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REVIEW: Russian Doll Adds Style & Cleverness to the Time-Loop Formula

By design, the premise of Netflix's Russian Doll (premiering February 1) is repetitive: It opens with New York City video-game designer Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) staring into a mirror in the bathroom at her friend Maxine’s apartment, and over the course of its eight episodes, it returns to that same exact place, again and again. Like the protagonists of Groundhog Day and Happy Death Day before her, Nadia is stuck in a time loop, forced to live the same day (and sometimes part of the next) over and over, until she can figure out how to break the cycle.

Created by Lyonne along with Amy Poehler and filmmaker Leslye Headland (Bachelorette, Sleeping With Other People), Russian Doll starts out strong, as the acerbic, cynical Nadia wanders through her own 36th birthday party with a mixture of appreciation and bewilderment, just another night in the life of a jaded NYC hipster. Then she gets hit by a car, wakes up back in that bathroom (to the strains of Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up,” which will become very familiar to the show’s audience) and has to reassess her entire life.

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At first, Nadia grasps at the most tangible, nearby explanations, and when the show detours into her investigations of the drug cocktail that Maxine (Greta Lee) has provided for the guests and the mystical Jewish history of the building where the party is being held, it seems like the series might not provide enough variations on the time-loop formula. But just as it appears that the creators are running out of angles for Nadia to explore, the show shifts perspective in its fourth episode, breathing new life into the story and giving the second half of the season a greater sense of purpose (and of impending doom).

Even the ultimately fruitless digressions are amusing and well-acted, giving the creators a chance to explore Nadia’s various relationships, including with her newly separated ex-boyfriend (Yul Vazquez) and with her no-nonsense mother figure Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), a therapist who more or less raised Nadia during her actual mother’s struggles with mental illness. The legacy of that mental illness is another potential time-loop explanation weighing on Nadia’s mind, even more so once she meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a depressed loner who may hold the key to the entire phenomenon. Nadia and Alan’s burgeoning connection turns out to be the heart of the show, both narratively and emotionally.

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The creators effectively balance the dark sci-fi mystery (which occasionally dips into horror) with the character development and the dry comedy, especially from Nadia’s clueless (but well-meaning) hipster friends Maxine and Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson). Russian Doll never gets bogged down in its mythology, but it also provides a satisfying enough conclusion for anyone not bothered by a little ambiguity. Nadia is relentless in her pursuit of answers, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t still short-tempered and occasionally self-destructive, and it’s not hard for her to get side-tracked by arguments with her ex or the philosophical ramblings of an enigmatic homeless man named Horse (Brendan Sexton III).

Lyonne gives a charismatic lead performance, making sure Nadia is never unlikable even when she says or does something insensitive and self-centered, and her sense of humor remains intact despite her increasingly desperate situation. Nadia’s repeated deaths are played mostly for morbid laughs, and her fear of walking down the stairs outside Maxine’s apartment (the site of several of her demises) becomes a reliable running gag. At times, Nadia is sort of like Wile E. Coyote with the way she stumbles into near-slapstick scenarios that put her right back in that bathroom.

The show’s tone is more about existential dread than cartoon goofiness, though, and the various directors (beginning with Headland in the first episode) give Nadia’s version of New York a stylish, moody neon glow that sets Russian Doll apart from the dim color palette of too many prestige series. The episodes all run under 30 minutes, and while there aren’t a ton of laugh-out-loud moments, there are plenty of wry, clever bits that reveal themselves over time. Lee and Henderson get the funniest one-liners, but all of the supporting characters have moments of humor. Jeremy Bobb as narcissistic womanizer Mike (who has connections to both Nadia and Alan) is the closest thing the series has to a villain, but the story is more about confronting inner demons than taking on external threats.

In that way, it turns out to be quite satisfying, giving Nadia some real personal growth without becoming heavy-handed in its A Christmas Carol-style life lessons (which both Groundhog Day and Happy Death Day also provided). It’s an impressive showcase for Lyonne, both as an actor and as a writer (and even as a director, in the finale), and the kind of smart, consistently entertaining gem that deserves not to get lost in the weekly deluge of Netflix original programming.

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