Review | ‘Russian Doll’ shows science fiction’s human side

The eight-episode series “Russian Doll” premiered on Netflix on Feb. 1 with a score of 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. IMDb

Science fiction is inherently pessimistic. A staggering amount of film and television that exists in the genre focuses on graphic subject matter, some with an interest in warning others about the future, others existing simply for the joy of blood and guts. “Russian Doll,” a Netflix eight-part series seems, at first glance, to fit into the latter category.

The first episode of “Russian Doll” introduces us to the show’s time-loop framework. The lead Nadia Vulvokov, played by “Orange is the New Black” actress Natasha Lyonne, dies after leaving her 36th birthday party to find her cat, Oatmeal. She wakes up washing her hands in the same bathroom she began the night in, beginning a seemingly inescapable time loop bookended by each subsequent death. While the premise is grim, it’s not the whole picture — at its heart, “Russian Doll” is a story about overcoming trauma through the support of those around you.

The first three episodes focus on Nadia’s search for answers. Once she realizes she’s in a loop, she immediately blames everything on a joint she believes is laced with cocaine that her friend Maxine, played by Greta Lee, initially offers her. The drugs prove to be unrelated when Nadia meets Alan Zaveri, a man she doesn’t know is stuck in the same loop as she is.

Though the mystery of the loop and what caused it remains, the show shifts its main focus from this problem to the characters themselves. Every day, something goes wrong (sometimes Nadia falls down the stairs, other times she gets hit by a car) causing Nadia to die, and restarting the loop. Nadia starts out the series by thinking she is the only one, but realizes that she isn’t once she meets Alan, the other person aware of the loop.

This prompts a shift for Nadia’s character towards self-reflection.

While she initially found comfort and purpose by blaming the loops on factors outside of herself, Alan found the same comfort by realizing he was able to anticipate everything that could happen in the loop, granting him total control.

Where Nadia represents chaos, Alan represents order; Nadia’s introduction to Alan’s story throws him completely off-kilter, and Alan’s introduction to Nadia’s allows for the show to chart a new, more nuanced course.

The last three episodes, which are dedicated to Alan and Nadia’s personal relationships, lead to profound character development that culminates in a remarkable split-screen set piece in the last episode, which was directed, written and acted in by Lyonne. Only by reconciling their traumas with the major themes and people in their lives are Nadia and Alan able to break the loop, and only by seeking out one other in their self-destructive hours of need are they able to set themselves free.