tv review

Russian Doll Is a Brilliant, Surreal Show About Women in Power

Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll.
Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll. Photo: Netflix

Russian Doll, the new Netflix series that debuts Friday and stars Natasha Lyonne, is an ideal weekend binge. It’s eight episodes that clock in at under 30 minutes each, telling a self-contained story that is at once funny and twisted and scary. It’s a Groundhog Day–style premise, a story about a woman named Nadia (Lyonne) who keeps dying and waking up again in the middle of her 36th birthday party.

It’s a great show, both surprising and affecting, and it neatly dodges the standard tropes of its familiar premise. By the end, Russian Doll builds to a climactic discovery that involves Nadia reconsidering her past, sorting through her childhood and her relationship with her mother without ever collapsing into a simple reductionist takeaway. That’s one of the most refreshing things about the show: It’s an uncompromising portrait of Nadia as an imperfect, messed-up woman who does need to examine herself, but doesn’t need to sacrifice her intelligence, wit, self-interest, or distinctive mean streak. Shit goes terribly wrong for her, over and over, but the solution is never to make Nadia apologize for herself, or diminish herself to fit into a comfortable male vision of who she should be. It’s a show about a woman fighting against surreally difficult headwinds — her own death, constantly! — to regain a piece of herself.

Russian Doll is co-created by Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler. Its eight episodes are all directed by women, including Headland, Lyonne, and Jamie Babbit. And at the end of every episode — after a typically stylish, often funny moment leaps out of nowhere and the episode smash-cuts to black — the full credits roll: Headland, Lyonne, Poehler, and then a shared co-executive producer credit for Tony Hernandez (producer of many major comedy series including Roseanne, Younger, and Full Frontal) and Dave Becky.

You may remember Dave Becky. He is Lyonne and Poehler’s manager, and also has a producer credit on Poehler’s feel-good NBC reality show Making It. His client list also includes Jameela Jamil, Kevin Hart, and Maya Rudolph. But his name has mostly been in the news in the last year because he was Louis C.K.’s longtime manager, and allegedly helped C.K. cover up his sexual misconduct after two women, Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, told others that C.K. had masturbated in front of them. Former Becky client Pamela Adlon dropped him in the aftermath of the New York Times report that detailed those allegations in November 2017, and just last week, the creators of Broad City announced that Becky would not be credited as a producer for the show’s final season.

Becky dropped C.K. as a client after the publication of the Times story and C.K.’s admission of what he did. He also released his own apology, claiming he’d only heard “third-hand” about C.K.’s behavior toward Goodman and Wolov, that he had thought it was “a matter of infidelity,” and that he now recognizes what he did was wrong. (He has repeatedly denied, however, that he ever threatened Goodman or Wolov.) I don’t know what the best course of action should be for someone like Dave Becky. But I do know that C.K. has returned to stand-up, delivering an embittered act that feels like an attempt to capitalize on his aggrievement. I know that Becky still represents most of his powerful clients. I know that from the perspective of power, influence, and money, C.K. and Becky still seem to have plenty — certainly more than the women who went on the record about being subjected to and harmed by C.K.’s behavior and Becky’s alleged cover-up.

More to the point, I also know that seeing Becky’s name in the credits of a show like Russian Doll is a giant bummer, the emotional equivalent of a deflating Whoopee cushion at the end of each episode. It’s not just the jolt of seeing his name there, a buzzing little shock that also punctured the feel-good vibes of Making It. It’s that Russian Doll is a story by and about women. As Nadia, Lyonne swaggers and strides through the series, brushing aside all the things she deems boring or irrelevant, making amends (or not) as she sees fit, filling all the rooms she enters, disregarding politeness, making her own choices. She does, eventually, meet a prominent male character named Allen (played by a fantastic Charlie Barnett), though to say much more about his role would be a spoiler for a show that benefits from its surprises. But while Allen is a well-matched partner for Nadia, their relationship is a further demonstration of Lyonne’s relative position of power. She is the mentor figure; she is the engine.

Lyonne’s proudly dominating physical presence in Russian Doll is a significant element of what makes the show work as well as it does, and the story is constructed as an unmistakable middle finger to the idea that any man could ever hold a candle to her. Her longtime ex (Yul Vazquez) shows up throughout the series, and yet Nadia’s self-examination about his role in her life circles more around her relationship with his young daughter than anything to do with him. There’s a recurring bad-boy douchebag figure (played with delicious oiliness by Jeremy Lowell Bobb) who gets dunked on so many times that it’s almost unsporting. There’s a scene where Nadia, a video-game engineer, crushes her twerpy male co-workers so badly that it’d feel like wish fulfillment, except that it’s also just an afterthought to Nadia’s much bigger problems. The show is an out-loud celebration of women in power. But also, Dave Becky’s name is on it.

To be fair, some of Russian Doll’s creators have nothing to do with Becky — he is Poehler and Lyonne’s manager, but not Headland’s. I doubt Becky was intrinsic to much, if any, of Russian Doll’s creative process. So it feels unfair to the show that I couldn’t watch it without a small part of my brain thinking about the way Hollywood still supports and covers for people who harass and harm women. I watched it, I loved it, and I still thought about Louis C.K., the women in comedy who never got a chance to access the uncompromising storytelling space Lyonne fills so well, and the role of unseen gatekeepers like Becky who enable abuse. It is unfortunate that Russian Doll, with its gorgeously realized, funny, tight-as-a-drum story about a woman understanding herself, will be stuck in my brain with a little asterisk, a blip of cognitive dissonance I cannot shake.

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Russian Doll Is a Brilliant Show About Women in Power