It wasn’t so long ago that death felt like riskiest, most consequential choice TV writers could make. What better way to upend a story, discombobulate an audience and stir up some water-cooler chatter than the grisly, shocking, teary slaughter of a beloved character? But two things are making that less and less true. First, this is an age of experimental television, where every narrative convention we take for granted is duly ignored. And secondly, everyone watching seems to be mired in a comfortable sort of nihilism, resigned to spend the rest of eternity in the service of Jeff Bezos while the Floridian peninsula sinks into a rapidly acidifying ocean. It makes mortality feel almost quaint. Dying, schmying — we have bigger fish to fry (though, you know, those falling pH levels are already doing that).
If we’re all doomed to shuffle off this mortal coil eventually, shows like NBC’s “The Good Place” and Amazon’s “Forever” ask, why not use death as an opportunity to re-examine the lives we’ve been living? “Russian Doll,” Netflix’s cool, caustic, fabulous new entry in the death-com genre, gamifies the concept, hinging its stakes on the journey of self-discovery.
Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne, “Orange is the New Black”), a curmudgeonly video game designer, wakes up on the night of her 36th birthday in her friend’s outré East Village bathroom after being fatally hit by a cab. And again, after tumbling down the stairs. And again after falling into a basement grate on the sidewalk. “The universe is trying to fuck with me,” she snarls. “And I refuse to engage!” It’s a premise probably forever associated with “Groundhog Day”: What would you do if you were stuck indefinitely in a time loop? Learn French? Try your hand at ice sculpting? Attempt to win the heart of Andie MacDowell? (Come on, we’d all attempt to win the heart of Andie MacDowell.)
“Russian Doll” knows it’s treading on iconic ground. Nadia’s loops all begin with the same infectious Harry Nilsson song — a nod to the clock radio blaring “I Got You Babe” that woke Bill Murray’s Phil Connors in each of his loops. But Nadia attacks her situation with a fierce sort of logic that the movie’s misanthropic meteorologist never did. She’s a programmer, after all. Surely, she reasons, this is some kind of bug in life’s code. Was it the drugs she took that night? Could her friend’s apartment be haunted?
The answer is more complicated than Nadia would like it to be. Fixing this bug will take unpacking years of repressed trauma and peeling back the layers of her life, much like the titular nested matryoshka doll. Luckily, as an early-season plot twist reveals, she won’t have to go at it alone.
The New York of “Russian Doll” is seamy, grungy, a little Lynchian. But it’s also familiar and brightly-peopled — like a cross between “Mr. Robot” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Each supporting character — whom we come to know a little differently in each reboot — is affectionately drawn, quirky, but always warm. Lyonne herself is a standout.
It’s a gem of a show that can do what it does in a wonderfully tidy half-hour format, one a few other shows could stand to adopt. The compactness leaves “Russian Doll” feeling so well-paced and densely-plotted that it’s probably worth a re-watch or two to soak in every last detail. Now there’s a never-ending loop I wouldn’t mind being stuck in.