The eight-part Netflix series follows chain-smoking New Yorker Nadia, as she weaves her way through a mysterious time loop that sees her celebrating her 36th birthday – and then dying. Over and over and over again.
On each reset, Nadia, played by Natasha Lyonne, wakes up at the exact same moment at the beginning of her party, and, as the series progresses, the story begins to unravel, and wider implications of her predicament become clear.
Comparisons can be made with Amazon’s Forever and The Good Place, two high-concept comedies that also play with the ideas of time and space – but they don’t all fit tidily into the same box like, well, Russian dolls.
Each show is an original idea told with individual skill, but that said, it’s seemingly no accident that Russian Doll, Forever and The Good Place have all come to the surface in quick succession.
Leslye Headland, the indie filmmaker who co-created the series with Lyonne and Amy Poehler, suggests that the recent spike in inventive TV is a result of broadcasters with cash putting greater trust in creative teams.
“I was a really big fan of Lost before it went completely nuts,” she tells RadioTimes.com. Tellingly, JJ Abrams’ confounding drama was one of the key reference points in the writers’ room.
“I don’t think anyone is really re-inventing the wheel here, so much as they’re maybe getting to exercise or exert themselves.”
Much of Headland’s experience in the industry has been with independently-financed productions – including her 2015 film Sleeping With Other People, led by Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis – so she was pleasantly surprised to find just how ‘out there’ a company like Netflix wanted her to be.
“They never said exactly this, but most of their notes came in the form of, ‘Can this be more what it is’, if that makes sense,” Headland says. “It’s not that they were like, ‘We want it to be weirder’, but ‘Can you go even further in the direction you’re already going?’”
She continued: “I have made two movies and even making them in the independent space, when somebody gives you x million dollars to make a movie, you can’t be like, ‘So, now we’re going to travel back in time to her mom and we’re gonna…’ People are like, ‘No no no, you cannot do that.’”
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In fact, the germ of Russian Doll was far more conventional than the end result. The idea stemmed from Lyonne having come up with the character of Nadia as an “East Village archetype” that her and Poehler were trying to develop a series around.
Netflix executive Cindy Holland, Amy Poehler, Natasha Lyonne and Leslye Headland attend the Russian Doll premiere in New York (Getty)
They brought the character to Headland with all of the themes and emotional ideas they wanted to explore, but none of the narrative structure. From there, Headland says, it was years of hard work with a talented, all-female writing staff.
“It was almost as if we had too many options initially,” she says. “It took years to come up with what you end up seeing there as the premise of the show. And then it took all those months and all of those writers to come up with the structure and the different set pieces that you see.”
It’s not hard to imagine the difficulties Russian Doll presented, with its multiple resets offering up a world of possibilities. And although the show is complex enough necessitate a 30-second “for morons” explanation of Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in its latter stages, Headland says she was mostly focused on avoiding the classic pitfall of “a puzzlebox show” – allowing the complexities of the narrative to undermine the characters.
“Lost, to make a bad pun, ‘lost’ me when the characters stopped acting like the characters,” she says. “Obviously we need to pay off narratively and time-loop-wise, but the thing that’s really going to anchor us is the character.
“Whether it’s Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or All That Jazz, regardless of the genre, if that character is someone you’re rooting for, then you’ll be able to take as many left turns as you want until you get to your ending, in my opinion.”
Judging by the initial reaction, it seems Headland took exactly the right turn with Russian Doll.
Russian Doll is released on Netflix on Friday 1st February 2019