Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results every time.” In Netflix’s new show Russian Doll, this is reflected perfectly. This new hit series stars Natasha Lyonne as Nadia and Charlie Barnett as Alan, two inexplicably linked characters living in New York City. Russian Doll carefully mimics the 1993 cult classic Groundhog Day, which stars Bill Murray. In the opening scene, Nadia is attending her 36th birthday party, and on her way home gets hit by a car, dying in the street shortly afterwards. Similarly to Groundhog Day, she comes right back, and the night is exactly the same. It is not until halfway through the series that we learn she is not the only person stuck in this loop. Nadia and viewers are introduced to Alan, a man stuck in an endless cycle of living and dying and reincarnation.
For both of them, the only way out of this endless loop is to examine what got them there in the first place. In Nadia’s case, this involves a deep reflection on her late mother and unconventional childhood. We meet her stand-in maternal figure, her mother’s therapist Ruth, and learn about how Nadia grew up with a mentally ill mother. For Alan, his journey involves a tightly regimented life, and a sudden collapse of his romantic relationship. This relationship is what he is forced to understand in order to get out of his loop.
Now, what sets Russian Doll apart from other movies and shows that utilize this “live, die, repeat” framework? The answer is just how smart the show really is. Not only is the plot incredibly intricate yet still understandable, but the script and characters are phenomenal. There are no clichéd “do whatever I want because I’m just going to die” trope as there is in the Bill Murray version, there are no cheesy fight scenes with nunchucks like there are in Bandersnatch. Although those scenes are fun, the lack of them is what sets Russian Doll apart from all others.
Nadia is immediately scared that she is experiencing a psychotic break similar to that of her mother, and seeks help from Ruth. She refuses to believe she is going “crazy,” a word she hates and is often called. There is an acute focus on mental health in Russian Doll. Alan is never diagnosed, but shows the stereotypical signs of someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD); his apartment is spotless, his clothes are always perfectly folded, and until he meets Nadia, he insists on reliving the day the same way it happened the first time he experienced it. Unlike Nadia, he doesn’t try to break out of the loop.
Until they meet in an elevator, both Nadia and Alan are completely on their own, the only people who can help them are themselves. The two are able to help each other, at least to a certain extent. Sadly, they seem to fall short. This perfectly embodies the attitude many mental health professionals posses: that you can’t help someone until you help yourself. In a time where it seems that everyone has a friend or family member struggling with a mental illness, Russian Doll is a beautiful story of struggle and survival. As Ruth says to Nadia in episode seven, “You were this tiny seed buried in darkness fighting your way to the light. You wanted to live. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world. Do you still have that in you?”
Its has dark humor, fantastic acting and writing from an all female writing team that set Russian Doll apart from other similar films. This is undoubtedly one of Netflix’s best shows to date, and I will be anxiously waiting for more episodes.