Russian Doll deserves a less hacky recap lede than what I’m about to type, but having writer’s block is like being stuck in a repetitive, self-indulgent, moribund dystopia with no end in sight, so here goes: Russian Doll is like Groundhog Day meets Donnie Darko.
Groundhog Day is a gimme that I know you came up with yourself ten minutes in, max, unless you came up with it earlier, as soon as you first heard that Russian Doll is about someone who gets metaphysically stuck reliving the same day (or, in this case, night) on perpetual loop for no apparent reason. The Donnie Darko stuff I’ll get to in a minute. Groundhog Day, tonally speaking, is actually nothing like Russian Doll. Couched in the nihilistic milieu of an Über-arty get-together held in a huge Manhattan apartment you’ll never afford, the Russian Doll pilot is like an existential riff on existentialism itself: What would you do differently if you knew when death was coming? Could you do anything differently? What if death is actually just a chance at a do-over? But then again, what if it’s not and this is all there is?
Our way-finder through this philosophical morass is Nadia, who attends a 36th birthday party thrown in her honor at that aforementioned apartment (a renovated yeshiva) and ends up dead twice over: First, she’s shockingly struck by a taxicab while crossing the street to retrieve her lost cat, Oatmeal. Inexplicably, to her and to us, she finds herself back at the party a moment later. She remembers everything that just happened, up to and including her death. The night plays out again, only for Nadia to wind up drowned in the East River … and then, once again, back at the party, this time spewing river water into the bathroom sink.
Nadia is portrayed by Natasha Lyonne, who created and executive-produced Russian Doll alongside Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland. The series’ origin story contains its own flash of TV-junkie déjà vu: About five years ago, Lyonne starred in a sitcom pilot executive-produced by Poehler called Old Soul, which never got picked up. (She also had a small role in Headland’s 2015 rom-com Sleeping With Other People.) I have always remembered reading about this show-that-never-was, in which Lyonne would’ve played some kind of senior-citizen caretaker, because the cast also included Rita Moreno, Marla Gibbs, Fred Willard, and Ellen Burstyn, which still sounds to me like one of the most murderous rows of star-power ever assembled. Lyonne’s Old Soul character, IMDB notes, was also named Nadia.
Figuring out how to showcase Lyonne’s offbeat allure as a leading lady has not come easily to Hollywood, as her sidekick parts in Sleeping With Other People and several other rom-coms and TV shows indicate. So the greatest pleasure of Russian Doll may simply be getting to spend so much time with Lyonne herself, the lingering close-ups of her Kewpie face and pretty much everything she says. Credit also goes to Nadia’s party co-hosts, Max (Greta Lee) and Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson), for delivering their lines (even the ones they have to deliver three times over) with well-timed sass, but it’s Lyonne’s tart dialogue that gets virtually all of the pilot’s laughs. (Still to be determined: Is Russian Doll funny-strange or funny-ha-ha?) Nadia compliments her birthday-party pickup (Jeremy Bobb) by telling him, “I thought you were a real sick fuck, but now I see you’re pretty deep” — but still declines his offer to sit on his face with, “I would, but I just called you an Uber.”
When she’s not making us laugh, Nadia portends her death spiral with the sort of maudlin proclamations you can only get away with when it’s your 36th birthday and you have very patient friends, like when she whines that she’s “staring down the barrel of my own mortality.” (That line made me think of the revolver repurposed into a handle on the bathroom door and whether it’s placed there as some kind of Chekhovian foreshadowing.) Most delish of all is when Nadia runs into her hookup again after death no. 2 and informs him matter-of-factly, “I fuck you,” before marching away.
Sincerely, one of my favorite Natasha Lyonne performances is a lively fundraising pitch she made last year on YouTube for Manhattan’s legendary indie-rep theater Film Forum, in which she appears as herself. “New Yorkers are interesting. We’re a broken people, full of hope,” she romantically opines in that clip, adding that back in her “wild-thing” days, “many men came through the Film Forum with me. Many, many, many men.” Nadia instantly reminded me of Lyonne in that video. They’re both members of a dying (ha!) breed, the quintessential New Yorker: Someone who takes in a black-and-white double feature next to a stranger and considers it foreplay; someone who still talks with a clipped city inflection, who smokes (at least in Nadia’s case) two packs a day. A little stuck out of time, Nadia comes off as sexy precisely because she couldn’t care less about societal ideals of sexiness. (Her mini-diatribe on why she’s not a “single cat lady” even though she’s single and lives with a cat is *chef’s kiss*.) With Nadia’s thick bangs, heavy eye makeup, auburn curls, and ever-present cigarette, she could be Margot Tenenbaum as played by Clara Bow.
Probably in large part because Nadia seems like such a throwback (and in small part because of my yen to relive Gotham’s fin de siècle glory days), there’s a palpable ’90s vibe that courses through Russian Doll. A lot of it is baked right into the pilot’s script, like when Nadia and her hookup bond over their appreciation of TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and how she burned down her boyfriend’s mansion in 1994. The two soon head to her usual bodega “for provisions” (including lambskin condoms, ew, that guy is totally a lambskin-condoms guy), where Nadia endures an unpleasant run-in with three rude dweebs; when they ask her where to party, she sends them to “Avenue D and 8th Street,” where there was “a hardware store that closed in 1996.” In her first redo after the taxi collision, she even randomly asks her caring but smothering ex-boyfriend, John (Yul Vazquez), “Remember Dinkins?” It’s not often that anyone remembers Giuliani’s mayoral predecessor, David Dinkins.
All these reference points bring me back to Donnie Darko — which, yes, came out in 2001, but was set in 1988, so how ‘bout we split the difference? Let me clarify that while I love Donnie Darko, I have not thought about Donnie Darko in a very long time and I do not go around looking for things to compare to Donnie Darko. Having said that, if you tell me a moody story about a protagonist coming to terms with his/her own preordained demise and you score it to retro synth-pop gems like Light Asylum’s “Shallow Tears,” well, how am I not supposed to think about Donnie Darko? Oatmeal even strikes me as a proxy for Frank the rabbit, Darko’s creep-sterious harbinger of death. (Specifically, I’m wondering if Oatmeal’s appearance will always signal impending doom for Nadia, as the cat has for both of her deaths so far.)
But Russian Doll most reminds me of Donnie Darko in this: Each beat of this series premiere feels fraught with potential significance. Every detail seems to be telegraphing that you ought to remember it because it’ll mean something later on. Like, remember the second time you watched Donnie Darko, when you suddenly realized that the red Trans Am that drives past Donnie on his way home from the golf course at the start of the movie is actually Frank’s car, which (18-year-old spoiler alert) runs over and kills Gretchen at the end of the movie? That’s how I feel about the bodega scene — both the aforementioned rude dweebs and the cashier’s friend who keels over next to the dry goods. That’s also how I feel about Nadia’s older friend Ruth, whose presence in the pilot seemed merely to serve an expositional purpose. (Nadia, you had a mother! But now she’s dead!) And what is up with Tompkins Square Park homeless guy? Why does Nadia think she knows him?
“Be careful,” is the last thing Nadia says at the episode’s end, the last thing she tells herself before walking off into the night, two deaths down and who knows how many more to go. That’s my plan, too: to watch Russian Doll carefully, because I have a hunch there’s gonna be a lot here I really won’t want to miss.