One of my absolute favourites on Netflix recently has been the series Russian Doll, created by Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler. The premise seems easy enough to get your head around: A cynical 36-year-old New York woman gets trapped in a time loop in which she keeps on dying and then returning to the birthday party her friends have thrown for her, forcing her to confront her traumatic past and the choices she has made in her life so far. However, this kind of description does no justice whatsoever to what is an incredibly funny and profound reflection on issues such as aging, the passage of time, the relationship between memory and identity, the awkward struggle to redefine gender roles in the face of inconvenient biological realities, karma and – ultimately – finding meaningful purpose in a world in which everything seems permissible and nothing is sacred anymore.
The main character, Nadia, lives in the gender-fluid, artsy-fartsy, hedonistic circles of contemporary bohemian New York. For Nadia and the ‘beautiful people’ around her, life is all about finding individual fulfilment, but they all struggle to know what that even means. Especially Nadia, who is emotionally damaged, highly intelligent and an arch cynic – a combination of character traits that has not led her to make great choices in life. Which is where the ‘Groundhog Day’ plot device of having to live the same day over and over again becomes so interesting.
The idea of being stuck in a time loop is very similar to the Buddhist idea of rebirth, in that you must come back and live life again and again until you finally let go of your desires and reach enlightenment. Which is more or less the opposite of the values Nadia and her friends represent: Their hedonistic lifestyle seems to be a continuous attempt to escape (or forget about) death through sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But the plot is also a nightmarish performance of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous thought experiment about eternal recurrence: Imagine a demon told you today was the only day you ever get to live and you have to live it over and over again for eternity. How will you respond? Nietzsche’s intention was, as far as I understand it, not to encourage you to philosophise about some abstract notion of eternity, but rather to think deeply and seriously about your values and whether you are actually living in accordance with them.
If all of that sounds very academic and theoretical to you, fear not. Russian Doll does an amazing job of presenting these quite profound philosophical reflections in a narrative that is so entertaining, witty, aesthetically engaging, that you hardly even notice that you’re also being asked to face some pretty profound existential questions too. I won’t go into any spoilers here, but Nadia’s relationships are where the fun happens. And the dialogue is so masterful. It’s fast-paced, clever, aggressive but always making a philosophical point, too. The kind of dialogue I love.
Here’s an example from the pilot script (so it’s not identical to the first episode as it aired, but it’s certainly just as good). This is the first time Nadia has returned to the party after having been knocked down and killed by a taxi. She's flirting with Mike, just like she did the first time round, in a room with a fish tank. The abrupt switch between existential questions and unabashed sexual activity is characteristic of the tone of the series:
Nothing in the series is superfluous or arbitrary. For example, Nadia’s incredible red hair is like a warning to the outside world to keep its distance, but this is precisely her problem: She can’t live life all on her own. Or: The party Nadia keeps on returning to every time she dies is situated in a building that used to be a Yeshivah (a Jewish house of study). This reminds us that it’s easy, but not necessarily sensible, to ignore the history our culture and values are built on: Replacing religious tradition, structure and community with post-modern, individualistic debauchery might be a bit like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Then there’s the imagery of rotting fruit: Even though Nadia keeps being ‘reborn’ to relive the same evening over and over again, the moulding apples and melons she encounters warn her that time is not standing still (for her): She must persevere on her mission.
There are also multiple allusions to films that play with similar themes, such as Stranger Than Fiction (tooth brushing in front of a mirror), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (gradual disappearance of furniture and other people from Stella’s loft), The Matrix (Nadia writes code, she keeps dying and coming back to life and the choices she makes have consequences – is life a game we’re stuck in?) and probably lots more that I didn’t get.
All said, I enjoyed this series on too many levels to mention. Highly recommended!