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'Russian Doll' review: A four-hour head trip with standout performances

Natasha Lyonne stars as Nadia in Netflix's Season

Natasha Lyonne stars as Nadia in Netflix's Season 1 of "Russian Doll." Credit: Netflix

SERIES "Russian Doll"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT It's Nadia's (Natasha Lyonne, Nicky from "Orange is the New Black") 36th birthday, and her pal Maxine (Greta Lee) is throwing a bash for her in her East Village apartment. Alcohol/drugs flow, and Nadia realizes she has to go find her cat, Oatmeal. Catching a glimpse of her beloved feline at Tompkins Square Park, next to a homeless man, Horse (Brendan Sexton), she crosses the street. She's hit and killed by a cab. Next scene, she's back in the bathroom of Maxine's apartment, with Harry Nilsson's "Gotta Get Up" playing in the background — a déjà vu scene that had happened moments before. It's just the beginning: She dies again and again, in different ways each time. After her death recurs a few more times, she meets Alan (Charlie Barnett, "Chicago Fire"). He has been dying and coming back, too. A friendship of necessity begins, while Nadia gets a little assist from her longtime therapist, Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) along the way.

"Doll" was co-created by Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland ("Sleeping with Other People"). Headland and Lyonne are head writers.   

MY SAY "Russian Doll" is an original idea based on a lot of other ideas, some of which — a little like the show itself — continue to cycle their way through other shows and movies, and probably always will. (They're just too irresistible.)  

There's a little bit of "The Good Place," with its notions of what makes a good person and how individual actions filter their way through other lives, ad infinitum, in a sort of ethical butterfly effect. There's a little bit of "Groundhog Day," with the notion that lives can be improved and, hence, life isn't meaningless after all.

There's some quantum mechanical underbrush — multiple timelines, multiverses and all that. There's some of Nietzsche's "eternal recurrence" — that each life recurs through eternity — and some of Buddhism's "Four Truths," beginning with Truth No. 1: Life is painful.

Mostly it's just a four-hour-long episode of "Black Mirror," with a few laughs along the way and a reasonably satisfying payoff.

Honestly, the best reason to subject yourself to all this, are the performances, which are excellent — from bit parts, to supporting parts, to Lyonne's Nadia, who over these four hours becomes a fully alive and fully recognizable if not quite fully functioning, human. With her snarl and rasp, Lyonne is easily the standout but her fans from "OITNB" wouldn't expect anything (or anyone) otherwise.

"Doll" does begin as a slapstick comedy, then morphs into a tragedy, leavened only by Nadia and Alan's gradual realization that they are not trapped in a recurring nightmare, but rather in a time loop that can be manipulated, or even changed, by their actions. Bill Murray's character in "Groundhog Day" never quite figured this out, but they do, and a light begins to glimmer at the end of their tunnel. They're both tragic, damaged people who come to realize they need each other to break their cycles because as Ruth so perfectly explains, "we are very unreliable narrators of our own lives."

In an obvious sense, that's the one, easy, uncluttered idea behind "Russian Doll:" If we're unreliable narrators of our own lives, how can we even begin to understand them? How do we stop telling the same story about ourselves to ourselves over and over again (ad nauseam)?

"Russian Doll" offers one extreme solution to this paradox and — believe me — it is extreme but at least for the most part watchable.

BOTTOM LINE There are a whole lot of ideas here — a few thrown against the wall to see if they'll stick — but the real pleasure of this four-hour head trip are the performances. Lyonne is outstanding.

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