The original premise of Groundhog Day was so instantly unique that any other take on reliving the same day over and over again probably owes that movie royalties. The latest is Russian Doll, a fantasy/sci-fi/comedy from Natasha Lyonne (who also stars), Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler. As Nadia, a woman who keeps dying and waking up at the same starting point (her 36th birthday party), Lyonne is fierce and funny in the role, but after the initial conceit plays itself out a few times, it turns into something different when she runs into another person experiencing the same situation.
I should probably say that Natasha Lyonne is a bit of an acquired taste. After seeing her start out as a teenager in Slums of Beverly Hills and the American Pie movies, and then watching her on Orange is the New Black for so long, I’m pretty well acquainted with this “character” of hers, the constantly wisecracking Jewish New Yorker- you might even say it’s a bit of a caricature, actually. But if you watch Orange is the New Black, this is basically a non-incarcerated Nicki starring on her own show, and if you’re anything like me, you think that Nicki basically works best in doses. In other words, this is a lot of Natasha Lyonne, and I can fully understand anyone finding her far more abrasive and obnoxious than endearing. I do myself sometimes, although she still gets some good lines in there that make me chuckle. Watching her die over and over again after her birthday party is entertaining (especially a bit where she can’t get down the stairs) but it’s still derivative of Groundhog Day.
Where it changes though, is in the introduction of the charismatic Charlie Barnett as Alan, a new idea in this very familiar premise. He’s a stranger to Nadia, (although they’re neighbors) and a completely different kind of character. He’s uptight, he’s obsessive, he’s suicidal after being dumped by his longtime girlfriend (fellow Orange alum Dascha Polenko- hey, is this the reason Daya has lasted on that show for so long?), and yet he’s got this very unique, naive sweetness about him that contrasts wonderfully with Nadia when they bump into each other and realize they’re connected in their absurd situation. He keeps dying too, at the same time as her, and whatever force is pulling them together suddenly takes the show in a brand new direction that we haven’t seen before, and it becomes riveting, especially as the personal and philosophical revelations start piling up.
My favorite part of the series is the interaction between these two highly original characters. It feels like a relationship that really hasn’t been seen yet and that makes it worth watching, aside from the intrigue over how many different kinds of deaths Nadia and Alan can suffer each day. As there always is in a Groundhog Day plot, there’s a wake-up call, a spiritual component that must occur to spark a change in the lives of the people being targeted for this kind of hell, but seeing them go through it together is a fun twist that leads to a somewhat open-ended conclusion, with questions left to be answered another day (possibly). It’s a creative, well-written project from an all female writing team and a new insight into the kind of talent Lyonne possesses apart from her well-worn screen persona.