Natasha Lyonne shines brightly in new Netflix series.
It’s Nadia’s birthday, and she’s less than thrilled that her bestie Maxine (Greta Lee) has used it as an opportunity to throw a party. Sure, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) is the kind of girl whose main occupation is drug and alcohol infused wild times. But tonight things are different, or is it that they are same?
From the collective minds of Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne, and Amy Poehler comes the latest binge-worthy streaming offering that takes a familiar premise and makes it seem fresh and important. And on the eve of the press screening for the sequel to “Happy Death Day,” I thought it worth pointing out that recycling “Groundhog Day” doesn’t have to be derivative rehash.
As the birthday evening progresses, Nadia stumbles across a city street to retrieve her beloved cat. She’s promptly mowed down by a speeding car. Awaking almost instantly back in Maxine’s hip, mood-lit bathroom, things have reset, Nadia’s back to one, and given a second chance. There will be a third, a fourth, and so on. The time loop continues, and with each restart, we learn more and more about this cynical, snarky character and why she might need to start over at square one.
Funny and telling, “Russian Doll” is an addictive watch. Eight episodes, each under 30 minutes, make for a manageable Sunday afternoon/evening binge. And what appears to be a limited series is self-contained—there’s a beginning, middle, and an end.
Naturally, the success of the show depends heavily on its cast, and leading the way is Natasha Lyonne. She’s a bonafide force of nature, delivering one-liners and throwing herself into the material with literal reckless abandon. She’s smart, saucy, sexy and sentimentally adorable, often in the same sentence of dialogue. Her eventual partner in crime is fellow looper Alan (Charlie Barnett), the straight man to Nadia’s constant stream of expletive filled mumble rants. It’s all great fun, but ultimately, the allegorical underpinnings take over.
Central to the meaning of “Russian Doll” is the concept of second chances. Until this one particular night, Nadia has eked by covering mistakes and insensitivity by walling off her emotions with loads of snark. Like a shark, she moves ever forward, never looking back to consider what might have been. By hiding behind false self-deprecating humor that is really meant to get ahead of embarrassment, nothing in her life has had permanence, until the repeating time loop erases everything she does. It’s the fantastical reset that forces Nadia, and us, to focus on the past in hopes of finding the key to unlock the future.
This material provides Lyonne with a perfect launching pad. Enveloped in various long coats and always with a cigarette dangling from her lips, she’s the perfect gumshoe, even, at one point, referencing “Columbo.” It’s a star-making turn, in a career that has already seen its fair share of excellent performances. Producers would do well to find a theatrical vehicle for this personality. And I don’t think the “Columbo” reference is a mistake, I’d love to see Lyonne in a big screen gender flip adventure of the clumsy, subtly crafty uber-detective.
Of note is the fleeting appearance of Burt Young, playing one of Alan’s neighbors. And veteran actress Elizabeth Ashley, with her lovely husky voice, plays a prominent role, as Nadia’s surrogate mother. There’s a scene early where we see old photos of Ashley, and I swear that one of them is her with ex-husband George Peppard. This is a show in which you get the impression that the varied cast is utterly devoted to making it work. And work, it does.
All episodes of “Russian Doll” are streaming now on Netflix.