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Death and taxes may be inevitable, but there are more ways to flatline than to file. In “Russian Doll,” a new Netflix series, the protagonist attends her 36th birthday party and dies suddenly — again and again and again. In a “Groundhog Day”-esque loop, Nadia (played by Natasha Lyonne) must relive the day in question until she can figure out how to stop the cycle. Causes of death are varied and very New York: taxi accident, sidewalk cellar door, a plummeting air conditioner.
Co-created by Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, and featuring an all-female writing and directing team, the series becomes available to stream Feb. 1 and feels both familiar and strikingly different. It’s comedic, surely, but there’s depth, emotional honesty and a moody visual style to boot. Plus, it flies by — each of the eight episodes clocks in under 30 minutes.
Below, you’ll find four themes to note as you watch.
The concept wasn’t conceived overnight; it sprang from years’ worth of conversations, Headland says. Many series with women at the center focus on “romance, motherhood, careerism,” she notes. Some take the “I’m in my 20s and I’m a mess” approach; others are fish-out-of-water scenarios. The creators aren’t knocking those themes, Headland says, but the trio want to depict a female experience that’s more existential, “more about our behavior and our interior life.”
In the past, Poehler and Lyonne co-created a pilot that wasn’t picked up. When preparing to pitch a fresh series to Netflix, they wondered, “What’s really the thing that we want to say here?” Lyonne says. “We started talking about the idea of almost choose-your-own-adventure-style. If you could maybe go to a party and live through every series of options that night. You go home with everybody from the party at various points. You would still be left three, six months later with yourself, and having to face yourself in a meaningful way.”
The main character — named after Nadia Comaneci, Lyonne’s favorite gymnast from the ’80s — works as a video-game coder. Using that as an analogy, Headland says, the shows asks, “What’s the coding that we learn so early on that informs who we are?”
Nadia is fast-talking, fast-walking — she’s got what Lyonne calls “a certain strut of the New Yorker” — and painfully cool, with a steely outer shell and a cigarette ever dangling from her lips.
In death, as in life, Lyonne’s character is relatable and hilarious. Nadia’s earlier deaths play as absurd (there’s an extended debacle with a stairwell); later ones are increasingly haunting and specific to her demons. Dying serves as a metaphor, forcing Nadia to reckon with her frailties and slyly nudging viewers to consider theirs.
Headland says, “If we push you a little further, via our protagonist, into these more uncomfortable moral, existential or ethical places, how are you going to feel about that? Can we push the boundaries with you?”
In “Russian Doll,” there’s time travel. There are multiple dimensions. Pay attention to the wilting flowers and rotting fruit — they’re important.
Be on alert for a critical scene with an orange, which explains the movement and experience of time.
Enter the citrus.
Some narratives that play with time neglect to explain how the world of the story works; others drown you in exposition. “Russian Doll” explains the rules swiftly and visually.
Which is exactly what they were going for. Headland references another beloved time-bending film, one of her favorites: “Back to the Future.”
“The way they describe time travel in that movie is so succinct and so fun.”
Nadia’s party is brimming with hip guests, including her best friend, Maxine, who’s hosting the bash and cooking her a birthday chicken. But there’s an insular quality to the protagonist; she’s magnetic and sociable but allows few people access to her inner world. And Nadia’s no romantic, which she makes perfectly clear to a male character in Episode 1.
“I mean, ‘the one’ in practical application just means the one I’m going to die with, to take care of me when I’m infirm,” the character says, adding that her “move is going to be to wait until I’m in like my late 60s and then seal the deal. That is, of course assuming I don’t die between then and now.” (That last bit’s a wink from the writers. The line is delivered before Nadia’s first death.)
We see her exhibit the most tenderness and vulnerability with Ruth, Nadia’s mother-figure who’s named after Lyonne’s own godmother. But as the plot progresses and the deaths grow increasingly bizarre, Nadia will be forced to reveal the rawest parts of herself to a practical stranger to find some peace. “The show encapsulates, in a way, what I’ve learned about being a person,” Lyonne says. “What matters is ultimately, connection, and trying to show up for each other in this life.”
Weighty themes are significant in the series: fear of failure, mental illness, suicide. Undoubtedly, the creators hope you enjoy the “Russian Doll” ride. But Lyonne also wants to spark a conversation about woundedness and imperfection.
“We’re kind of in this weird time,” she says, noting that “in the ’60s we would have rock stars die at 27, and it seemed like maybe it was drugs, you know.”
Now, however, “increasingly it feels like adult people just can’t seem to make sense of life and take themselves out. And I think that it’s important that we have an open and free conversation about the underlying brokenness of the human experience and an end to the false ideals of perfectionism.”
Alan (Charlie Barnett), a stranger Nadia meets in an elevator partway through the series, grapples with a crippling need for order and perfection. Sometimes that plays for laughs; other times, it’s wrenching. In real life, Lyonne says, “The whole thing is a racket.”
“We work so hard for this idea of perfectionism, but none of us gain immortality. So, it feels a bit like a false bill of goods that we’re being sold — you better get skinny, you better get the job, you better get the boyfriend — do this, do that, or feel really bad about yourself. The idea that those are our two choices, it makes me sick.”
She wants “Russian Doll” to serve as a reminder, particularly for young women, “that you’re not alone in feeling this way.”
Read this after you’ve finished the series: The clever thrill ride of ‘Russian Doll’
Read this to learn more about Natasha Lyonne: 18 of Natasha Lyonne’s famous friends ask her anything they want
Read this for additional details about the show’s themes: ‘Russian Doll’ Is Natasha Lyonne’s ‘Autobiography Wrapped in a Mind-Bending Concept’