Arts, Music, Review

Lyonne, Poehler Drive Feminist ‘Russian Doll’ Forward

An ambulance crash. A hit-and-run. A fall down the stairs. A fatal drop into a New York City bulkhead basement. Russian Doll’s fiery protagonist dies again and again—and though the night of her 36th birthday starts the same, the ending and her inevitable recurring death are different every time.

Nadia Vulvukov (Natasha Lyonne) starts her days in last night’s clothes and instinctively reaches for a cigarette and Red Bull to ease the massive hangover she likely has. The bold, tongue-in-cheek, 36 year-old redhead seems to be the token binge-drinking, chain-smoking New York City millennial and has the lightly-furnished studio apartment to prove it. Nadia’s first impression is anything but subtle—her carpe diem philosophy and feisty behavior often give way to drugs and drinks, but Nadia wasn’t expecting death on the night of her 36th birthday.

Russian Doll is the feminist brainchild of Amy Poehler, Boston College ’93, and co-creators Lyonne and Leslye Headland. The Netflix series follows Nadia, a 36-year-old freelance software engineer living in New York City who begins to relive the same night over and over again.

When Nadia arrives at the home of best friend and equally zany Maxine (Greta Lee), she immediately reaches for a surprise birthday joint laced with cocaine (“like the Israelis do it”). In distress over the sudden loss of her house cat Oatmeal, Nadia proceeds to take to the streets of New York City in desperate search for her pet. Upon spotting Oatmeal across a busy New York intersection, Nadia sprints across the crowded street and is hit by a car.

By the looks of it, Nadia’s cocaine, weed, and alcohol driven attempt to search for Oatmeal lands her in a fatal car accident. That is, until she reappears safe and unscathed in Maxine’s bathroom in the midst of her birthday party. Night after night, Nadia relives her 36th birthday party, each time dying in a different way.

Lyonne perfectly captures the damaged, free-spirited nature of Nadia in the pilot episode. The former Orange is the New Black star brings her own zealous attitude to Nadia’s character, and from the get-go, the audience has a grasp of who Nadia is, though they realize that she still has secrets yet to be revealed. As Nadia drops deeper and deeper into an existential “midlife” crisis, Lyonne’s already fervent character portrayal becomes even more critical, plunging the audience right into the epicenter of Nadia’s Richter-scale breaking mental turmoil.

Russian Doll’s dynamo female lead is all the Netflix Original needs to set the plan in motion for a time-bending, mind-boggling comedic drama. With Nadia constantly reliving the same day over and over again, the show doesn’t really have room for the development of supporting characters. Lyonne’s spirit carries the show forward by portraying Nadia’s fervent investigation into her cyclical deaths.

Still, Russian Doll isn’t just about one woman’s quest to uncover the mystery behind her suspicious deaths. The show is very honestly about life in New York. It’s immediately apparent to viewers that Nadia and her friends lead an archetypal New York lifestyle—Maxine lives in a revamped Yeshiva school downtown, their parties are filled with drugs and sex, pseudo-intellectual conversations of philosophy are the soundtrack to Nadia’s antics, and she seems to be a pro at fending off sexist comments.

Nothing about Russian Doll feels romanticized—Nadia appears to be a real living, breathing, and struggling software engineer living in New York. She’s quirky, but in a fun, believable way, and she has the emotional baggage to give her depth.

The woman power behind the series all had stints of living in New York City—Poehler famously acted on Saturday Night Live, Headland attended New York University, and Lyonne still lives in the city. Their raw experiences living in one of the world’s most famous cities gives Russian Doll an authentic New York City feel, free from the rose-colored lenses normally associated with the Manhattan lifestyle.

Russian Doll feels like if Groundhog Day met the 2019 version of Sex in the City, but Lyonne’s filthy but brilliant portrayal of Nadia Vulvukov give the Netflix original a style all its own—the creatively feminist series shines a dazzling, revealing light on New York women.

Featured Image by Netflix

February 3, 2019