For most of us, we play the game of life with the seriousness of a heart attack. We have no other choice. Each day we wake up and try to cheat death to the next sunrise. Few of us are given the opportunity to re-spawn and attempt to survive the same day over and over again like we’re the heroes of our very own role-playing game. In the Netflix original series Russian Doll, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) designs those very games, until suddenly she seems to be living one.
It’s Nadia’s 36th birthday, and she’s enjoying it to the utmost with some drinks, some drugs, a little bit of sex, and an unending parade of cigarettes to her lips. Nadia seems to have a death wish, even if she doesn’t know it. Her rowdy, debauched lifestyle throws caution to the wind as she blows incessant clouds of carcinogenic smoke along with it. Her embrace of life is as reckless as it is carefree, as morbid as it is affirmative. She curses like a particularly irritable sailor — as likely to extend an “eff you” as a “how you do?” — but there’s something endearing in her abrasiveness. Like all self-imposed outcasts, you can tell she has a soft spot guarded behind the cultivated cynicism and isolation. On this birthday, though, a snag in the fabric of space-time forces Nadia to examine her usual tendencies and discover what it is she’s been hiding from, both in the world and within herself.
The series begins at Nadia’s birthday party. Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” commences over the sound system like a call to arms: “Gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get home before the morning comes.” Nadia gives her billowing fountain of long red locks one last adjustment in the bathroom mirror before turning to rejoin her fellow carousers. The bathroom door, an art-installation designed by her two best friends, is embellished with a phosphorescent triangle that glows like a cosmic vagina and opens with the pull of a handgun door-handle. Nadia will soon learn each exit from the bathroom is a birth into a new universe and a capitulation to a new death. First she’s the victim of a fatal car crash, then a drowning, then several failed attempts to descend the stairs. Each time, she finds herself back in the bathroom and Mr. Nilsson back on the stereo. “Gotta get up, gotta get out.”
Nadia isn’t about to take this cosmic joke lying down. As a software engineer, she knows every game is governed by rules. If she can figure out the rules, she can figure out how to win. Each new go at life is a chance to gather more clues and strategize a different plan of attack against her increasingly repetitive, imminent demise. Over eight digestible 25-minute episodes, Russian Doll is a whirlwind of sleuthing out the supernatural.
Leslye Headland, writer of the feature films Bachelorette and Sleeping with Other People, is a co-creator of Russian Doll, along with Amy Poehler, who needs no introduction, and Lyonne, best known for her role as “Nicky” in Orange Is the New Black. Of the three of them, it’s Lyonne, the star, who most has her fingerprints on the series. Poehler’s suburban sensibilities are nowhere to be found in the concrete landscapes of Russian Doll’s Alphabet City and her guffaws style of humor has been bulldozed by a whip-smart, foul-mouthed, urban erudition that’s more Andrew Dice Clay than Andy Samberg.
Like Dice Clay, Nadia is a factory of vulgarities, insults, and aphorisms, and much of the pleasure of the series is watching her elbow her way through the world while simultaneously trying to make amends. But don’t let the faint whiff of simplistic moralizing deter you — Russian Doll eschews easy answers and trite narratives of personal growth. Nadia doesn’t find the straight and narrow; she and the show are more interested in life’s bends and vortices.
Russian Doll streams on Netflix.