Review: Russian Doll (season one) Netflix)

A surprisingly different Groundhog Day

Russian Doll

Available on Netflix

Groundhog Day is many things. For sure, it’s a much-loved, classic comedy of the 1990s and one that stars Bill Murray at that. That should be enough to make it noteworthy.

But it’s also a genre-defining movie. The tale of man doomed to relive the same day, day after day, no matter what he does, it is much emulated. If you watch as many TV shows as I do, you’ll notice that pretty much every long-running sci-fi show will do a Groundhog Day episode, whether it’s Stargate SG-1, Dark Matter, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Doctor Who, Fringe, Star Trek: Discovery, 12 Monkeys, Supernatural, The X-Files or Travelers, to name but a few.

Indeed, I’ve seen so many now, it feels like I’m in my own TV Groundhog Day, and one of my golden laws of sci-fi TV is that any sufficiently long-running sci-fi show will eventually do a Groundhog Day episode of its own.

So iconic is Groundhog Day that most shows don’t even try to hide what they’re doing and will even namecheck It. It’s also made it into the dictionary now.

Groundhog Day

Not Groundhog Day

Look up at the first part of that definition and you’ll suddenly remember that Groundhog Day is named after a real-life event celebrated in the US on February 2, in which a groundhog is used to predict the weather (this year: an early spring). So kudos to Netflix on three scores.

First, for releasing Russian Doll, its version of Groundhog Day, on February 1, just in time for the actual Groundhog Day, but with no fanfare pointing this out.

Second, for not mentioning Groundhog Day throughout the eight episodes, despite having a computer game designer as a heroine who drops copious mentions of other genre movies and TV shows.

And third, for doing something that while having much in common with Groundhog Day somehow manages to do something surprisingly different with its central time loop.

Russian Doll

No doll

Given the need for there to be some cause for a time loop, most shows that use ‘the Groundhog Day’ scenario are by their very nature sci-fi shows, with the likes of Daybreak being one of the very few exceptions – until now.

But beyond a slight horror theme that gets more and more pronounced until the surprisingly disturbing seventh episode, Russian Doll is actually a dark relationship comedy. Co-creator and star Natasha Lyonne plays the eponymous Russian Doll and Bill Murray of the piece, ‘Nadia Vulvokov’. When the action starts, she’s at her 36th birthday party and there appears to be a vortex in her bathroom, not that she pays much attention to it. At the party, she meets a guy called Mike (Jeremy Lowell Bobb) and hooks up with him. However, on the way home, she’s hit by a taxi… and killed.

And is back in the bathroom again. What’s going on, why is this happening, how can she escape from the loop and how many times will she have to die along the way?

Russian Doll

Death day

I did say that Russian Doll has a lot in common with Groundhog Day, which it does, right down to having every day start with the same classic song: Harry Nilsson’s ‘Gotta Get Up‘ rather than Sonny and Cher’s ‘I’ve got you babe’, though. But it messes around with the formula so much that it can justifiably be said to be doing something very new.

For starters, the golden homage rule is that every time loop should be the same, whereas Russian Doll loops are usually pretty different. Lyonne does radically different things each loop and meets different people. When there’s a threat of repetition, we simply get montages of the outcomes, so that we don’t end up having to live through that repetition.

Homages don’t usually make a point of investigating the cause of their loops, either, and if a solution does arrive, it’s usually a MacGuffin. Here, Lyonne spends a good two or three episodes trying to work out why she’s on permanent repeat and the solution when it arrives is important to the plot and the characters.

Loops should also not carry over effects from loop to loop, so that people can start doing things without consequences if they want. But here, while everyone’s unaware of being in a loop, things do change nevertheless: fruit, flowers and animals start dying off, and people start disappearing. The effects of the loop also have subconscious effects on other people. By the seventh episode, it’s downright terrifying and even murderous.

Homage loops should also finish after a day, whereas Russian Doll‘s loops keep going until Lyonne dies. Which she does frequently and hilariously, to the extent that it’s clear that the loops are going out of their way to make her die.

Perhaps the biggest difference of all is that Lyonne eventually discovers she is not alone – there is someone else going through the loops with her (Charlie Barnett) and dying at the same time as her.

And perhaps the last big difference is that once the traditional Groundhog Day loop is ended, everything carries on as before, just with the looper having all the knowledge and experience from their looping. Here, though, as soon as the loop does finish, Lyonne and her co-looper end up in a different movie (spoiler alert: Sliding Doors and have to put their knowledge to use to solve new challenges.

All of which makes it a constantly surprising watch.

Russian Doll

The Meaning of Life

Groundhog Day has many interpretations, with most religions claiming that it echoes their own central tenants. But its general message is that if we just had the time, we could improve ourselves and become better people. Russian Doll, perhaps in keeping with the fact that it’s set in New York and has a therapist as one of its central characters (Elizabeth Ashley), has a similar message but a second, quite a different one as well: are we simply doing the same things in our lives over and over again without noticing it? And if we could see what self-destructive behaviour we’re doing wrong over and over again and see how things could be instead, could we change not just ourselves but our lives?

Trouble is, to get to our final destination, we have to endure Lyonne’s character for quite some time. Whereas Murray is cynical, misanthropic, self-centred and egotistical, he’s not self-destructive and he’s usually pretty witty. Lyonne’s character, on the other hand, is both of those and is frankly a complete dick.

Even by the standards of

  1. New Yorkers
  2. Drug users
  3. New York drug users

Vulvokov is astonishingly self-absorbed, with one character later calling her ‘the most selfish person I’ve ever met’. She thinks she’s witty but she’s not. She’s a dick and so are most of the people around her.

But one of the show’s arguments is that we need to be nicer to other people. We need to take an interest in them and be kind to one another. And that applies to us as viewers, too – we need to be patient with characters.

Over the course of the episodes, we do learn more about Vulvokov. She also improves over time, but we still learn more about why she’s been such a dick until now – it’s got a lot to do with her mum (Chloë Sevigny) – and that tempers our view of her. Similarly, she takes the time to get to know others and that tempers our views of them, too.

Basically, it’s a show that grows on you, as do its characters.

Russian Doll

Conclusion

Initially, I had my doubts about Russian Doll. ‘Selfish druggie has to relive the same party every night’? I don’t think so. The first two episodes almost seem to want to deliberately ostracise the viewer and to make them walk away, just as Lyonne does so often.

It took about four episodes and the arrival of the second looper before the show really hit the sweet spot for me, with Barnett’s character proving a welcome relief to Lyonne. After that, the show continues to improve, as you see how the interlinked, Russian Doll-like nature of the story works, how everything and everyone interconnects, and the twist in the final episode really did make it work for me.

By the end of it, there’s also one other big difference between Russian Doll and Groundhog Day. You’ll believe that Lyonne has changed and become a better version of herself. Murray? Not so much.