Be warned, Russian Doll is as dark as The Good Place is light-hearted and colourful, but it’s darkly humorous, rather than darkly grim. And if anything, its message is even more life-affirming.
Nevertheless, viewers should note that suicide and depression form part of the rich tapestry of subject matter explored in this original and well-observed dramedy.
It’s Nadia’s birthday. She’s turning 36, an age her mother never reached.
We meet her as she stares into the mirror in an absurdly decorated bathroom at her friend Maxine’s apartment. Maxine (Greta Lee) has thrown her a lavish party.
Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) and her friends are affluent, creative, and free-spirited professionals, mostly in their 30s and 40s. That hinterland generational mix of older millennials and younger gen-Xers. (Maxine’s apartment is fantastic and I would trade half my clothes for her stylish blouse.)
Despite her evident wealth and the many people who clearly love her, Nadia is unfulfilled. She smokes; she drinks; she has casual sex with a pseudo-intellectual arsehole.
And she ends the night being run over by a car when she spots her cat on the other side of the road. (Note: the cat is fine.)
This is not really a spoiler, as Nadia immediately returns to the exact point at which she started the evening: staring into the mirror in her friend’s bathroom while someone knocks on the door.
Meanwhile, nearby, Alan (Yul Vazquez) is having the worst night of his life.
Alan is also well off – they are not really like any millennials I know. He is physically fit and healthy – in fact, obsessively so. He suffers from intense anxiety and depression and attempts to manage these conditions by rigidly ordering his life according to strict routines. He never explicitly states that he suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, but that seems to be implied.
This night, Alan plans to propose to his girlfriend, and she plans to break up with him.
Alan is also stuck in a loop where he starts the night staring into his bathroom mirror and ends the night by dying.
While Nadia immediately starts trying to figure out what is happening, Alan simply assumes he is being punished, and adjusts his routine to compensate.
Eventually they meet, and together they begin to solve the puzzle of what the hell is actually going on.
This is amazing.
Anyone who has seen Orange is the New Black will know that Natasha Lyonne can act. A witty, drug-taking woman with a self-destructive streak is not a very great leap in casting from the role that made her famous, but it’s undeniable that she does it well.
Once you know that Lyonne wrote Russian Doll in partnership with Amy Poelher (Parks and Recreation), it’s time to sit up.
Russian Doll is smart, it’s funny, and it kept me guessing right until the very end.
It has a good balance of male and female characters, represents a variety of sexualities, is racially diverse, and doesn’t do badly at all in its representation of mental health issues. While the life-affirming resolution could be taken to tie things up too easily, it’s fair to say that there’s no suggestion of an easy cure for depression or anxiety. And though the stigma of mental health issues is recognised, both Nadia and Alan have people in their lives who treat their respective difficulties with unpatronising compassion.
Particular credit is due for the character Ruth – the therapist who raised Nadia after her mother died. Played by the wonderful Elizabeth Ashley, Ruth doesn’t fall into the cliches of cookie-cutter psychotherapists one usually sees on film and TV. She offers no reductive solutions, and instead emphasises the need to build a relationship with her patients. She also steadfastly calls anyone and everyone up on the use of ableist terms in her house.
While I wouldn’t put too much stock in the metaphysics of time loops explored in Russian Doll, it’s internally consistent according to the rules of the universe it establishes. It’s also more interesting, complex, and satisfying in both structure and resolution than Groundhog Day, the most famous example of the time loop trope. I say that as someone who rates Groundhog Day quite highly.
Please take the time to enrich your life. This is an original and exciting gem of a show.