“Russian Doll” opens with its protagonist, Nadia Vulvokov, standing in a bathroom and then going through a door designed to look like a vagina to rejoin a birthday party in her honor. Nadia’s friend Maxine (now famously) coos to her, “Sweet birthday baby,” and Nadia compliments the door.
“Congrats, it’s terrifying,” Nadia says. Maxine and another female friend, Lizzy, made it together.
“Is it vaginal enough?” Maxine asks Lizzy later in the episode.
An all-female team of creators, directors and writers brought “Russian Doll” into the world. Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler created the project together. Headland directed half the episodes, Poehler co-executive produces the series, and Lyonne stars as Nadia.
The show debuted on Netflix on Feb. 1, the day before Groundhog Day. That’s apt because the plot follows a structure similar to the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day.” In “Russian Doll,” Nadia dies over and over again, only to be reborn at the same spot in that New York City apartment bathroom ― the cosmos forcing her through the vaginal door again and again to celebrate her 36th birthday.
“Russian Doll” earned super-positive reviews after its premiere and may just be the best show of 2019 so far. (I recently named it Netflix’s No. 1 original show for the year through February.) As we honor Women’s History Month this March, there’s no better show to watch in celebration.
In “Russian Doll,” the male characters are borderline throwaways and exist to serve the female characters. SPOILER WARNING: Alan (Charlie Barnett), a man going through the same death-and-repeat trap as Nadia, doesn’t appear in the series until about halfway through. Unlike Nadia, Alan gets little backstory. Lyonne portrays Nadia as a vibrant, brash, unique and strange hero who has the confidence to do anything. Alan can barely string sentences together and has borderline no personality.
While Nadia and her female friends have charisma that jumps off the screen, the men are just kind of there. The women are explicitly the stars of this world.
The most obvious tell of intentionality is that the show reuses male actors to play different characters. The same three dudes play Wall Street bros, paramedics and Nadia’s co-workers. In a reverse failed Bechdel test, the men are just accessories to the female-focused plot.
Perhaps written as a response to the sexist online Gamergate movement of the last few years, Nadia works as a software engineer, coding games so advanced that men struggle to get on her level. A co-worker named Bob messes up her code with a mistake. Alan struggles to beat a game she created. Contrary to the 2017 news story about a Google engineer’s belief that women can’t code because of inferior genetics, Nadia’s skills are so advanced that the men just can’t keep up.
Women rule the world in this New York City, despite contemporary reality. In reality, men outnumber women in Nadia’s software engineer role by a staggering amount. In the television industry, women continue to hold only a sliver of producing, directing, writing, editing and creating jobs. “Russian Doll” is a proud anomaly that makes a strong case for empowerment and upending this system.
But, importantly, it’s also just about having fun.
“Russian Doll” is a treatise, but it’s more a thrilling, mystery-filled narrative full of jokes. You may watch “Russian Doll” and not pick up on any of the show’s larger points at first and instead just get lost in this world of incredibly costumed characters with exceptional dialogue and lovable personalities. First and foremost, “Russian Doll” is a great show that truly has beat out the male-led competition this year.
The writers make it clear they embraced this ethos. After Maxine (Greta Lee) asks if her door is “vaginal enough,” Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson) has a telling response. “Let that go,” Lizzy replies. “It’s a party. C’mon, we’re dancing.”
“Russian Doll” is a television show; you’re supposed to have a good time watching it. Just make sure that you recognize who’s responsible for your enjoyment.
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