This is a particularly tricky review to write, but not because the merits of “Russian Doll” are at all ambiguous. On the contrary, the show is so striking and smart that I made a note to include it on my favorite TV shows of 2019 immediately after blowing through the season — which is saying something, since that was back in December of 2018.
But part of what makes the series so special is how it’s meticulously constructed, shedding layer after surprising layer until the bittersweet end. (Hence: “Russian Doll”.) Digging too deep into what makes this show great would mean betraying too many of its secrets, and the joy of discovering them is just too much fun to ruin here.
So here’s what I can say: Created by Natasha Lyonne, writer/director Leslye Headland, and producer Amy Poehler, “Russian Doll” is spiky, funny, devastating, and downright bizarre. It follows simmering New York City misanthrope Nadia (Lyonne) through the most horrific, life-changing, revelatory night of her life — over, and over, and over, and over again.
Stuck in her 36th birthday party for seemingly the rest of time (whatever “time” means when it loops in and around itself like this), Nadia cycles through her life, related trauma, and as many drugs as she can get her hands on. At first, her unraveling doesn’t quite register for her hard-partying friends (Greta Lee and Rebecca Henderson), nor her mooning ex-boyfriend (Yul Vasquez), nor even Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley), a therapist who’s acted as Nadia’s surrogate mother for as long as she can remember. After all, Nadia greeted 36 with open disbelief that she even lived to see it. Her mother, an almost mythic figure who looms over Nadia’s psyche and the series alike, never did.
Lyonne and Headland have worked together before; Lyonne appeared as Alison Brie’s best friend in Headland’s underrated rom-com “Sleeping With Other People.” But “Russian Doll” is a perfect marriage of both their particularly acerbic sensibilities, letting Headland play with new storytelling techniques while (finally) giving Lyonne a complex role that’s worthy of her formidable snarl and talent. (A fact that is perhaps less surprising given the fact that “Russian Doll” was entirely directed and written by women, including Headland, Jamie Babbit, and Lyonne herself.)
Eventually, Nadia meets Allen (Charlie Barnett), a neurotic square who, to their mutual confusion, turns out to be a kindred spirit. At first, he plays Allen almost robotically, staring into the unfolding mayhem with a blank expression that keep his motivations inscrutable. But as the show burrows deeper into his psyche, both Barnett and Allen get to explore new aspects of his personality that make him an integral part of the show’s unusual fabric.
Together, Nadia and Allen learn more about themselves and each other then either one of them ever would’ve guessed or even wanted to in the first place. Their burgeoning friendship depends on the kind of delicate dynamic that could go wrong if either actor weren’t completely on their game, but luckily, Barnett gives as good as he gets. He and Lyonne prove to be fantastic scene partners, especially when they’re allowed the room to flex their comedic and dramatic muscles in equal measure.
That blend of genres is where “Russian Doll” thrives. Often, when it seems like the show has leaned fully into its comedy, not to mention Lyonne’s particularly sharp comic timing, it effortlessly shifts gears into pure drama. It chases punchlines with stark revelations, blends jokes with twists so dark that watching it often becomes a practice in laughing through startled tears.
So, yes: the less you know about “Russian Doll” going into it, the better. But once you’re out, good luck fighting the the temptation to dive right back into its calculated chaos all over again.
Premieres Friday, February 1 on Netflix.
Cast: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett, Greta Lee, Yul Vazquez, Elizabeth Ashley.