“Russian Doll smashes the Bechdel test, with women speaking over 70% of all dialogue.”
Title: Russian Doll
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Natasha Lyonne 👩🏼🇺🇸, Leslye Headland 👩🏼🇺🇸 🌈, and Amy Poehler 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Natasha Lyonne 👩🏼🇺🇸 (3 eps), Leslye Headland 👩🏼🇺🇸 🌈 (3 eps) , Amy Poehler 👩🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Allison Silverman 👩🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Cirocco Dunlap 👩🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), Jocelyn Bioh 👩🏾🇺🇸 (1 ep), and Flora Birnbaum 👩🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep)
User-submitted review by Marlene Loretto 👩🏽🇺🇸
In one of Netflix’s more daring original series, Russian Doll tells the story of Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne), a woman who finds herself stuck in a time loop on the night of her 36th birthday. We follow the chain-smoking redhead as she continuously dies through methods pulled straight from a New Yorker’s nightmare—hit by a taxi, tumbling into the East River, or freezing to death in Tompkins Square Park. Each time, she restarts back at her birthday celebration where the show first began. Nadia tries to break out of the macabre cycle through unsuccessful sleuthing, but events only pick up steam after she meets a stranger, Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett), who suffers from the same metaphysical dilemma.
While it’s easy to draw parallels with Groundhog Day (1993), as many have done, Russian Doll has evolved into something wholly unique. For starters, in addition to playing the show’s lead, showrunner Lyonne has stated that she wanted to develop a new kind of female protagonist. She succeeds with Nadia, who describes herself in the episode “Ariadne” (Season 1, Episode 8) as the love child of brash comedian Andrew Dice Clay and Merida from Brave (2012). She commands the screen with a zero-fucks-given attitude and an endless supply of clever quips, refusing to shrink herself in order to make the men around her more comfortable. But as we learn in the show, her tough New York exterior merely protects the lost and vulnerable girl Nadia once was.
All the while, stunning visuals and an acute attention to detail transforms the viewer into a detective by their own right, as we collectively try to make sense of the chronological glitch that Nadia and Alan find themselves in. Luckily, we have Lyonne's commanding presence and witty dialogue to lead us down the rabbit hole of her existential crisis.
Does it pass the Bechdel test? YES!
For starters, Russian Doll treats the Bechdel test like the joke it originally set out to be and smashes speaking time with episodes that tilt 70-80% in favor of women’s voices.*
In the first two episodes, we see Nadia talk with her friends Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson) and Maxine (Greta Lee) about things ranging from mortality, religion, to pop culture icons like Jimmy Jones. While the dynamic does change once audiences are introduced to Alan, with the time-stuck duo working closely together to solve their crisis, Nadia still maintains her friendships with other women.
In particular, she continues to hold a deep relationship with Ruth (Elizabeth Ashely), a therapist who Nadia has known since childhood and who has become a maternal figure in her life. They complement each other, both sharing a “tough love” sensibility while Ruth supports Nadia on her personal journey.
On the flipside, Maxine and Lizzy remain flat characters. Small hints of backstory do sneak in, such as the way Lizzy appears to harbor resentment towards Nadia, proclaiming if it wasn't for Nadia she'd be "married, living upstate with two mastiffs". But overall, Nadia feels like the Carrie Bradshaw of Russian Doll where Lizzy and Maxine only appear when Nadia needs them.
It's always refreshing when the diversity onscreen actually matches the diversity of its real-world setting. On the whole, Russian Doll succeeds in reflecting the demographics of New York City through the inclusion of supporting characters like Maxine, played by Korean American actress Greta Lee, or Farran whose actor, Ritesh Rajan, is of Indian descent.
Alan, played by the biracial actor Barnett, brings the most notable show of racial diversity as a developed character with an integral role to play. We learn that he restarts his time loop on the night that his girlfriend breaks up with him, and that those around him are concerned about his mental health. But even though writers devote narrative space to showing his perfectionist and OCD tendencies, he remains firmly second to Nadia’s leading role. Reserved and soft-spoken, Alan speaks fewer lines and his responses are usually limited to one-liners or silent facial expressions.
Above all, the slight preference for white characters can be seen through the numbers. In the first three episodes, white characters spoke for an average of 88% of the time—more than their share of the population in Manhattan, which was just 64% in 2018. Only Alan’s character-driven episode, “Alan’s Routine” (Season 1, Episode 4), marks a significant departure when he and other characters of color speak for 67% of the episode. By the time Nadia and Alan are sharing the narrative spotlight in Episodes 5-8, white characters speak for an average of 70% of all dialogue.
As a lesbian played by actor Rebecca Henderson—who also identifies as a lesbian—Lizzy is one of the few LGBTQ characters in the series. Incidentally, Henderson is married to one of Russian Doll’s creators, Leslye Headland, and their relationship helped cast Lizzy’s role.
Lizzy genuinely cares for Nadia and goes out of her way to support her, but doesn't do much beyond that. Still, I appreciate the show’s approach to sex positivity. In one episode, we see Lizzy nonchalantly wake up from a "fuck pile" and never do audiences get the sense that we should disparage her for it.
In addition, Barnett who plays Alan is openly gay. In a positive step towards allowing underrepresented communities more access to Hollywood opportunities, it’s great to see Barnett flourish in a key role outside of his own sexuality.
On a final note, Lyonne has described her character of Nadia as being genderless. Still, her character presents as cisgender and straight, as Nadia is only ever depicted having sex with cisgender men.
Bonus for Disability: +1.00
Mental health makes up one of the central themes of Russian Doll. Over the course of the season, we learn that Nadia's mother suffered from mental illness, an upbringing that has built a strong distaste for the word “crazy” by Nadia and Ruth—as well as Alan, but for his own reasons.
As mentioned, Alan shows symptoms of OCD characterized by his Marie Kondo-like levels of tidiness in his apartment. (He even cleans up Nadia's apartment while she is away, much to her chagrin.)
Where Russian Doll truly breaks ground is the way their behavior never gets depicted as an impediment. Instead, writers highlight the importance of addressing and coming to terms with one’s own mental health.
Bonus for Age: +0.25
Elizabeth Ashley, who is 79 years old, does a fantastic job of breathing life into the character of Ruth, who is presented as a well-rounded woman with flaws. Nadia has known Ruth since she was a child and trusts her to the point of being the only person she feels she can divulge her supernatural deaths and rebirths to without fear of being judged.
Mediaversity Grade: A- 4.50/5
The incredible team of women behind Russian Doll has created a powerhouse of a show. That said, I'm looking forward to seeing how Lyonne, Headland, and fellow co-creator Amy Poehler will continue to improve diversity in the seasons to come.
For starters, more melanin is needed in the writer's room. The complete lack of it so far reflects onscreen. The omission feels all the more glaring, considering the show’s obvious familiarity and love for its setting of New York City. Still, Russian Doll has become one of my favorite shows of 2019 thus far and I look forward to what comes next.
Like Russian Doll? Try these other experimental, female-centric shows.
* I used arementalkingtoomuch.com to track speaking times. Episodes were tested twice—once to track the speaking times between men and women, and a second time between white characters and characters of color.