When the trailer for Russian Doll first appeared on Netflix, it looked like a clever, funny show with an inventive take on the time loop, and it is. Russian Doll has an exciting, fast moving plot with funny dialogue. Natasha Lyonne is perfection as the prickly, sardonic Nadia. The show immediately presents a compelling mystery. Fans in all corners of the internet have proposed esoteric theories about Nadia’s time loop. But the show’s most affecting attribute is its searingly accurate and utterly heartfelt depiction of a person dealing with the effects of trauma. Russian Doll strikes the rare balance of depicting pain unsparingly without descending into bleakness. It provides hope without minimizing the difficulty of the journey. Just like life, it holds everything at once.
Much was initially made of the time loop format used in Russian Doll. Social media was rife with comparisons to Groundhog Day, but comparing the two would be like comparing every single time travel movie to Back to the Future. Groundhog Day was neither the first nor the last movie or TV show to use a time loop. It is simply one way to tell a story. In Russian Doll, the time loop is integral to telling this specific story and to immersing the viewer in Nadia’s emotional journey.
Spoilers to follow.
As depicted in the trailer, main character Nadia dies on her birthday, only to come back to life staring into a mirror in a bathroom. She continues to die over and over, awakening each time in that same spot, starting the night over from the beginning. Small details change in each reset, as Nadia tries desperately to figure out what is going on, while her friends remain entirely unaware of her plight.
As we get to know Nadia, we learn she is a smart, sarcastic video game developer. She copes with her problems by self medicating and by weaponizing humor to keep other people at arm’s length. It becomes apparent that Nadia has experienced a major childhood trauma that she is also attempting to keep at arm’s length.
Nadia eventually meets another person, Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett), who is experiencing the same death time loop. Alan has his own problems: he is suffering depression and low self-worth, which he attempts to bandage over with perfectionism and codependent behavior. His death time loop is occurring the day he is dumped by his girlfriend, which also happens to be the day he planned to propose to her.
Nadia and Alan race through the streets of New York, trying to figure out how they are connected so they can escape their death time loops. Nadia and Alan are entirely opposite in most ways, yet they are on the exact same journey. They are both trapped in self-destructive behaviors that will ruin their lives unless they can find the courage to do something different. Russian Doll portrays this journey with devastating insight.
Russian Doll contains some of the best character writing on television, starting first and foremost with Nadia. A female character with Nadia’s personality is rarely portrayed authentically in American media. Nadia is sarcastic. She chain smokes, does drugs, has casual sex, and curses. Writers often seem to doubt women like this exist, and they are often written with a self-conscious “she’s not like other girls” aesthetic. But Nadia is like many other girls. She defies stereotypes, not reality. The writers of Russian Doll clearly understand that.
In lesser hands, Nadia’s damage would likely be sexually objectified, or she would ultimately be punished for her “immoral” behavior. (Or both!) Russian Doll does neither. There is no male gaze, no moralizing. They don’t ask, “Is she still feminine? Is she still sexually attractive to men?” They just tell her story. It seems simple, but it is so rare in American media that it felt like a revelation. Russian Doll is proof that having women in your writers’ room raises the bar, especially when depicting women characters that defy stereotype.
Beyond Nadia and Alan, there are other indelible characters: the game and open hearted Lizzy, the generous and witty Maxine, the wise and devoted Aunt Ruth, the hilariously douchey Mike… the list goes on and on. I appreciate a show with a deep bench.
It all adds up to a series that is destined to be a classic. Russian Doll is exciting, funny, and rich in character. It shows how brutal and isolating trauma, mental illness, and addiction can be. It reminds you how powerful kindness is, and how human connection can make all the difference. It is a powerful love story to survivors. Aunt Ruth said it best:
You were this tiny seed, buried in darkness, fighting your way to the light. You wanted to live. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
Russian Doll Season 1 is now airing on Netflix.