The fatal attraction of new Netflix series Russian Doll

by Diana Wichtel / 14 February, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Netflix Russian Doll tv

Netflix dramedy Russian Doll is confounding, random and annoying, but stick with it.

Is it her mysteriously missing and reappearing cat, Oatmeal? Is it the joint laced with ketamine she is given by her friend Maxine? Is it her dead mother? Something must be causing gobby, chaotic video game coder Nadia to keep dying, only to wake up back at Maxine’s flat. Nadia has turned 36 and is condemned to keep enduring what looks like the least fun birthday party on the planet. Hell is other people, a sort of social fire where you are eternally burnt but never consumed and there’s no escape.

Netflix’s dramedy Russian Doll is Groundhog Day, sort of, or any of a number of shows featuring wise-cracking dead people and time loops. “This is The Game,” says Nadia at one point. “I’m Michael Douglas.”

It’s set in Alphabet City, a neighbourhood in East Village, Manhattan, for which the term “bohemian” is woefully inadequate. What with all the dying that only she remembers, Nadia is soon doubting her own – admittedly already shaky – sanity. But, then, what is sanity? “I love crazy,” her friend Lizzy reassures her. “Today I’m helping an artist make blood jelly to suspend over a 13th-century mock debtors’ prison.” You get the vibe.

Nadia is played by Orange Is the New Black’s incandescent Natasha Lyonne with all the subtlety of a kick to the knee on a time loop. Constant dying apart, there’s a lot going on. Nadia’s surname is Vulvokov. The door of the bathroom where she finds herself starting her bad day over and over again features an artwork by Lizzy of an unflinchingly female design. You pull the trigger of a gun to open it. The symbolism is … very symbolic.

Nadia’s chain-smoking, boozing, drugging idea of a good time – or just getting by – achieves the considerable feat of outdoing Benedict Cumberbatch’s epic bender on Patrick Melrose. Self-destructive? There’s a scene where she hurls a raw chicken (don’t ask) and doesn’t wash her hands afterwards. It’s a miracle she’s still alive for the universe to keep killing off.

There’s a backstory involving a dead mother with mental health issues. There’s a therapist, Ruth, a sort of trippy surrogate mother. Nadia pals up with a homeless guy who looks oddly familiar. “Don’t touch me when I’m sleeping,” he advises. “I got serious reflexes. Deadly.” This is a world where anything and anyone are potentially lethal. It’s the sort of show where a description like “a transactional blow-job with a side of rabbi” begins to make perfect sense. Did I mention the building in which Nadia is endlessly trapped in Maxine’s apartment used to be a Jewish seminary?

Nadia doesn’t take any of this lying down, once she’s back on her feet after her latest death. She becomes a sort of disaster-prone detective, stalking the streets, delis, clubs and drug dens – it must be the ketamine – to find out what the heck (substitute bracingly bad language here) is going on. A Hieronymus Bosch version of Manhattan plays a supporting role. Even America is having a mid-life crisis. Lizzy mentions she’s dating a 22-year-old woman. “Does she know what 9/11 is?” asks Nadia. “Does anyone?” says Lizzy.

The universe doesn’t have to try very hard to dispatch Nadia. She never looks where she is going. Maybe that’s a lesson she’s supposed to learn as the Russian doll layers of her existential crisis get peeled away. Her life is a suicide note in snappy episodes taken to its surreally logical non-conclusion.

Russian Doll is, at first – for the viewer as for Nadia – confounding, random and annoying. Stick with it. I haven’t got to the end yet but it’s possibly about watching someone discover how to survive and find some meaning in a crazy world, and we can all use some tips on that. As Nadia remarks, “F---ing clues abound.”

Russian Doll, Netflix.

Video: Netflix

This article was first published in the February 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


Are FitBits a boon for your health – or a threat to your privacy?
107343 2019-06-20 00:00:00Z Health

Are FitBits a boon for your health – or a threat t…

by Donna Chisholm

One in five New Zealanders owns a fitness tracker, but what effect do they have? Donna Chisholm investigates.

Read more
Larry Smarr: The world's most self-measured man
107358 2019-06-20 00:00:00Z Health

Larry Smarr: The world's most self-measured man

by Donna Chisholm

A US computer scientist who has been monitoring the state of his health for nearly two decades says he’s healthier now than he’s been in 15 years.

Read more
The most common scams – and how to avoid them
107425 2019-06-20 00:00:00Z Tech

The most common scams – and how to avoid them

by Joanna Wane

"Dear Beloved Friend"....

Read more
The National get in touch with their feminine side in I Am Easy to Find
107163 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Music

The National get in touch with their feminine side…

by James Belfield

As The National announce two intimate theatre shows in Auckland, James Belfield reviews their brave and collaborative new album.

Read more
German violinist Carolin Widmann brings her daring style to NZ
107272 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Music

German violinist Carolin Widmann brings her daring…

by Elizabeth Kerr

The award-winning musician will make her NZSO debut playing Stravinsky’s only violin concerto.

Read more
In defence of NZ Rugby boss Steve Tew
107277 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Sport

In defence of NZ Rugby boss Steve Tew

by Paul Thomas

Naysayers may rail against rugby’s continued “corporatisation” under Steve Tew, but he’s given them plenty to applaud as well.

Read more
How New Zealand's community newspapers are bucking the trend
107362 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

How New Zealand's community newspapers are bucking…

by Venetia Sherson

Community newspapers are bucking the trend, as enterprising new owners breath life back into them.

Read more
What filmmaker Andrea Bosshard learned from her goldsmith father Kobi
107381 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

What filmmaker Andrea Bosshard learned from her go…

by Ken Downie

Filmmaker Andrea Bosshard inherited a creative streak from her goldsmith father Kobi but he also taught her an important life lesson.

Read more