NEW YORK — “Yeshiva students used to study the Talmud, right where you’re standing,” the raspy-voiced, mile-a-minute Noo Yawker Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) says in a half-joking/half-seductive manner. She’s referring to her hard-partying artist friend’s dazzling new loft in a converted old East Village building. It’s funny, but it’s also melancholy; everything in “Russian Doll” is pregnant with double meaning.
There are a number of explicit Jewish references that may not explain the mystery at the heart of this new Netflix miniseries, but don’t not explain it, either. The extremely buzzy show, which blazes by in eight episodes, all under 30 minutes in length, was co-created by Lyonne (née Braunstein), the Jewish-American actress who was raised Orthodox and lived in Israel for a short time as a child. She’s been great since she came on the scene as a teenager (see Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You” and Tamara Jenkins’s “Slums of Beverly Hills”) but with this tornado of a project, Lyonne proves what many have long suspected.
“Russian Doll” has tremendous depth and ingenuity, plus comedic timing of astrometric precision. Lyonne is sexy one minute, then hunched over in an enormous coat drowning in a jungle of wild hair the next. It’s fantastic.
Netflix — which always seems to know how to do these things right — weaponized the launch of “Russian Doll” as counter-programming against the Super Bowl and got all the right people obsessing about its mind-scrambling sci-fi time loops and heavy (though humorous) philosophy. Though 2019 is still young, it is surely one of the best shows we’ll see this year.
The story begins in the bathroom of this converted loft, then out its undeniably vaginal-looking door, from which our heroine’s journey is born. It’s her 36th birthday party, a very Jewish number, and Nadia is wigged-out because (as we’ll later learn) she is now older than her mother ever was. She’s offered a joint by her pal, which is “laced with cocaine, like the Israelis do it.”
Eventually Nadia leaves the party and, while dealing with the tsuris of her unfocused life (an ex-boyfriend who is married, a new meaningless hook-up, drugs, booze, a video game programming job that is beneath her level of intellect, general meshugas from living in hyper-kinetic New York) she accidentally gets hit by a car and dies. Then appears right back in the bathroom, the same jaunty old Nilsson tune playing, “Gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get home.”
We’ve seen this kind of story before. There’s the Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day,” the Tom Cruise movie “Edge of Tomorrow” and even the Star Trek episode “Cause and Effect.”
As such, “Russian Doll” doesn’t waste too much time selling us on the weirdness. Nadia, a very sharp woman, intuits what’s going on by her second loop. She’s a video game programmer, after all. She keeps dying in silly ways, like falling down stairs, or plummeting into those urban portals to hell, open metal doors in front of storefronts for basement deliveries.
At first she’s convinced it’s the “Israeli joint” that’s making her hallucinate, and tracks down the dealer. Turns out it isn’t laced with cocaine, but with ketamine. But she’s done ketamine before, she’s reminded, and never had a thanatonic reaction. Then she’s convinced it’s the location.
“This was once a sacred place!” she says in her increasingly manic way, adding a little extra Yiddish lilt to her voice. Her next step to try and suss out her situation is to find out more about the building. It is still owned by a synagogue, and she races to speak to the rabbi. She lays on the charm with a big grin and “Shabbat Shalom!” even though it’s a Monday. The rabbi’s forward wall of defense is a kind-but-stern woman named Shifra, who makes the not-so-subtle suggestion that she may not speak to the rabbi about real estate questions, but he would speak to “her husband.” (Nadia enlists her ex-boyfriend, but questions about mysticism quickly devolve into him going on about his own problems.)
Nadia seems both attracted to and repelled by her Judaism. With her friends she shrugs off the topic of all religion. “It’s sexist, it’s racist and there’s no money in it anymore.” But when discussing her family heritage, she is sympathetic to her grandparents, who were Holocaust survivors, and therefore distrusting larger institutions. (They put all their money into South African gold coins, the last remaining one of which she wears as a necklace.)
Nadia’s puzzle opens up when she meets Alan, a very normal, some might say boring man, who is also experiencing the same time loops. They “meet cute” in a collapsing elevator — everyone else is freaking out, they are unperturbed. (“I die all the time,” he says to her.) The pair are connected, though they don’t know how. (The numeric significance of Nadia’s 36th birthday can represent two times chai, or “two lives,” if you want to interpret it that way.)
Alan believes in a strictly moral universe; if they are in this rat maze, it is for a reason, and they’ve done something wrong. Nadia is convinced it is merely a coding glitch, but they have the power to correct it. There’s no reason they can’t both be right.
As Lyonne’s situation becomes more desperate, her defense mechanism of spitting out zings only increases. For the remainder of the show every detail could be an important clue (why is the fruit getting moldy?!) which makes for very entertaining viewing. The theme music of Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” isn’t just a perfect pick for its lyrical content. It’s a repetitive chorus with subtle changes to the instrumentation and cadences of its vocal melodic line with each new spin.
“Let’s make some choices!” Nadia says early on, toasting her party, self-aware enough to know that her life is not exactly on a righteous path. It is only when she and Alan make the right choices — or deny themselves the easy choice of making no choice — that they are able to, if I may put it in video game terms, level up.
“Russian Doll” suggests that a self-correcting universe will reveal itself to us if we are only perceptive enough. One need not be a Talmudic scholar to realize this is a concept thousands of years old, even if it is dressed up in modern New York and beamed into all our homes simultaneously via a new streaming app.