The Premise is Familiar, But Will It Last Forever?
Better Late Than Never: Russian Doll
Natasha Lyonne is one of those actresses who, despite breaking fairly big early in films, never quite achieved superstardom. Best known for her work as Jessica in the first two American Pie movies, she mainly worked in the independent film circuit in breakout roles in unconventional films such as Slums of Beverly Hills and But I’m a Cheerleader. After spending much of the 2000s in small roles unworthy of her, Lyonne had two options: she could have tried writing her own movies (a move the late Adrienne Shelley, a woman with similar difficulties was trying before her untimely murder), or she could try television. She aimed towards the latter, working regularly in series and animations before hitting the lottery as Nucky Nichols in the series that put so many great actresses on the map — Orange is the New Black.
Now, just before turning forty — an age that used to symbolize the death knell for so many actress — she has written (in collaboration with Amy Poehler) Russian Doll. There may be a certain symbolism in the concept of the series — a woman constantly dying before she can get any older — which will seem familiar to anyone who has seen Groundhog Day. Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, a woman who in the pilot is having her thirty-sixth birthday at a friend’s apartment in Manhattan. She takes a hit on a specially made joint laced with cocaine, she gets drunk, she tries to pick up a teacher who’s not quite married but not quite divorced. She complains about the fact that her cat Oatmeal has disappeared. She leaves the party, with the intent of hooking up with him. She sees her cat, runs across the street to get him, and is hit by a taxi. She then regains consciousness in the party. Nadia is understandably confused, so she stays at the party, and leaves much later. She runs into her cat a little later, then falls backwards and drowns in the East River. She wakes up in the party.
There is a bloodthirstiness to much of the comedy in Russian Doll, at least in the first two episodes. In the second episode, she trips over an open grating from one side and dies; next time out, she trips into from the other side. She then spends the next four times trying to leave the party, and each time falling down the stairs and breaking her neck. Then she stays in the party for the full night, has a fun time, and exits via the fire escape. She goes to see a psychiatrist friend of hers, Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) discusses her genuine fear of what is happening to her (there is clearly a history of insanity in her family) and she asks to put on a psychiatric hold. When Ruth says Bellevue, Nadia asked: “Is that the best facility?” Ruth honestly answers: “It’s the closest.” She’s evaluated in the ambulance, but then she starts an arguments which leads to a collision. She now seems to be in joyous stage of immorality. What she didn’t notice was that flowers, which were blooming in the Pilot have become to wilt.
There’s a lot to like about Russian Doll. I like the very black humor about it and the heroine in general. (There are a couple of lesbian orgies we see the aftermath of.) And Lyonne is genuinely good at her work. I can understand now why she’s high on the list for Best Actress in a Comedy at this year’s Emmys. The problem I have with the series is the premise. It’s a great one for a movie, but I have no idea how it could work for a high concept drama, much less a Netflix comedy. (Netflix apparently doesn’t have any such doubts; the series was renewed for a second season in June.) It works a lot better as a character piece, and there are some great throwaway jokes (I love how she keeps coming to in a restroom and Nadia keeps getting angry at the two women who come in whenever she leaves), but it’s still a high concept, and those famously have had problems being resolved.
For now, I’m going to give Lyonne and Russian Doll the benefit of the doubt. I’ll work my way through the first season. I just hope that when I get through, Netflix won’t force me to go through it from the beginning. Again and again.
My score: 3.5 stars.