Groundhog Day has become a touchstone of American comedy. It’s the go-to example of a film that can be both funny and philosophically profound. It’s telling that, while the film is so ingrained our culture that “Groundhog Day” has entered military slang for repetitive duty, no one has really tried to emulate it. Sure, time loops show up again and again in sci fi, but the comedians have left it alone. The tone is just too delicate, and the talents of Bill Murray and Harold Ramis too intimidating.
Russian Doll dares to riff on Groundhog Day, and your TV screen is all the better for it. Natasha Lyonne, who started out as a kid on Pee Wee’s Playhouse and has lately been an anchor of Orange Is The New Black, worked on the idea for ten years, enlisting Amy Poehler and writer Leslye Headland to bring it to fruition. Lyonne’s performance as Nadia Vulvokov, a self-destructive software engineer whom we meet in the bathroom at her 36th birthday party. The details of that party, thrown by her friend Maxine (Greta Lee) in her sprawling Manhattan loft, will become ingrained in her mind as she lives it over and over.
Lyonne’s performance is a revelation. Maybe that’s a weird thing to say about someone who has had such a varied career, but Nadia is an instant classic take on a caustic New Yorker. It’s extremely difficult to get that “magnificent bastard” chemistry just right, as the failure mode is “unsympathetic jerk”, which is why it’s remarkable that Lyonne’s Nadia is in the same league as Bill Murray’s Phil Conners. Murray’s speciality was the charming rake, and in Groundhog Day, he took it to the next level by gradually breaking down his character’s defenses until basic brokenness was all that remained. Nadia follows a similar trajectory, only she does it with all of the cultural expectations of niceness attached to being a woman—in other words, like Ginger Rogers, she does it backwards, and in heels.
I’m not going to say much about the plot, because deciphering the situation along with Nadia is half of Russian Doll’s deliciousness. But it’s already inspired dozens of different takes and interpretations, ranging from a metaphor for drug addiction and mental illness to an allegory of the gentrification of Downtown Manhattan. What’s important is, the writing is complex enough to support multiple interpretations, and it’s engaging enough to make you want to come up with your own.
In an era of streaming bloat, where stories can take unnecessary hours to unfold, Russian Doll’s episodes are 30 minutes each, and edited tight as a drum. The red herrings and thematic curlicues all seem relevant and necessary. And just when you think the writers have painted themselves into a corner, they they open another trapdoor and escape. Peeling back Russian Doll’s layers is the first great TV experience of 2019.