'Russian Doll' Is the First Great Show of 2019
I don't know about you, but I'm kind of tired of the endless parade of TV mystery shows with complicated, multiple-timeline plots that require the viewer—that require me, specifically—to piece together the narratives in order to have anything that I'm consuming make any damn sense. These types of shows, usually dark and brooding prestige dramas about soulless men whose existential crises are supposed to shine a light on our collective troubled humanity or whatever, usually make me groan. I love a high-concept premise, but I hate it when I feel like I have to do the work of a TV show's writer, taking disparate plots that have been offered to me piecemeal and assembling them back together again. It's TV watching as labor, and it often makes me think that the people behind those kinds of shows have no idea what story they're actually trying to tell.
Consider the utter refreshment, then, that is Netflix's Russian Doll, a twisty and complex puzzle co-created by Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland, and Natasha Lyonne. The show stars Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov, a New York woman doomed to repeat the same and endless time loop that begins when she arrives at her 36th birthday party.
Russian Doll launches with the furious confidence that would make Westworld or True Detective's showrunners quake in their boots, shooting the viewer directly into the fully realized world of the contemporary East Village of Manhattan—a real place, of course, that doesn't need much world-building. And yet, you can't avoid the thrilling rush as Lyonne's Nadia navigates through her birthday party, populated by the creative types and hard-partying that she, a raspy-voiced computer programmer, keeps in her orbit. And it doesn't take long for Russian Doll to set up its premise: After leaving her birthday party with a charismatic middle-aged man who will just do for unadulterated and meaningless birthday sex, she then runs out into the night to look for her lost cat—and while searching for it, is struck by a car and dies.
And then she's back, shaken from death by Harry Nilsson's "Gotta Get Up" and thrown into the mania of her birthday party, over and over again. Nadia takes this sudden news about as well as you'd expect, first assuming a joint passed to her by her gracious host (a hilarious Greta Lee) is the culprit (it's apparently laced with cocaine, possibly ketamine) and naturally guessing that she's lost her mind—a conclusion that seems merited thanks to a life full of leftover trauma from Nadia's childhood.
But Nadia's initial existential reaction to this sudden repetition is where the similarities between Groundhog Day and Russian Doll end. Instead of using her new-found eternity to better herself in mischievous ways (she does not strategically gaslight a romantic interest into falling in love with her the way Bill Murray's Phil Conners does), Nadia turns into something like a hardboiled private investigator, determined to figure out the bug in this system while hilariously not avoiding certain death in distinctly Manhattanite ways (she often plummets to her death by falling into basement openings on the sidewalk—every New Yorker's nightmare).
The stakes are raised when Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a fellow wanderer who is stuck in his own depressive loop—he's cursed to repeat the night that he proposes to his long-time girlfriend, who turns him down while dropping the news that she's been cheating on him. Lyonne and Barnett make a perfect pair: a couple of clowns, with Lyonne as the upbeat player and Barnett the sad-faced sad sack. Together they investigate their joined trauma, traipsing around the East Village in search for answers while avoiding resets brought on by speeding taxis, gas leaks, or—less humorously—freezing to death on the street or accidental killings by their loved ones.
In eight perfectly paced episodes, a welcome change from the usually bloated cable series that stretch out narratives needlessly until they're limp and slow-moving, Russian Doll turns from comic to mournful and back around again. But at no point does the show lose its soul. The still-grimy East Village it depicts quite beautifully is a mystical place; the apartment party that Nadia keeps returning to is a former yeshiva, and the neighborhood's long history of gentrification is unable to wash away a spiritual core that seems to be centered in Tompkins Square Park, the show's beating heart. (Russian Doll might be the most lived-in show in recent years; maybe its because I spent many late nights wandering down Avenue A, but the show depicts the neighborhood with such an unflinching honesty that its impossible for me, a now-former New Yorker, not to be homesick.)
But even beyond its otherworldly connections—which makes it part of a bonafide television trend along with The Good Place and Forever—Russian Doll remains a grounded story about what it's like to be human. Death is part of the deal we unwittingly sign when we're born; the people we love will eventually leave us, and our own absence will cause hurt and pain in others as they grieve for us after we die. It's a realization Nadia learns on her spiritual journey, and her independent inclinations are challenged when she is reminded that her little world is bigger than she thinks, and that her actions have consequences on everyone she encounters, over and over again.
Russian Doll feels like an achievement, a high-concept premise told concisely in a structure that rarely feels confined or tight. It's both free-wheeling and contained, and it accomplishes what most shows are unable to pull off: it tells a universal human story in a specific and carefully constructed world. And that's a feat pulled off by its trio of creators, who all add their indelible stamps to the project. Natasha Lyonne has been long overdue for a starring venture after a career of scene-stealing, first as a teen actor whose distinctive voice and dry wit set her apart from her bubbly contemporaries in films like Slums of Beverly Hills. Amy Poehler, whose post-Parks and Recreation career has seen her working as a producer of the sharp and biting Broad City and Difficult People, shakes off any remainder of sweetness and embraces the hard-edged comedy of her early work with Upright Citizens Brigade. And Leslye Headland, whose caustic directorial debut Bachelorette remains one of the great contemporary films to showcase complicated women who dare you not to find something to appreciate and like about their flaws, once again shapes a well-rounded female character who is less interested in her own enlightenment as more as she's concerned with setting the clock right once again so she can simply go back to living the life she's established for herself.
Russian Doll is the first great show of 2019, a welcome narrative that upends convention, sparks its own versions of fan theorizing, and remains rooted in reality. In an era when TV has started to blend together, and new shows feel like complete rehashes of what we've barely had time to catch up on, the Lyonne-Poehler-Headland joint is a blissful reminder that there are still opportunities to fuck up the formulas. And it's the kind of show I wouldn't mind repeating over and over and over again.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.