Russian Doll, Netflix review: a hipster rebooting of Groundhog Day with a lot of cynicism – but a lot of heart too
Just when it seemed Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror had cornered the market in puzzle-box television, up pops Russian Doll, an agreeably loopy magic realist caper set in a picture-postcard updating of Annie Hall New York.
Starring Orange is the New Black’s Natasha Lyonne and produced by comedian Amy Poehler, the eight-part Netflix series starts off as a hipster rebooting of Groundhog Day. On the night of her 36th birthday, sweary Manhattanite Nadia (Lyonne) is knocked down and killed. As with Bill Murray and the prophetic gopher, death is, however, merely a blip. She wakes up back at her birthday party, washing her hands in the bathroom to the creepy strains of Harry Nilsson’s Gotta Get Up.
But Russian Doll is soon revealed to be more than a quirky reincarnation mystery. Doused in cynical humour – the entire population of New York’s East Village is apparently provisioned with an endless supply of drop-dead zingers – it peels back the layers to become a wisecracking meditation on friendship, loss and identity. Along the way it proves remarkably adept at yanking the heart-strings.
A cosmic joke, we learn, has been played on Nadia. She can die over and over but will always snap back to the same bathroom, at precisely the same point in the Harry Nilsson ditty. She is thus doomed to eternally wander the strip-lit East Village experiencing the moment she turns 36 in infinite ways.
So far so fashionably dystopian. But, like a binge-watch dance of the seven veils, it soon becomes clear that the universe isn’t laughing at Nadia. Instead – and just like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day – it is giving her an opportunity to learn about herself.
Nadia initially panics but eventually tries to make the most of her predicament. She hooks up with a sleazy stranger (Jeremy Bobb), confronts her best friend (Greta Lee) over the provenance of the drugs on offer at the birthday bash and searches for her missing cat.
There are also encounters with sundry ghosts from the past, miscreants and weirdos portrayed by, among others, Chloë Sevigny, playwright Jocelyn Bioh and Lizzi Bougatsos of the indie band Gang Gang Dance. Harry Nilsson-aside, the soundtrack, for its part, brims with downtown New York cool – so much so that it feels like we’re watching a Doctor Who special scripted by Woody Allen, or (less problematically perhaps) an acolyte such as filmmaker Noah Baumbach.
And then, bang, Nadia is run over by a car, careens off the side of a building or trips on a stairs and snaps back to the bathroom and to Harry Nilsson. Eventually, this infinite cycle of rinse and repeat brings her into the vicinity of nerdy Alan (Charlie Barnett). Which is when Russian Doll engages in one final act of disrobing and stands before us as a phantasmagorical romantic comedy.
Alan, like Nadia, has tumbled through a rip in the fabric of reality and onto a Möbius-strip from which there is no apparent escape. As they fall into one another’s orbit Nadia and Alan realise they are somehow connected. Only by helping each other can they escape the nihilistic hamster wheel on which they are imprisoned.
Russian Doll is more quirky than apocalyptic and, unlike Black Mirror, the nuts and bolts of the story make little sense once you’ve watched all the way through. As a potty-mouthed video game programmer, Lyonne (who co-created the show along with Poehler and Bachelorette producer Leslye Headland) is, moreover, an acquired taste.
The former teenage star – once more famous for her substance abuse battles and health issues than for her acting – delivers a broad performance in an even broader New York accent and at moments seems to be actively impersonating Al Pacino circa Heat. She is so very shouty.
Yet there’s an undercurrent of twinkling optimism that gets past your defences. As Nadia and Alan work their way through the existential rat’s maze, Russian Doll ultimately has an uplifting message about life, death and the importance of human connection. Fans of Brooker-style contrarian technophobia will be underwhelmed. Everyone will be too busy having their cockles warmed to notice.
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