TV Review: Netflix’s ‘Russian Doll’ & the Women Behind It

What would you do if you couldn’t stop dying?

The Netflix original series Russian Doll tackles this question over the course of eight brain-bending episodes. Reviews have compared it to “Groundhog Day,” but it establishes itself as an independent, dark and funny take on the time loop trope. As someone who loves a good time travel story, the loop narrative initially sucked me in, but I stayed for so much more.

The premise of the show

Russian Doll has a lean runtime of three hours and thirty minutes spread over eight episodes, making it easy to marathon. Orange Is the New Black star Natasha Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, a woman who can’t stop dying but can’t stay dead. Every cycle, she wakes up in the bathroom at her 36th birthday party, and then it begins again.

For a show with such a dark premise, Russian Doll is consistently funny. The beginning of each loop is marked by Harry Nilsson’s song "Gotta Get Up", and by the last episode, you just know things are going to get crazy when the opening notes play. Plus, Nadia dies in a myriad of distinctly New York mishaps — hit by a cab, falling down the stairs and one too-funny-to-spoil situation in a subway tunnel. Without an ally or knowledge of why this is happening, Nadia not only has to find a way out of the loop, but also overcome the persistent influence of past trauma surrounding her mother.

Lyonne’s performance as Nadia is one of the most enjoyable parts of the show. I’ve never seen a TV lead as controlled and measured as Lyonne. As far as main characters go, Nadia is strong and funny, but is also allowed to make mistakes and be unpleasant or cruel. Her likability comes from the fact that she doesn’t care who likes her. Many female characters only have goals surrounding men or they are for the sole purpose of being likable or eye-candy — there’s none of that in Russian Doll. Nadia is surrounded by unique female friends who have distinct personalities, lives and interests. It’s refreshing to see a woman onscreen who exists boldly and unapologetically, alongside other equally powerful people.

Behind the scenes

Russian Doll is feminist, not so much in the sense that its narrative prioritizes feminist rhetoric, but that it portrays women as complicated, fully rendered people. This is largely due to the behind-the-scenes crew. Three high-profile Hollywood women are behind the creation of the show: Amy Poehler, Natasha Lyonne, and Leslye Headland. Five of the seven executive producers are women, as is most of the regular cast and all the directors are women. This was done purposefully on the part of the creators.

“The women I work with and know are really, really complicated women. That’s the thing I’m most proud of. So we wanted to show a female character getting to live the width and breadth of life,” Poehler said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Lyonne, too, commented on the importance of unique voices — particularly women’s — in television.

“One surefire way that you guarantee that you get stories that haven’t been told before is, put them in the hands of people who haven’t had the opportunity to tell them,” she told the Los Angeles Times. Turns out, the story she told is intensely personal. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Lyonne stated that she and Poehler had been working on a project that eventually became Russian Doll for many years and that the show is “something closer to an autobiographical journey on my many dances with death.”

Getting the female perspective on television is intensely important. A 2018 report illustrated that in the UK, women wrote only 28 percent of scripted TV shows over the past 15 years. They were notably absent in comedy, due to long-outdated notions that women aren’t funny. For three prominent women to create a dark, scripted comedy show that holds a 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes is monumental, and hopefully an indicator of more to come.

Why you just ~gotta get up~ and watch this

I’m an avid supporter of Netflix originals, so I wasn’t surprised when Russian Doll delivered. It was part of my spring break Netflix marathon, and I was glad I set aside the time to binge-watch it. I went with a vision of how the show would go and ended up with something entirely different. I loved it. Did I expect to watch the show in its entirety in one day? Nope. Was I expecting a politically-driven commentary on the nature of human connection and mental illness? Not at all. Was I thrilled that both things happened? Absolutely. The show twists and turns without being haphazard or jarring the viewer. It mixes the excitement of a thriller, the time element of science fiction and relationships of a drama. The level of detail makes it a rewarding watch, both the first and second time around.

I knew I’d love the time loop, but I didn’t realize how much I’d love it and all the nuances it brought. Some of the show’s main themes — human connection, mental illness and the nature of reality — were explored in a way I’d never seen before and hadn’t expected. I particularly loved the focus on sanity and how “crazy” can be a complicated word for many people, as Nadia shows when she wonders if the time loop is just her losing her grip on reality. I’d never seen a show put so much focus into all the unpleasant truths behind dealing with mental illness, which was explored through Alan, the lead male character. As someone who struggles with anxiety and OCD, seeing these challenges portrayed on screen fostered a powerful experience for me. This, though, is reflective of what a good time travel show should be—zany and fun, but also indicative of reality.

When people find a new show, they often hope for a second season, but I don’t want one. Russian Doll was wonderfully weird, wacky and complete on its own, and I wouldn’t take away from that by restarting the loop.