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‘Russian Doll’ and the New Ethical Television

Netflix
Natasha Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov in Russian Doll, 2019

Russian Doll, Netflix’s marquee show for the winter season, opens on a bathroom mirror. Looking back at us is the ambivalent face of Nadia, the titular matryoshka, who is steeling herself for her thirty-sixth birthday party. By her own account, Nadia resembles what might happen “if Andrew Dice Clay and the little girl from Brave made a baby.” This is not entirely fair to the actor playing her, Natasha Lyonne, but Nadia does have a penchant for broad-shouldered jackets, a husky New York accent, and the thick red curls of the princess from Brave. The joke, however, leaves out her watchful eyes and narrowed gaze, her habit of tilting her head back to appraise people. A better Brooklyn native to compare her to might be hangdog Harry Nilsson, the 1970s singer-songwriter: stubborn, cynical, world-weary, alcoholic, clever, sensitive. Nadia and Nilsson share the enervated resignation of people who’ve seen it all before, an attitude that puts Nadia in good stead for the trials to come over the course of Russian Doll’s eight episodes and four-hour run time.

It is Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up,” the opening track to his best-selling 1971 album Nilsson Schmilsson, that propels Nadia out of the bathroom and into her own lost weekend. A coffee-anxious song of mounting key changes, “Gotta Get Up” conveys the feeling of pushing yourself, more out of will than desire, out the door every morning. “Up and away, got a big day, sorry can’t stay,” Nilsson sings from the vantage of the evening before, suddenly mindful of the contracting margins of adulthood, of the dilating recovery periods and debilitating hangovers that come after thirty. Nadia, however, is determined to stay out (on a Sunday!), and we get the sense that this is perhaps how many of her days begin: at night.

And what a night it will be. Ditching her own party to go home with a slimy academic, Nadia is struck by a taxicab while crossing the street and finds herself back at the bathroom mirror, back with Harry Nilsson. As in a kind of Groundhog Day transposed to the East Village, she is fated to live this grim cycle of death and return until, as we come to learn over the course of the show, she solves whatever thematic mystery has landed her under Sisyphus’s boulder. The show makes hay out of the morbid possibilities of consequence-less death—including an extended montage of Nadia’s finding new ways to die on a staircase and a running gag in which she tries in vain to get her godmother to address a gas leak—but it is also the case that her actions have, indeed, had consequences. A life spent tethered to a cigarette lighter and looking out for number one has rippled outward and, indirectly, allowed someone else to die.

Nadia’s foil in Alphabet City is Alan (played by Charlie Barnett), a tightly wound, generic professional with an antiseptic blue apartment. He plays video games for hours, eats when he has nothing else to do, and, on the night of Nadia’s birthday party, gets dumped by his longtime girlfriend. Alan and Nadia ultimately meet in a crowded elevator plummeting toward a crash. Others panic while the two remain unfazed—for Alan, it turns out, is also repeatedly dying and returning. His evenings begin at another mirror in his own sterile bathroom, scored by a Beethoven concerto meant to underline his regimented life (although Nilsson’s operatically maudlin “Without You” would have been a cleverer choice). It soon becomes clear that their fates are intertwined and that, on the night of their first deaths, they unknowingly encountered each other in a bodega along their solitary journeys into oblivion.

It’s all appealingly Zeitgeisty, a New York pastiche with monologues from a blowhard college professor about the problems of the underclass and jokes about print newspapers and gyrotonics. The actress Greta Lee, who has lately appeared in self-consciously contemporary television like High Maintenance and Broad City, delights as Nadia’s daffy friend and party host, Maxine. She holds her cigarettes like Bette Davis and vapidly muses, “Maybe I should start a religion, then I could really make an impact.” In their neon-lit loopy peregrinations around and about Tompkins Square Park, the characters’ questing and yearning has a feeling of madcap comedy to it, underlined by a light mockery of their gilded obliviousness. It’s around Nadia’s third or fourth death that things get serious.

Russian Doll, it transpires, is less a satire of louche New Yorkers than it is a fable. The roundelay in which Nadia is trapped is an allegory for the compulsions and diminishing returns of addiction, the sense that death is overtaking life. On the precipice of her late thirties and never without a drink in her hand and a (sometimes cocaine-laced) cigarette in her mouth, she was losing her grip long before she stumbled off the curb and into a moving car. One of the show’s more ingenious devices is that with each successive loop, bits of the world die off at the periphery. Pets, plants, friends, fruit in a bowl, the circulating signs of life start to rot and disappear. This is what living with an addict looks like.

It is also what living with a depressed person looks like. While Nadia has been chasing death around every corner, frantically renouncing friends and lovers, Alan has retreated so far into himself that his girlfriend Beatrice (played gently by Dascha Polanco) has been delaying their breakup out of fear for what he might do to himself. In fact, we learn, Alan’s first death, the night Nadia was hit by the cab, came when he threw himself from the roof of his building.

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In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Natasha Lyonne (also one of Russian Doll’s co-creators, along with Amy Poehler and the playwright Leslye Headland) theorized the modern condition: “We’re realizing that it’s very adult and very accomplished people who find that life is simply too much to bear…I think we need to be discussing freely and openly the underlying brokenness of the human experience.” This would seem to be the show’s guiding question: How is it that successful people with nice Manhattan apartments and no financial anxiety to speak of are nonetheless miserable? The concluding episodes gesture at an answer: Nadia and Alan, in their own ways, are desperately lonely. Their unwitting selfishness has led them to a dead end. If they can seek each other out in that moment they first met and endeavor to help, if they can learn to care for others, to see someone in crisis and foster the spirit of life, to nurture, perhaps to love, then maybe the universe won’t feel so lonely. In that same interview, Headland added, while discussing the writing process, “We designed Russian Doll to be binged.” Indeed, bingeing is a fair description of Nadia’s predicament.

Netflix
Charlie Barnett as Alan Zaveri and Lyonne as Nadia in Russian Doll, 2019

It can be aggravating to be reminded of the importance of community and connection by a television show. This kind of programming—let’s call it “ethical television”—is something of a trend. As noted by both The New York Times and BuzzFeed, after nearly twenty years of gaping at antiheroes and narcissists in the vein of Walter White and Carrie Bradshaw, it is refreshing to watch Nadia and her fellow lost soul Eleanor Shellstrop, the lead in NBC’s The Good Place, aspire to better themselves, or rather, to live better. It is not, however, refreshing to watch television. The experience of watching (or bingeing) TV was described by Blondie in the song “Fade Away and Radiate” as a sort of numbing palliative: “Wrapped like candy in a blue, blue neon glow.” Enacting our anxieties about inaction and loneliness through a medium that, more often than not, keeps us inactive and lonely starts to feel suspiciously like living the same day over and over again. As Debbie Harry elaborates, “Beams become my dream / My dream is on the screen.”

It is a symptomatic habit of the modern condition to turn to the irradiating warmth of one device or another in order to ward off a widespread sense of creeping dread: the constricting feeling that our personal problems are inextricable from the decaying state of the world. The creators of ethical television recognize this feeling. “You’re supposed to ask people about their kids, okay? It’s polite, it gives everybody a moment to pretend there’s gonna be a future,” Nadia insists. Despite all of her foreboding and dark humor—the occasional cosmic absurdity of the story that hints at a deeper scheme—Russian Doll hedges. It’s No Exit but with one exit, a trite thematic answer about realizing a foundational trauma: in the end, the tiniest doll at the center of the whole enterprise is Nadia’s troubled relationship with her mother.

Maybe this is what it’s like when you’re very adult and very accomplished—solipsism as therapy. Characters in Russian Doll, The Good Place, BoJack Horseman, and any of the other avatars of ethical television rarely grapple with problems they didn’t cause, or at least that their parents didn’t cause. But while the eternal process of parents fucking up their kids deepens like a coastal shelf, the coasts are eroding away. To evoke the crisis that characterizes this moment in history and then wonder if we should forgive our parents is to misunderstand the source of the crisis. Anomie blooms like patches of mold on old fruit and it is unlikely that acknowledging a general Freudian scheme will do anything about it. Nor, for that matter, will watching television.


Russian Doll is streaming on Netflix.