The premise of Groundhog Day has been imitated so often* that it’s practically a genre to itself. Amazingly, Netflix’s dark comedy series Russian Doll manages to bring some exciting new twists to the time loop formula. It’s fantastic.
The show was created by actress Natasha Lyonne, producer Amy Poehler, and filmmaker Leslye Headland (Bachelorette, Sleeping with Other People). Lyonne stars as Nadia Vulvokov, a New York video game programmer who gets stuck reliving the same day over and over again. Specifically, the day in question is her 36th birthday, which is a melancholy occasion for Nadia because it officially means that she has lived longer than her mother did.
Nadia had a complicated relationship with her mother, whose mental illness she worries she may inherit. This has led to a lifetime of drug and alcohol dependency. Frankly, by age 36, she’s a total mess. She’s constantly drunk and/or high, prone to wild mood swings and self-destructive behavior, and her fashion sense is… well, it’s interesting. She also has a razor-sharp acerbic wit and has been fortunate enough to find an inner circle of friends that her antics appeal to.
Nadia’s day starts just after midnight, staring into a bathroom mirror at the apartment of a close friend throwing a party in her honor. After an ill-advised drunken hookup, she stumbles out into traffic and gets flattened by a cab. She’s dead before the end of the first episode. It won’t be the last time that happens.
Finding herself staring into that mirror again, Nadia initially chalks everything she just experienced up to a drug-induced delusion. She avoids the cab this time, only to die another way. This happens over and over again, each attempt resetting back at the bathroom mirror, like one of her game characters respawning. No matter what she does, she can’t make it through the day without dying. The more it happens, the more frantically she searches for answers or a way out. Things get really desperate when she notices that her environment seems to be changing with each reset, subtly at first (her cat goes missing) and then more dramatically the deeper into the cycle she goes.
Comprised of eight half-hour episodes, Russian Doll is compulsively bingeable. The show is so sharply written and so funny that it practically dares you to plow through the whole thing in one sitting, which is exactly what I did when it premiered last Friday. Despite copying the essentials of the Groundhog Day formula, the storyline repeatedly finds new wrinkles and goes to some really dark, emotional, and even profound places.
The series is also a terrific vehicle for Natasha Lyonne, who brings a very weird energy to her role unlike your typical female comedy lead. Perpetually grouchy, foul-mouthed, and unkempt, she’s not afraid to play the character in an unflattering (if not sometimes unlikable) light, yet is somehow still compelling and endearing. It doesn’t hurt that her self-deprecating humor is damned hilarious.
It’s still early in the year, but Russian Doll is already a lock for one of the best TV shows of 2019.
Although not formally designated as a limited series, the plot basically closes itself off at the end and I’ll be surprised if Lyonne and company try to pull a second season out of it. If they do, however, I’m ready to binge again.
[*A caveat for sticklers: The time loop premise of Groundhog Day was itself inspired by (the author might say “stolen from”) a 1973 short story called 12:01 PM, which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated short film in 1990 and a TV movie in 1993. Nevertheless, Groundhog Day has such profound cultural awareness that any further usage of the plot device is unavoidably drawn from that film first.]