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Does “Russian Doll” stack up with its competition? (Yes)

If “Russian Doll” accomplishes nothing else, it serves as an excellent P.S.A for looking both ways before you cross the street. And being careful when you walk down staircases. Or enter elevators. Or use gas stoves. By the third or fourth episode you’ll be surprised that anyone in New York risks venturing out of their apartment at all.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. ‘”Russian Doll” is a new show being aggressively pushed by Netflix; if you have an account you’ve doubtless seen the “Groundhog Day” esque trailer of Natasha Lyonne (from Orange is the New Black) repeatedly dying and reliving the night of her 36th birthday party (The aggressive marketing has paid off; as of Feb. 17 the show is #1 in terms of popularity on IMDb, replacing Netflix’s “You”).

It’s a premise that’s immediately grabbing–why is this happening? What are the cosmic implications of time loops? etc…The show succeeds, however, by largely sidestepping the pseudo philosophical sci-fi bullshit of movies like “Interstellar,” focusing instead on the personal effects of Nadia’s (Natasha Lyonne’s) vicious cycle.

Nadia is an outwardly tough and independent software engineer with a shock of red hair and a two pack a day smoking habit. She’s not a scumbag like Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day” but she’s not exactly a ray of sunshine either; she fears intimacy, swears profusely and creatively, and frequently pushes her friends away without realizing it. As a type, she feels a bit like a throwback to the “I’m walkin’ here!” mindset of New Yorkers in film before gentrification really sunk its teeth into Manhattan, turning such characters into punchlines for moody Brooklynites to tolerate.

“My bad attitude keeps me young” she says in the first episode, and the show teases us with the possibility that it’s also what’s keeping her in her awful cycle of die, live, repeat.

Thankfully the show avoids the gag-inducing solution of Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” (“Oh no! A foul mouthed woman! Her only chance of finding love is embracing her conventional femininity and shedding the interesting bits!”) and goes instead for something a bit more nuanced.

“Russian Doll” has only eight episodes but it takes its time fleshing out Nadia’s character, pulling off a poignant backstory and providing believable moments of growth and redemption that don’t feel like Hallmark cards (even more impressive is how ‘“Doll” manages to flesh out the show’s role players; even the most noxious characters are cleverly complicated as the season progresses).

It’s a credit to both the show and Lyonne’s superb acting abilities that “Russian Doll” never feels stale, despite its cyclical premise. The death scenes in particular are real standouts, ranging from slapstick absurdity to deeply disturbing and somber gut-punches. The camera repeatedly lingers on Nadia’s dying face as her eyes flicker through rage and relief and begrudging acceptance that she’s about to be zipped back to her party to start it all over again.

It’s a remarkable achievement that a show whose premise inherently makes light of death (is it even death if you come back from it?) manages to express more about the ridiculousness and melancholy and contingency of mortality than almost anything else on television.

There’s real sincerity in “Russian Doll;” not the pompous sincerity of an HBO show that’s trying too hard and taking itself too seriously, but the sincerity of a script that buys into its premise and honestly and patiently explores its implications (while moving at a jubilant pace and throwing enough laughs at the viewer to keep those ruminations entertaining).

This becomes especially evident in the show’s second half, which throws a significant new character into the mix and artfully explores a clashing of two world views (without devolving into easy odd-couple jokes).

Without revealing anything I’ll  say that the final episode feels a bit rushed, creating a sense of confusion that clashes with the poignancy and catharsis the show is going for. This is a minor quibble though, and the season feels nicely contained; “Russian Doll” is the rare TV meal that leaves you feeling full and satisfied rather than tricked into wasting your valuable binge time.

There are purportedly more seasons in the works; I have no idea where “Russian Doll” can go from here but with a lead as magnetic as Lyonne (who is also a co-creator and writer for the show) I’m not too worried about it.

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