We are warned not to judge a book by its cover. The same rule should apply to TV, seeing as how I nearly misjudged Netflix’s extraordinary and thoughtfully existential new series Russian Doll, which premiered on Friday.
Russian Doll seems, in its first episode, too clever by half and too hip by a mile. It’s a Lower Manhattan-set dramedy that stars Natasha Lyonne (Orange Is the New Black) as Nadia, a deeply cynical coder who experiences her own death over and over on the night of her bohemian, drugged-up birthday party.
As such, the series presents itself as a loopy misadventure in that uncharted territory between life and death; its manic, middle-of-the-night momentum recalls Martin Scorsese’s 1985 film After Hours, while its surrogate deep-meaning philosophy easily compares to 1993’s beloved Groundhog Day.
With so many shows about the mysteries of the afterlife and other frustrating states of limbo, Russian Doll looked, to me, like more of the calculated ennui of the moment.
But the more I watched - all eight episodes can be binged in a fast four hours - the more I was wrong. Russian Doll draws viewers in with questions large and small about death, depression and the redemptive power of friendship.
Each time Nadia dies (hit by a car, breaking her neck on a fall down the stairs, stumbling into an open cellar door on the pavement, a gas explosion), she is returned to her birthday party at her friend’s flat, looking at herself in the bathroom mirror and then making her way through a crowd of revellers.
She gets a fresh start each time, even as various indicators (rotting fruit, dying flowers, vanishing friends) suggest that this in-between state is a dangerous place to linger.
One speed bump along the way to getting into the show might involve whatever feelings the viewer has about Lyonne, an actor whose default setting is dyspeptic and curmudgeonly. She’s a magnificently intuitive grouch, and a loudly outspoken one - the kind of New Yorker that New York doesn’t really make any more, at least not if you’re looking at recent TV shows that feature women living in New York.
The first time Nadia dies, the world seems none the lesser for it; even she describes herself as the ill-mannered combination of Andrew Dice Clay and the animated red-headed heroine from Brave.
Waking up from her demise, she sets about like an angry detective, demanding answers: Is it about ghosts? Is it about abandoned Yeshiva schools? Is it about how she treated her last boyfriend? Is it about her dead mother, perish the thought? Or is her predicament like the game code she writes at work, simply a matter of some bug in the universe’s program?
Those who’ve already watched and praised the series generally agree that a plot swerve in the third episode becomes Russian Doll’s most compelling development, and it deserves to not be spoiled.
Suffice to say, it turns the series into something more fascinating than a Groundhog Day premise of endless resets and raises the viewer’s interest in Nadia’s eventual outcome.
Without giving it away, the series concludes in a vaguely upbeat manner that doesn’t quite track with the show’s earlier and more delightful mean streak.
We are suddenly presented with the idea that all the snarkiness and hardened edges must ultimately give way to a sunbeam.
Once Russian Doll catches on and everyone you know starts raving about it, it will be tempting for others to overlay some religious and philosophical analysis on top of that hope.
I’d certainly expect some essays from scholars and other professional know-it-alls, who love nothing more than a new Netflix hit to provide a fresh sermon topic on the very nature of existence.
If that’s how Russian Doll makes you feel, then have at it. I’d like to think Nadia would tell you to shaddup already and just enjoy it.