Netflix has really come into its own lately, focusing on legitimizing itself as a purveyor of original content. We’ve been talking a lot lately about their forays into film, since it seems like that’s been their biggest push, but that hasn’t stopped the fact that they’ve been churning out original television non-stop, most of which is quite good. I never found time to talk about the third and final season of Daredevil and the latest season of BoJack Horseman, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit, but came when the site was largely on hiatus. They’ve established several really great series’, which I actively anticipate each year, but they still have the ability to drop something wonderful and unexpected on us, giving us a truly singular experience. Such was Russian Doll, a truly terrific piece of entertainment that seemed to largely come out of nowhere and hit everyone at once, instantly becoming one of the most talked about things in entertainment, made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s an original story, not coming with any sort of built in fan-base. Which, is one of the reasons that this show was so brilliant. I can’t imagine they have any plans on ever making a second season to this show, because I can’t even begin to think of anywhere they could go from here, so it seems to be a singular experience, just a wonderful little four hour experience that has quickly become my favorite bit of storytelling so far in 2019. It’s weird, it’s hilarious, it’s genius, it’s heart-breaking, and it’s just generally the type of story that makes me furious and jealous that someone can be this talented.
On it’s surface, Russian Doll is structured like many other stories we’ve seen before, especially the films Groundhog’s Day and Edge of Tomorrow. It tells the story of a woman named Nadia who begins the episode celebrating her 36th birthday at a party thrown by her eccentric friend. She goes on to make some bad choices, sleeps with a random guy, and then heads out to get cigarettes at a bodega, where she’s hit by a car and killed. But, as soon as she dies, she wakes back up in the bathroom of her friend’s apartment, ready to celebrate her party all over again, but with the memories of her previous life. Nadia seems to think that it’s just drugs at first, but she continues to die, and continues to end up back in the bathroom, apparently perpetually trapped in this moment in time. Sometimes she makes it through the night, and other times she dies almost immediately, but she always ends up back in the bathroom. She slowly starts to take on the role of a detective, gumshoeing around town to try and piece together what could possibly be happening to her, which is when she comes across a man named Alan, who in passing mentions that he’s died several times as well.
Nadia searches Alan out, and we learn that he’s having the same experience as her. He’s reliving the same night as Nadia, but his evening involves being broken up by his long-time girlfriend. Alan is initially put off by Nadia, but it’s becomes impossible to deny that there’s some sort of connection between the too, especially when they realize that they’ve died the same amount of times, and appear to die at the same time as each other each time. But, the reason why they’re connected is the real question. They begin trying several different things, growing closer as people as they attempt to figure out what’s going on, why it’s happening, and if there’s any way to stop it. And, they eventually decide that there’s something in their life that’s keeping them from being happy, some mistake that’s haunting them, and it becomes their imperative to fix those problems. Which, comes at a good time, because around the time they learn that they find that things are changing. Some things aren’t happening the way they always do, and the world is becoming less and less right each time they come back. But, they eventually figure everything out, only to realize that when they wake up they’ve somehow ended up in two different timelines. Nadia finds herself in a world where Alan has no memory of their strange adventure, and Alan wakes up in a world where Naida has no memory. But, they’re able to use the experiences they forged together in order to try and make some life with these different versions of themselves, knowing they can’t get on without the other person.
I really didn’t have any expectations with this show. I’d heard good things, I’ve generally liked the few things I’ve seen Natasha Lyonne in, and it was a relatively short show. And from the very first episode I was hooked. The premise is one that’s been used before, but I’ve never seen it handled in this particular way, giving me something I’d never seen before. But, more importantly than that, it gave me one of the most thoughtful and well-crafted stories I’ve seen in ages. The writing in this show is phenomenal, effortlessly weaving between moments of terror, hilarity, and existential dread in a way that few works can even attempt. Natasha Lyonne is a revelation in this show, putting in a performance unlike many I’ve ever seen, and instantly making me wish that there was more things I could see her in immediately. And don’t even get me started on how many times I’ve listened to Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up,” since I first watched this show, even though that song takes on a down-right sinister tone as the show progresses. It’s just a perfect little dose of storytelling, instantly giving us characters that we can root for, while remaining completely fallible and recognizable as actual human beings. They may not talk like anybody on Earth actually does, far too full of brilliant quips, but you can’t help but love them, getting drawn into this truly terrifying and terrible reality they’ve found themselves in, hoping against hope that things will work out, all because they found each other.
Even after the few weeks in between me watching this show and me writing about it now, I still haven’t quite decided if Nadia and Alan are supposed to be linked romantically at the end of the show. They do sleep together in one of their lives, but I personally took the ending more to mean that they just needed each other in their lives, regardless of what form that took. Because throughout their lives they realized that while they are both broken people who are barely holding it together, they’re broken in ways that end up complimenting each other. They’re both solitary people who have learned to rely on themselves and no one else, putting aside any sort of internal reflection in order to keep their heads down and just drudge through life, not wanting to connect with anyone in any sort of meaningful way. And yet, when placed in this absurd situation, the most shocking thing they discover is that it’s okay to rely on other people. Nadia and Alan find solace in each other, find that even though they’re broken they can prop each other up and attempt to be better people. Not just for themselves, but for each other. And, putting aside any of the mind-melting metaphysics of the show, it’s that earnest and powerful message that make it all work so well.
Russian Doll was created by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler, 2019.
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