As we go through life, we carry our traumas with us. The pain, sadness and guilt we experience accumulates within us. How we choose or don’t choose to confront those experiences comes to define who we are and how we live our lives. Failing to confront them can create an unending loop of pain that’s impossible to escape.
The new Netflix series “Russian Doll,” created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, uses a high-concept premise to explore the process of escaping that prison.
Lyonne stars as Nadia, a hard-living, broken young woman who dies at her 36th birthday party, only to reawaken at the same moment in time over and over again. Once the initial shock wears off, Nadia begins the heady work of figuring out the nature of her prison and, ultimately, how to escape it.
The time loop is a fun narrative device that’s been used effectively in film and TV over the years. “Groundhog Day” is an immediate touchstone here, but, unlike that film, which maintained a comedic tone throughout, “Russian Doll” takes a slightly darker, yet occasionally humorous tack as it excavates Nadia’s past traumas with honest emotion.
A self-described cross between Andrew Dice Clay and the girl from “Brave,” Nadia is a chain-smoking, gravelly-voiced malcontent with a tangle of crimson curls and a dim view of humanity. She’s walled off her trauma — stemming from a childhood spent with her mentally unstable mother — with an impenetrable barrier of snark, hostility and a proclivity for bad decisions that borders on a death wish. But for all her effort, her pain is plainly visible on her sleeve.
Lyonne is a strong actor who has consistently delivered on “Orange is the New Black.” Here, she is not merely a standout among an ensemble; she takes advantage of the space she is afforded in a lead role, giving a raw, emotional, at times, funny performance.
Nadia’s acerbic personality is tempered by the comparatively low-key Alan, an unlikely ally she meets on her journey. Charlie Barnett is fantastic as Alan, a tightly wound bag of nerves and self-doubt, who is damaged in his own way. I won’t spoil Alan’s connection to Nadia, but the relationship builds to a powerful climax, where the show is clear in its position that no one should have to suffer their pain alone.
Behind the camera, Lyonne and company have crafted a concise, smart and entertaining season of television. At only eight, 30-minute episodes, the show is a great example of economic and well-paced writing. There are no wasted scenes or needless detours; there is a clear story to tell, and the writers do just that.
The writers also don’t get bogged down trying to over-explain the origin of the time loop. Whether it’s God, quantum mechanics or, as video game developer Nadia posits, a glitch in the code, it doesn’t much matter. Any concrete explanation would likely disappoint, so the show smartly leaves it up to viewers to form their own theories.
What also doesn’t disappoint is the final episode. The story delivers an emotionally and narratively satisfying conclusion that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. These eight episodes work so well as a standalone story that I’m not sure what a second season could add to it. That said, I’m game for seeing more from Lyonne on both sides of the camera; she’s a great and underrated talent with a unique perspective that deserves a wide audience.