“The universe is trying to fuck with me, and I refuse to engage,” announces Nadia, played by Natasha Lyonne, early in Netflix’s new comedy Russian Doll. Co-created by Lyonne (along with Amy Poehler and Sleeping With Other People director Leslye Headland), the series centers on Nadia, a video game designer who keeps dying after her 36th birthday party, only to reanimate at a moment earlier in that same night. It’s a delightful blend of Groundhog Day and your favorite Noah Baumbach film about eccentric, hyper-articulate New Yorkers — and a classic case of an unconventional performer writing for herself after realizing nobody else knows quite how to do it.
Lyonne has been around forever (she had a recurring role on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse when she was seven) and, after battles with addiction and other health scares nearly ended her life in the early-2000s, has managed to revive her career (including her current gig on Orange Is the New Black). It’s a personal narrative arc that clearly informs Nadia’s constant brushes with her own mortality. But Lyonne is such an idiosyncratic screen presence — not to mention so distinctly New York/Jewish/aggro — that most of the roles she’s played, particularly as an adult, have barely bothered to delve beneath the surface of that persona.
The role of Nadia, on the other hand, is unmistakably Lyonne (and unmistakably New York, like when she says of her pet kitty Oatmeal, “Fundamentally, he’s a deli cat”). It goes deeper and wider than anything she’s gotten to play possibly since her teenage days in indie films like Slums of Beverly Hills and But I’m a Cheerleader. (The latter’s director, Jamie Babbitt, helmed several episodes here.) Nadia is never quite what people are expecting, down to her preferring Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon books to the author’s far more famous and lovable Anne of Green Gables series. Lyonne’s performance is as intense and hilarious in its loose physicality as in Nadia’s gift with a quip (entering a bar, she suggests it “smells like George Plimpton after a weeklong bender in here”); she struts through Nadia’s neighborhood with a mix of nervous and overconfident energy as the character seeks a way out of the never-ending loop she’s trapped in.
Much of the fun of the series (it debuts Friday; I’ve seen all eight episodes) is in its surprises — not just the many ways in which Nadia winds up dying, but the things she’s forced to confront about herself and all the friends and loved ones she’s tried to hold at arm’s length through three and a half very messy decades on this planet. And while it’s a vehicle for Lyonne, the show is also generous to the performers playing her mismatched social circle. Greta Lee and Rebecca Henderson play the artists whose apartment is the setting for both the party and the reboot point of Nadia’s strange new existence. Yul Vazquez (having a busy couple of weeks between this debut and TNT’s I Am the Night) and Jeremy Bobb show up as would-be lovers in different timelines. Elizabeth Ashley and Chloë Sevigny (one of Lyonne’s closest real-life friends) play important figures from Nadia’s childhood, and Charlie Barnett is an uptight stranger who finds himself drawn into the mystery of her immortality.
That the story is so much about Nadia’s complicated history and studied loneliness allows the series to exist as comedy and tragedy at once. Much of Nadia’s predicament is hilariously absurd — “I think a guy who gave me a haircut yesterday may have died tomorrow yesterday,” she tries to explain, “and I don’t know how tomorrow deaths work when it’s yesterday again” — but the show also never loses sight of the fact that she’s dying, again and again, often in front of people who care about her more than she’s comfortable admitting. That blend of tones, and the controlled mania of Lyonne’s brilliant performance, makes Russian Doll feel like something wholly new, even as it cops to its many influences. (“I’m interested in plagiarism as an art form,” Lee’s character boasts; Nadia at one point compares her predicament to the Michael Douglas movie The Game; and Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” is to this story what “I Got You Babe” was to Phil Connors’.)
Hopefully, Lyonne gets to keep making more projects like this, or other creators watch Russian Doll and finally understand all of the things she can do in one role. She’s spectacular, and so is the show.