well know the answer.