TV Review: ‘Russian Doll’ Loses Unique Voice To Tired Concept

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Is any plot more regurgitated than the “Groundhog Day” stuck in time premise? One character finds themselves reliving the same day over and over in order to learn a lesson. Recently, “Happy Death Day” gave the familiar story a fun horror spin. Netflix’s latest series, “Russian Doll” tries to give it an acerbic hipster spin. Does that differentiate the show enough? Not at all. “Russian Doll” perfectly embodies the trajectory of many Netflix’s “binge-worthy” series. It starts with a mildly intriguing premise. It gets run it into the ground with repetition. Mid-way through, a twist changes up the proceedings, giving one hope for a strong ending. Yet, by the end, things have tied up in the easiest, least interesting way possible.

Video game designer Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) wants to get out of her birthday party. The surly New Yorker feels uncomfortable as the guest of honor at a party thrown by her quirky best friends (Greta Lee, Rebecca Henderson). Thus, she escapes with a blowhard academic (Jeremy Bobb) for a hook up of necessity. So begins a typically random New York City night that has a very atypical end. Nadia dies. However, she returns straight to the bathroom where she started the evening. So begins the time loop that Nadia desperately tries to escape, examining all aspects of her frayed life.

One element that comes across early on is the specific voice the creators have in mind for the show. There’s a dark zaniness to the vision of creators Leslye Headland, Amy Poehler, and Lyonne. As Nadia unravels the mystery of the time loop, she openly considers it a side effect to one of the drugs going around the party. These sparks of personality, which also includes some inventive deaths, never go far enough. It feels like these talented writers merely gave a tired script a punch up. The connective tissue of the plot doesn’t come together. That is until the show morphs into a buddy comedy later on.

Enter Alan (Charlie Barnett), a very different New Yorker who serves a key player in Nadia’s plot to escape the time loop. Here the TV show becomes more of an odd couple comedy. This gives the show more mileage than Lyonne traversing the city and aimlessly turning over all of her strained relationships. She tries to do right by her good guy ex (Yul Vazquez), brash Aunt Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) and a random homeless man named Horse (Brendan Sexton III). However, repeating the same formula with different scene partners does mean the show has variety. The through line Nadia shares with Alan focuses the show on a continuous storyline that allows the voice to shine. Simplifying these other tangents could have further elevated the show. Vazquez, in particular, provides a nice emotional anchor to Lyonne. However, much like his character, he feels underused.

It’s wonderful to see scene stealer Natasha Lyonne get her very own starring role in a TV series. Lyonne’s iconic voice and beautifully oversized red hair make her a beguiling and interesting presence. However, Lyonne struggles to headline a show that meanders about. Her antics work best in short segments and bursts, particularly early on as she experiences a variety of quirky deaths. Yet, Lyonne fails to vary Nadia’s response as her journey continues. Much like the plot, it seems like we’re watching the same performance over and over.

“Russian Doll” would’ve worked better as a tight 105-minute movie, rather than a TV show. Very little about the show sustains itself over the 10 half-hour episodes. That’s not to say there aren’t inventive ideas and good performances in the show. There are plenty of both. However, as a binge the charm wears thin. In this respect, “Russian Doll” succeeds in putting us in Nadia’s headspace. We too feel like we’ve seen this show before. We too are looking for a way out. Finally, all we want is for the show to tie everything up and end.

All “Russian Doll” episodes are available for streaming on Netflix as of Feb. 1, 2019.

GRADE: (★★)

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