Russian Doll is Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland’s Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow-style masterwork. This dark comedy follows programmer Nadia (Lyonne) after she gets stuck in a time loop of her thirty-sixth birthday at the end of which she continually dies. Like the title implies, the show contains layers upon layers. The heart of the narrative could be about any number of things: the relationships between childhood trauma, addiction, and mental illness; the fundamental nature of the universe; or the life-changing effect small interactions can have on the course of a person’s life.
Fronting this masterfully-managed story is fiery-haired Nadia, carrying the bulk of the show on her shoulders. Nadia is abrasive, crass, stylish, and lovable. Confident and self-assured, she loves drugs and has a hard time playing nice with others. She’s turning thirty-six, one year older than her mother ever was, and she’s haunted by memories of her mother’s severe mental illness. She has a thick New York accent, a cat named Oatmeal, and two wacky best friends (played by Greta Lee and Rebecca Henderson), and she chain-smokes her way through the show’s entire eight-episode run. As a character, Nadia feels completely original, an eccentric mostly-loner.
Enter Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett): an anxious, rejected young man stuck in a frustrating death-driven time-loop of his own. He’s something of a shrinking violet compared to Nadia’s brash presence. Alan suffers from some form of mental illness (implied to be OCD and depression, though he mentions that he doesn’t go to therapy, is afraid of being seen as “crazy,” and doesn’t confirm a diagnosis). Though two diametrically different people, Nadia and Alan quickly realize that their lives depend on one another, and the only way to break the time-loops is by cooperating and opening up to one another.
The show has a certain quality about it that reminded me of one of my other all-time favorites, Killing Eve—a quality that comes from a writer’s room of women writing their female characters with honesty and authenticity. Nadia felt real to me in the way that Eve and Villanelle felt real, in a way that too few female characters often do. She was allowed to be messy and imperfect and “unlikeable” at times, and yet still sympathetic. The narrative never punishes her for being sexual, for her refusal to cater to men, for the ways in which she is feminine or for the ways she deviates from traditional femininity. She’s presented as a full and complete person—with a discordant collection of interests and friends and personality traits that come together to form a multifaceted and unique whole.
The setting and cinematography are as astounding as the writing. Lyonne, Poehler, and Headland’s vision—and the vision of their team of all-female directors, too—presents a New York City painted in neon colors on dark, grimy backdrops or sunny, bright city streets. They pay visual homage to other notable comedies—a scene in which Alan stares at a piece of plagiarized artwork directly parallels Cameron at the Art Institute in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a bravura montage of Nadia taking various substances at her party feels familiar, and, of course, there’s the ever-present allusion to Groundhog Day, with the same song playing every time Nadia restarts a loop. Visions of Nadia’s childhood are presented in nostalgic, sunny yellows, which contrasts with the traumas she experiences watching her mother’s sanity unravel.
In episode seven, Nadia asks Alan, “What do time and morality have in common?” The answer: they’re both relative. And Russian Doll ponders whether the universe particularly cares about either. Is the universe moral, and if so, what kind of morality does it follow? Does time—linear time—actually exist, or do the future and the past pull us in directions that prevent a straight path from emerging? Does the universe splinter in infinite different ways and timelines, or does it form some kind of cohesive entity? Russian Doll doesn’t necessarily seek to answer any of these questions, but rather asks viewers to meditate on them—and in an unpretentious, down-to-earth style. These questions are asked in the way you’d ask a friend at a sleepover, “What do you think ___ means?” in the middle of the night, not in the tone of a philosophy professor trying to force abstract thought out of students. In the world of the show, morality and time are intrinsically and intimately linked, not separable from one another. Though neither can be completely understood, they form two foundational building blocks for understanding the universe itself. And although the show might never come to a concrete moral conclusion, the emotional arc of the show is satisfying and complete. It doesn’t leave its viewers hanging.
Without spoiling the show, Nadia and Alan’s continued existence hinges upon their moral obligations to one another. Their lives (and deaths), quite literally, depend upon one another, as whenever one of them dies in the loops, the other does as well. Nadia complains that “people are garbage,” and yet her life depends on a person who’s in most ways her complete antithesis. Her “Aunt” Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), a therapist and the woman who raised Nadia after her mother’s meltdown and subsequent death, warns that “people are unreliable narrators of their own stories,” and advises that people rely on one another more than Nadia may realize. In a parallel moment, Alan tells his close friend Farran (Ritesh Rajan), “I can do it by myself,” after he finds out the girl he wanted to marry, Beatrice (Dascha Polanco), has cheated on him. Farran replies, “No one can do anything by themselves.” Nadia wants free will and Alan wants emotional stability, and to both of them, that means being separate and apart from others. The show consistently challenges and upsets this way of thinking and posits that it’s the connections we make with other human beings that allow us to live fulfilled lives with both freedom and security.
Russian Doll presents a darker spin on the moral premise behind another absurd, universe-bending comedic hit, The Good Place: people can be awful, but we also need people to survive. While The Good Place asks the same or similar questions that Russian Doll does, it asks them in a goofier, more absurd, more upbeat fashion. NBC’s “ethics and moral philosophy dramedy” (a niche I’m hoping becomes a genre, because both shows are great) is set for the most part in a cartoonishly colorful afterlife, with a completely outlandish and ridiculous cast of characters and a certain eau de Mike Schur about it all (Mike Schur is also the showrunner behind hit sitcoms Brooklyn 99, Parks and Recreation, and the American version of The Office). The Good Place frequently name-drops the actual philosophers whose moral systems it’s showcasing or questioning. Russian Doll, meanwhile, has a cast of characters that seem like real people you could meet on the streets of New York—weird, but believable—and doesn’t provide the same “Ethics 101” framework for its viewership. If Russian Doll is ruminating on the philosophies of John Locke or Aristotle, you wouldn’t know it. However, both shows seem to concentrate on the concept of what we owe to each other—which any philosophy nerds out there will recognize as the title of contemporary philosopher T .M. Scanlon’s book on the same topic. Both shows posit that despite our sometimes quite significant flaws, people make each other better, and we have fundamental moral obligations to one another that cannot and should not be ignored.
While the show concludes in a satisfying way, the showrunning team has indicated that they’re ready for two more seasons. Where they might be able to go plot-wise from the end of season one, however, seems a little unclear. Will Nadia and Alan try to make sense of what has happened to them? Or will Russian Doll make like The Good Place in another way and have its two main characters go out into the world and help others avoid their same fate? Free from the framework of the time loops, what is this show even going to look like?
I have a great deal of faith in the writing team to pull off whatever it is they’re planning, but it’s hard to conceptualize or predict where this show is going at all from the end of this season. Still, with the current amount of critical and public acclaim, Netflix would be hard pressed to pass on another season or two of Russian Doll, if the creative team is offering.
Regardless of whether we get to see more of Nadia, Alan, and company or this season is all we get, all eight episodes of Russian Doll are currently streaming on Netflix.