Reviews

Russian Doll: Netflix’s Love Letter to Groundhog Day

Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) is stuck in a time loop. She didn’t know if she would ever make it to her 36th birthday and now it’s unclear if she’ll ever escape it. She dies and is reborn every night, in a relentless cycle, queued by Harry Nilson’s jaunty “Gotta Get Up”:

Gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get home before the morning comes
What if I’m late, gotta big date, gotta get home before the sun comes up
Up and away, got a big day, sorry can’t stay, I gotta run, run, yeah
Gotta get home, pick up the phone, I gotta let the people know I’m gonna be late

Russian Doll continues the great tradition of endless time loop films, as found in Edge of Tomorrow (2014), the superb Happy Death Day (2017), and the great originator, Groundhog Day (1993). The Bill Murray classic has spawned a series of imitators, and has become a genre unto itself. What is wonderful here is we have writing and direction by an all-female team – Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne, and Amy Poehler – respectively, providing it with a strong, unique voice.

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Russian Doll, 2019. Netflix.

The first season is ideal binge-watching material. Each loop conveys new information and twists that keep the show moving at a constant meter. It’s smartly conceived. Nadia’s a game designer and when the show delves into game design logic (all too rarely), she’s a winning character with great depth to explore. The game design logic draws interesting parallels to another recent Netflix project, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018). Nadia and her friends are often found chewing the scenery, dialoguing implausibly in ways that move a scene forward but do not always make perfect sense for who the characters are in their space.

There is a working playfulness to the repetition. Lyonne is a brilliantly fast witted and acerbic actress. We know this much from her role as the hard-living Nicky from Orange is the New Black (2013-Present). It’s not a stretch to suggest she’s playing the same character here. She has always deserved her own spotlight and makes full use of a short eight episodes.

The direction is well-considered, if not occasionally sporadic. Later episodes may feel like a different show entirely. There are a couple that verge into full on psychological horror. It’s actually a brilliant little turn that completely unhinges the show and Nadia as she begins to realize the nature of her resetting clock. Other episodes are simple forays into comedy, all-around effective toward this end.

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Russian Doll, 2019. Netflix.

Sharp-tongued and fast on its feet, Russian Doll pulsates toward a satisfactory ending. It never overstays its welcome. There is plenty of material to bridge a second season upon. Specifically, there is so much further room to explore exactly what it means to be a game designer stuck in a stacking logic loop, that is too rarely explored. It allows occasionally moments of brilliant self-commentary, one character says – “I think there is a lot of merit in copying. I’m interested in plagiarism as an art form.” And that’s exactly what Russian Doll is, the artful adaptation of Groundhog Day into the female perspective.

You wake up every day, turn on the TV, and Netflix has a new show. The cycle continues ad infinitum. When something like Russian Doll shows up, it may shake the routine. It’s the kind of show you power through in a single day because it demands that much of your attention. Hearty recommendation for its feminist take on a genre trending toward interesting experimentation.

8/10

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