I love when you discover a series by pure happenstance. There I was, about to watch another comforting episode of Great British Bake-Off and yet, something nudged me over to the new and experimental-looking Russian Doll. In some other timeline, I watched British people make crazy cakes, but in this one, I had my mind blown by quality of this show.
Now, here’s the thing, The best way to experience this show is to let it surprise you. And while I will not spoil of the plot enough to warrant a warning, I do urge that you stop now and watch it for yourself. Though, it should be said, these warnings have never stopped me either, so no pressure if you do read ahead.
Russian Doll follows two characters, Nadia and Alan, as they keep dying over and over again. No matter what they try, or how long they last, they die and return back to the same moment. Neither knows why but they manage to find each other in their chaos. Slowly and surely, they start to pull back the layers on their own emotional nightmares and faults. Nadia is forced to confront her emotional detachment after a difficult childhood with her mother, while Alan is dealing with losing control of his life after he finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him.
Now, I did not set out today to binge a season of a new show and write a review. But that’s what happened. And honestly, it’s for two reasons: the acting and the direction. The way this show is shot is just marvelous – from the color composition to the way the camera moves throughout the space to highlight the mood, to the absolutely devastating timing (comedic or dramatic). The way characters work around the space, especially in conversation, really makes the whole thing feel dynamic. Leslye Headland and Jamie Babbit, who directed the majority of the episodes, really know what they were doing and really created a thing of beauty.
But the star of the show is…well the stars. We’ll tackle Charlie Barnett, who plays Alan. Alan is a very straight-laced character who doesn’t ask for help from anyone. He’s trying to keep his life together, but he finds himself in free-fall when his girlfriend dumps him. Nadia brings into his life a sense of disorder but soon he learns that he can take the hits and comes to terms with all that has happened to him, and even asks for help. Barnett’s gradual shift is masterful, going from a nervous wreck to a gentle, warm character. I worried that he would be boring from what we saw in the trailer but he’s the perfect straight man to Nadia.
Natasha Lyonne not only helped create the show, but plays the main character Nadia. She’s the cool friend you’ve always wanted: a video game designer, great fashion sense, aloof, always going on fun adventures or wild sexcapades. But with that zany, sarcastic demeanor comes a lot of darkness, and we get to see a lot of how Nadia’s tumultuous past with her mother and her guardian Ruth and how it effected every thing else in her life. Lyonne is pulling from some previous experience from her character of Nicky from Orange is the New Black, but that performance pales in comparison to this one. Lyonne’s Nadia feels real and her growth as a character makes you want to stand up and cheer when she finally breaks through her issues. This is her show – no matter how great the elements and other performances are, this show would have thrived or died on her performance. And not only does it thrive, it soars into the sky like a majestic eagle over the rainbow and into the sunset.
My job as a critic is to convince you, the reader, of my opinion and influence you to see or not see this. But let me be straight with you – this show doesn’t need me and really, no words I can put together would do it justice. Please believe me when I say that this show is worth watching. The metaphor is all in the title; we watch two broken people peel away the layers of pretension, defensiveness, fear, and anger to reveal who they are within and to connect with another person on a deeper level.
If you’ve skipped just to bottom just to see if this show is any good, know this: this show is incredible. A surprising gem that makes you believe in the majesty of life and the connections we all share. Watch it, it will inspire you to do better.