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‘Russian Doll’ is a densely layered and deeply human masterpiece

| Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

Nadia (played by series creator Natasha Lyonne) stares into a bathroom mirror. It’s her 36th birthday party outside, and someone is pounding on the door. She stares confused at the door, which is decked out with strangely luminescent art. Her confusion is understandable, considering she was just hit by a car.

And she died.

I hesitate to divulge much of the admirably twisty plot in “Russian Doll.” Nadia, a video game designer, relives her 36th birthday, resetting every time she dies. Some deaths are hilarious (her eventual fear of stairs is extremely justified), while others are heart-wrenching. As Nadia attempts to discover the reasons beyond her cosmic, “Groundhog Day”-esque dilemma, “Russian Doll” bends genre, time and space though a delightfully acerbic lens to create a thrillingly fresh treatise on human connection, with an expert sense of character and tone.

Lyonne’s Nadia, who describes herself as a cross between Andrew Dice Clay and the girl from “Brave,” speaks like Seinfeld yet feels completely unique. She is a quintessential urbanite looking out for number one (if not for cars). Her strongest attachment is to her missing cat, Oatmeal. She wisecracks her way through each night, stabbing friends and foes alike with her sharp wit. But beneath her mess of red hair is a wounded heart (Lyonne deserves immense credit for a fascinatingly layered performance). Wordlessly and effortlessly, she projects intense intelligence, scrappy resourcefulness and warm empathy to emotionally anchor “Russian Doll” in its more complex moments.

The cast is filled with warmly conceived performances, from Charlie Barnett’s Alan to Elizabeth Ashley’s Aunt Ruth. “Russian Doll’s” resets might preclude strictly defined character development, so, instead of tracking change, the series dives deeper, teasing out relationships and motivations from its relatively sparse ensemble. It replicates the same trick with Nadia. She doesn’t so much change as realize. The show’s structure imitates its namesake, focusing inwards. Sometimes it feels like a therapy session given life and broadcast over the airwaves.

Lyonne, along with her collaborators Leslye Headland (director of the vastly underrated romantic comedy “Sleeping with Other People”) and Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation,” but you know that), deftly balances weightier examination with truly funny scenes. Sometimes the writing evokes the high-concept death-and-resets humor of “The Good Place” while other scenes simmer with comic tension based solely on character interaction. If humor is predicated on subverting expectations, then “Russian Doll,” like “Groundhog Day” before it, takes full advantage of its repetitive structure to throw its wild variable into a world that stays mostly the same.

Yet “Russian Doll” never sacrifices humor for drama (or vice versa); each exist to strengthen the other. Nadia’s friend Maxine (Greta Lee) might appear as comic relief in the early run, but she contributes increasingly to the show’s deep well of sadness later on. And “Russian Doll” would be a very different show without Nadia’s definitive and sharp comedic edge. Never do these shifts feel like whiplash or ring false. They feel like a part of the natural fabric of these characters and their deeply textured setting — a gentrified yet grimy vision of New York where death is just around the corner.

For all of its sardonic exterior, “Russian Doll” ultimately ends on a radically empathetic note, emphasizing the need for human connection in a world ruled by loss. Perhaps its greatest achievement, though, is making this all look so easy. Its team of female writers and directors have crafted a magnificent season of television for an unlikely star, complete with twisty yet satisfying storytelling and a wicked sense of humor. Its final image leaves viewers on a thrillingly ambiguous yet utterly human note, showcasing the dense, confusing menagerie of humanity making their way through life. We can only be so lucky.

  • Show: “Russian Doll” Season One
  • Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett
  • Favorite episode: “Ariadne”
  • If you like: “The Good Place,” “Groundhog Day”
  • Where to watch: Netflix
  • Shamrocks: 5 out of 5
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