I started watching Netflix's Russian Doll expecting another Groundhog Day story – well, it totally is, it's even marketed as such – with Natasha Lyonne (who 's always funny and watchable no matter what she's in) and found instead a show about the East Village in Downtown New York City.
As a lot of reviewers have already said, it's one of the best new shows on Netflix – and I was just surprised at how New York it was. This show is a celebration of New York City. Not the Midtown upmarket upwardly-mobile glitz of New York City – but the oddball, messy, chaotic, rebellious lunacy of the East Village. All the episodes are shot around Tompkins Square Park and Alphabet City downtown.
Lyonne plays Nadia, a native New Yorker in a bad mood on her 36th birthday who starts dying and restarting her evening over and over again. Her mission is obvious: to find out why her life keeps restarting on the night of her birthday and solve the big mystery or problem. As with all Groundhog Day stories, she has to learn to become a better person, a better friend, a more conscientious person. And who should deserve to be stuck in a Groundhog Day situation than that most self-absorbed creature: a New Yorker?
As the show gets deeper, it becomes clear that Nadia is Downtown New York. She is the embodiment of Alphabet City itself: self-absorbed, smart, funny, druggy, messy, neurotic, destructive and self-destructive – but ultimately decent. She just has a lot of crap in her life and her past she needs to get over. She's the most accurate archetypal New Yorker on a TV show for a long time – and Lyonne, as co-creator, co-writer and even occasional director of the show, knows it.
She and the show's team are making the most authentically New York City show on TV right now. Nadia's personal history is part of the history of the city, so her being trapped in a purgatorial Groundhog Day situation in New York City gives both her and the city more intensity. It's a world of druggy, artistic, well-read, sexually-fluid bohemians, of endless parties, endless nights, and endless everything, which New York can often feel like.
Nadia becomes friends with a homeless guy – because Groundhog Day plots are never complete until the main character becomes friends with a homeless person. Homeless people are all over New York City so at least this makes that subplot perfectly logical.
Maybe one day someone will produce a completely immoral Groundhog Day story about someone who needs to become more and more evil each time they come back from the dead to start their day again – but so far that hasn't happened.
This is the East Village of Kathy Acker and that whole Downtown Alphabet City art scene from the 1960's to the 1980's that linked academia, writing, politics, LGBTQ activism with art and drugs, a whole lot of drugs, often Heroin. That's largely gone now, but the sense of free-for-all still lingers around the neighbourhood even after the homeless camps were cleared out of Tompkins Square Park and the place was cleaned up for new families and the gentrification of Downtown New York City.
Much of that bohemian scene has been driven out by rising rents, a lot of the players passing away or moving out of the city – but it's still there, if smaller and less visible than it used to be. If you know about the history of Downtown New York, or lived through it as several of my friends did, you'll find that every frame of this show hints at the history of East Village, even as the streets are now cleaner and new boutique stores have popped up in the place of the old grungy storefronts that are long gone.
There are very few movies about the Lower East Side cultural scene, and Russian Doll is the latest and possibly the fullest. This show feels deeply personal to Lyonne and the team. I was reminded of Abel Ferrera's 2011 movie 4:44 Last Night on Earth, set on the Lower East Side where Willem Dafoe played a drug addict in recovery awaiting the end of the world. Lyonne played one of his friends who was about to spend their final night indulging in drugs. That movie was also a celebration and lament for the dying Downtown cultural scene as well as an allegory about the addict's hell of trying to stay off drugs, which in itself is a very Downtown New York story.
This is a show written and made by New Yorkers. It is about how New Yorkers like to see themselves: yes, they can be crazy, deviant assholes – and proud of it – but they're also kind and big-hearted.
When they remember to stop being assholes.