Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne)—it’s like “Volvo,” but “with more letters and dyslexic”—wants little to do with her own birthday party. With a sigh, she exits her friend Maxine’s (Greta Lee) bathroom and enters the party. She does not mingle with her guests or accept any attention. She just smokes a joint with Maxine and picks up some schlubby academic type named Mike (Jeremy Bobb) for a one-night stand.
Later that night, she gets struck by a car and promptly dies. But the show’s not over there, for Nadia finds herself back in Maxine’s bathroom during her party. Confused, she tries to go back to the party without thinking about it. Then, she falls down a flight of stairs and dies.
Bathroom. Nadia is rightfully a bit freaked out. “What is in that joint?” is her first question. It’s laced with cocaine, but she’s done that before without triggering a multiple-death mental breakdown. After some investigating, it comes to light that perhaps it was not coke-laced weed but ketamine. A-ha! Only, she’s done that before, too.
Sure, we know it’s a Groundhog Day scenario, but for the first two half-hour installments of Russian Doll, Lyonne’s Nadia frantically scours New York City for some explanation for her mortal predicament. It is fun, if not a bit redundant. No, it is the turn halfway through the show’s inaugural season that really throws a wrench into things and makes Russian Doll so engrossing.
This is not to say that the show is slow to start up. It is breezy and consistently funny from the jump, with Lyonne deftly tossing out one-liners like it is akin to breathing for her. And she is surrounded by colorful, well-rounded figures that add to the humor. Maxine and her not-quite-dating partner Lizzie (Rebecca Henderson). Nadia’s former guardian (Elizabeth Ashley). The aforementioned scumbag Mike, who would not play for laughs if it were not for Nadia’s canny ability to bed him and then take him to task.
It is a good ensemble of characters, which only gets stronger when Alan (Charlie Barnett) is introduced. The chemistry between Nadia and Alan, two characters who could not be further apart in personality, is spectacular. The two carry the more tonally-challenging back-half of the season with aplomb. What starts as a high concept comedy becomes increasingly cerebral and dark as it progresses, and Lyonne and Barnett sell the tonal fluctuations well.
The broad strokes of Russian Doll and its plot are satisfying, but the show appears to reward repeat viewing as well. There is a density to the scripting and imagery, and few things are loudly telegraphed. The minor alterations in the death-based iterations are enjoyable to find, and they often lead to intersecting paths and possible hints as to what exactly has befallen Nadia. And there is something intriguing about the repetition of certain motifs: rotting fruit, mirrors, yonic symbols, etc.
Russian Doll is a compelling experience. Creators Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler have taken a recognizable and perhaps tired plot conceit (Happy Death Day 2U opens nationwide February 13) and have energized it with clever writing, charismatic acting, and engaging storytelling. And, at eight 30-minute episodes, it is a worthwhile commitment, even to those who feel they don’t have time for another television show in their lives.
Russian Doll: B+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)