It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Doll is good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.
Cindy: So, you think you were hit by a car while you were chasing your cat and now you’re reliving your birthday?
If you’re bringing such a pejorative agenda to your critique, though, you’re going to end up picking fault in material for the sake of it (and if About Time is on your list, that’s very easy to do). So the likes of Edge of Tomorrow, Groundhog Day, or The X-Files’ Monday (the latter unmentioned, probably unseen by the reviewer) are ripe for receiving unearned flack (while Happy Death Day is honourably excused).
In her efforts to extol Russian Doll, Knight makes inaccurate assertions – that Amy never uses what she learns to manipulate others; she very clearly manipulates her ex at various points – and reaches dubious conclusions. I’m unconvinced the serialised runtime actually helps the show, and that we gain insights into its core characters we couldn’t if was two-and-a-half rather than three-and-a-half hours. Series creators Lyonne (who plays Nadia), Amy Poehler and Lesley Headland have three seasons (at least) planned with Netflix, but they’re going to need to accentuate the “bonkers”, as Lyonne puts it, if they’re going to sustain it.
Nadia: Oh man, it’s never gonna be Thursday again! It’s just always gonna be this party. And were just gonna keep coming back.
With all such time-loop narratives, one of the fundamentals is “Why is this happening to me?” and in the cases of Nadia, who keeps waking at the same party, and Alan (Charlie Barnett), likewise in front of his bathroom mirror, it ends up boiling down to a slightly shrug-worthy learning/ acceptance/ realisation/ forgiveness angle that’s only thrown into relief by a spanner in the multiverse in the last episode, one that offers an effective underlining of all the learning they’ve done over the previous seven episodes.
There’s a lot to like in this first season, most obviously Lyonne’s patented whip-smart, cooler-than-thou New Yorker humour, which marbles the entire production (it’s only a surprise when characters don’t speak in hard-boiled quips). Nadia’s not actually doing a whole lot different to Nicky in Orange is the New Black (and various of that show’s alumni pop up here), to the extent you have to recognise that Lyonne playing another druggy basket case is a brand of comedian’s confessional schtick, but she does it so well and so casually, it matters little (“a very tough lady who looks like if Andrew Dice Clay and the little girl from Brave made a baby”).
Nadia: I’ve got a couple of theories that I’m working on. Us being the same person is my current favourite.
She, Headland and Poehler haven’t come up with anything enormously different in terms of how these repeats unfold, except that in all cases (at least initially, barring the one we don’t know about) they’re random accidents. There’s also the way the expectation of a next-day reset doesn’t hold true; both protagonists make it to the following day at various points, only for an unfortunate occurrence(s) to intervene.
Nadia: This is Alan. He’s basically a child who the universe has tasked me with babysitting. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
Knight’s right to suggest that the inclusion of co-experiencer opens up the canvas, but Alan’s been rather schematically designed as the OCD, obsessive, borderline pathological flip side to Nadia’s gregarious off-handedness, with the entailing problem that he’s only ever a secondary figure, even when attention is entirely on him. More crucially, he never makes the leap to someone you’d actually want to spend time with and follow their story, other than reluctantly, which is a failure of connecting to the viewer (or maybe just this viewer) on some level.
Another element that successfully embellishes the standard Groundhog mix is the encroaching entropy we begin to notice around the end of the second episode, first signified by wilting flowers but soon also by decaying fruit (still ripe on the inside), and disappearing mirrors.
The viability of their universe is diminishing and so presents its own ticking clock (at points, I wondered how influenced the makers were by Happy Death Day, particularly when Nadia begins spontaneously dying on sight of her younger self, or she and Alan get nose bleeds, as it reminded me of Tree’s progressively worsening health as her death count piled up). The final awakening at the party (prior to the successful reset) is especially effective, Nadia emerging to find Maxine (Greta Lee) dancing on her own in the apartment and demurring from joining her on her mission.
Nadia: I’m having a very hard never-ending night!
Unfortunately, I don’t think Lyonne’s patented inclusive message (“When we dismiss each other as people and choose to pretend others aren’t impacted by our actions or don’t reach out to each other, we’re all at a risk of not making it”), as commendable as it is, is that compelling or distinctive compared to any other movie or series offering similar sentiments.
With regard to its length, the season sags fairly early on before regaining its tempo; I found my attention waning during the third and fourth episodes, with not-that-interesting red herrings (the homeless guy, although I liked the gag with his grooming kit) and the introduction proper of Alan failing to bolster the narrative sufficiently (because, per above, you don’t really want to spend time with him). Elsewhere, some subplots, such as Nadia’s parent figure/shrink Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) never quite stick; indeed, that thread feels particularly rote, even though it relates directly into the realisations of how to resolve their loop.
Nadia: Let’s fuck this party in the mouth!
Structurally, the season is solid, however; it isn’t until episode six that we learn Alan doesn’t recall how he died. And then, in the seventh, that Nadia comes to the realisation she needs to forgive herself for rejecting her mother (Chloe Sevigny), while Alan needs to let go of losing Bea (Dascha Polanco).
The problem here is that, after all the build-up – that vital extended running time a series can offer – this can’t help but feel slightly underwhelming, emotionally underpinned or not. They both need to save each other; people and connections are important; the difference between a lonely life and death and a fully engaged positive embrace of the same. It’s all exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to be the case. Nevertheless, the Sliding Doors, missing-the-right-person finale is well done, Nadia and Alan truly having to exert themselves to ensure the oblivious other is safe, and the final merging of selves under the bridge, amid the procession, is about as good an ending as you could hope for from the material.
Nadia: What do love and morality have in common? Relativity. They’re both relative to your experience.
There’s a sense that Russian Doll could have been bolstered by Damon Lindelof-style theoretical intrigue or diversions on the plot side – The Leftovers is the high-water mark for character-focussed storytelling with a genre twist – that might have fuelled the plot more adroitly (as it is, Lyonne is the principle motor). Getting excited by Emily of the New Moon is the kind of thing Lindelof of Nic Pizzolatto would throw in to their work, but it ultimately lacks earth-shattering significance or mystique (it’s no Yellow King).
Likewise, falling back on computer language to describe their universe (which, after all, is currently everyone’s favourite means of describing the matrix/ projection/ hologram/ simulation) feels very familiar at this point, with Nadia being a programmer an obvious convenience to enable the discussion.
Alan: Do you think we’re dying at the same time?
On the other hand, certain choices definitely aid the flow; keeping the episodes down to a direct 25-30 minutes characterises the show as more of a straightforward, punchy sitcom than the dramedy it is. And that comic touch is very reliable throughout. The humorous deaths are nothing new (even Edge of Tomorrow has them), but continually falling down the same flight of stairs or into an open sidewalk cellar, or into the East River, provides solid slapstick yuks. Occasionally, you think a line is over-written (“Nobody chooses me. I’m an asshole where a choice should be”), only for a later retake to reveal that Mike (Jeremy Lowell Bobb) has self-scripted it for suitable occasions, so of course it is.
It’s all very well and admirable to have a positive message floating your time-loop narrative – after all, the reigning champ Groundhog Day is the king of that – but if you’re going to tackle this subgenre you really need to arm yourself with something else besides. Bill Murray is the bitter pill that helps the sentiment go down in that movie, without adverse side effects. The most recent notables managed it (Edge of Tomorrow, Happy Death Day) by having a keen take on their particular principle genres (SF and horror respectively), but I don’t think Russian Doll quite manages to set itself apart, or has quite enough narrative drive to sustain its length. Maybe Season Two will propel it into the realm of greatness.