You gotta love a Netflix series that explores existential dread and the nature of time; an edgier, feminist take on Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin’s classic 1993 comedy, Groundhog Day; and makes allusions to the Divine Comedy, The Odyssey, and the power and confusion of liminal spaces. Plus, Harry Nilsson’s 1971 song, “Gotta Get Up,” serves as a catchy, incessant reminder that life is but one big redo until it is not.
Netflix’s original dark comedy, Russian Doll, produced by the show’s star Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, aired on February 1, 2019. Lyonne’s acting, from playing Opal on Pee Wee’s Playhouse in 1986 to her coming-of-age role as Vivian in the Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), which spoke to many of us in college at the (almost) turn of the century, has always had dynamic range, even if she has been occasionally typecast as a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, quick-talking New Yorker.
In Russian Doll, Lyonne’s character Nadia Vulvokov relives her 36th birthday, again and again, dying evermore only to return to her birthday party, resurrected yet again to try to figure out what forces have thrown her into a perpetual time loop of sometimes despair, often comedy, and frequently deep insight and reflection about our mortality, humanity, and the false binary of good and evil. Along the way she discovers a fellow time looper in Alan Zaveri, played by Charlie Barnett, who serves as the earnest and depressed straight man to Nadia’s irreverent, devil-may-care super sleuth.
In all honesty, the series is a darkly comedic look at Nietzche’s statement, “If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” In one episode, Nadia is even called an abyss by a former flame, who, while not yet blaming her for the disintegration of his marriage, makes it clear he feels abandoned by the lack of commitment Nadia is willing to give even after he is a “free man.”
Working hard enough, as Alan confesses to his girlfriend Beatrice in one episode, cue the epic poem and the same name of one of Dante’s guides, did not make their relationship work. Sometimes the effort you give is not the outcome you want, no matter how much you put your head down, how much you hope for a different resolution. And that conundrum, of not always being able to work our way out of bad-luck or tough-luck situations, serves as a mirror for how the characters deal with the circumstances they are placed in.
Lastly, for the critics who ask if Russian Doll rips off Groundhog Day, the ’90s film which served as an allegory for self-improvement and as a favorite of many Buddhists, Catholics, Jews, Hindus, and others for the timeless themes of spiritual rebirth, the importance of performing good works or mitzvahs, and the hardship of purgatory, embellishing a storyline based on time loops is not derivative or unoriginal.
Instead, Russian Doll offers, as most works of inspired art, a fresh look at the complicated morality of our intersecting actions, how our choices affect others and our own path, and that payback is not always karmic, preordained, or just. Payback is, in fact, as Nadia might tell you, a bitch.