Russian Doll

Groundhog Day, meet New York City. New York City, this is Groundhog Day. Play nice now!

What’s The Show? Russian Doll

What’s It All About, JG? Remember the movie Groundhog Day? I know, I know, everyone does – even if you’ve never seen it the film has become such a pervasive part of popular culture you know what’s being referred to even if you haven’t seen Bill Murray struggle through the same day near-endless times until he learns to be a better person. Well, Russian Doll is that, but not a movie and instead an eight-part series on Netflix starring Orange Is The New Black‘s Natasha Lyonne. She plays Nadia Vulvokov who experiences a time-loop at the party for her 36th birthday and gradually figures out what to do about it over the course of the eight episodes.  Kind of.  She’s joined by Alan Zaveri, who’s also stuck in the time loop, and we get to meet a mix of her New York friends, all of whom come from The Big Book Of Whacky NYC Characters. What could be causing the loop? How can she get out of it? Those questions, along with the detailed and intricate examination of Nadia’s personal life, are explored over the course of eight thirty-minute episodes.

Why Did You Give It A Go? In the end Orange Is The New Black is kind of a terrible show, but almost none of what makes it terrible is the cast, who are almost universally terrific (and go a very long way to explaining OITNB‘s early stellar reputation). So it’s kind of irresistible to see what such a gifted cast might go on to do, and Natasha Lyonne was always great on that show. Plus, wonderful though Groundhog Day undoubtedly is, it’s also interesting to see what someone else might do with a similar premise. Two great reasons!

Is It Any Good? It’s frequently very good indeed, yes, and occasionally even brilliant.  Natasha Lyonne is simply incredible throughout, playing an outwardly confident but occasionally extremely brittle character with real skill and ability, and she deserves to be absolutely showered with praise (and awards!) for her performance here.  Nadia could easily become a cliché in the hands of a less gifted actor – kooky New York character, her gender-and-fashion-busting entourage and skeevy ex all sound like they could come from any number of laboured off-Broadway productions, but she lands every single aspect of Nadia’s life, making her seem like a very real, fully-rounded person. Even comparatively incidental details that don’t necessarily add a lot in terms of plot, like the fact that she’s a software engineer, add up to give a complete picture of her life (and I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to have a female character have a tech job like that, and be demonstratively good at it. Small details, big differences). Natasha is met equally by Charlie Barnett as Alan (someone else on parole from Orange Is The New Black, if only one episode) who turns in a terrific performance as well.  If the whole enterprise is to work then it’s absolutely key that the rapport between the two lead characters comes alive, and it absolutely does. They get to know each other gradually, and the time spent allowing them to explore each others lives before dying and resetting really helps to add weight to their existential dilemma.  The rest of the cast are basically terrific as well – there’s not a bad performance here even in occasionally rote roles like “homeless guy” or “party girl”, and the quality of the cast really add to the quality of the series. Everyone here is phenomenal.

How Many Episodes Did You Watch? All of them. It’s worth mentioning the episode lengths though, because for a show like this – a comedy-drama – you would expect forty-five minute episodes, as would be traditional. But by paring them back to thirty minutes Russian Doll is given a real sense of narrative pace, while at the same time forcing the writers to stay on point and avoid the clutter that longer episodes would inevitably entail (this is a real problem for Netflix – a lot of their shows tend to be a good 20% longer than there’s actually material for, so you end up getting ten episodes worth of material stretched out to thirteen). That’s a great choice and shows real discipline.

Would You Recommend It? Yes, very much so, though the show has one flaw, and it’s the final episode.  Because, it turns out, a show which is Groundhog Day but on telly rather than a movie is in fact exactly Groundhog Day but on telly, having as it does exactly the same ending.  It’s commendable that this is a series that doesn’t feel the need to go for a faux-dark ending, nor does it over-indulge in sentiment or schmaltz, but in the end the conclusion is simply “Natasha (and Alan) learn to help each other and break the loop”. And that’s precisely the same conclusion as Groundhog Day. It’s not that it’s a bad message to deliver – absolutely it is not – but given the chance to play around with this kind of time-loop premise it’s a shame the show didn’t stretch itself away from the source material a bit more. It deflates a lot of the drama leading up to the final episode, which has built its mystery and momentum so expertly. It’s not bad but it’s not exactly satisfying either.  No attempt is made to explain the time loop – the correct decision – but the consequences of it feel a little pat, and that’s a great shame because there’s so much excellence leading up to it that such an obvious conclusion just doesn’t manage to stick the landing. There are other Groundhog Day similarities, some of them extremely overt – the use of the same piece of music every time the loop restarts, for example, here the hideous “Gotta Get Up” by Harry Nilsson rather than the equally-hideous “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher from the original – but the ending definitely did not need to be one of those reference points. But there’s so much greatness leading up to that last episode and it’s all well worth watching. If the ending is a slight mis-setp then, really, it’s only that – slight.  Everything else here sparkles, and this becomes one of the best shows Netflix has produced in years.  Very highly recommended.

Scores On The Doors? 8.5/10

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