The Netflix series is an understated example of how much can be gained by placing women at a story’s center.
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes Russian Doll — Netflix’s wonderful, eight-episode, time-loopy dramedy — so very good. There’s an unabashedness to the centrality of its women, but it also never once devolves into a bunch of scenes that amount to star, co-creator, writer, and director Natasha Lyonne taking centerstage to say, “Well, as a woman…”
But it’s unlikely that Russian Doll’s flinty femininity would be the first thing you talked about when discussing the show, or even the fourth or fifth or sixth. Yes, it would come up, but the show is so effortlessly, joyfully itself that you can enjoy it entirely sans sociopolitical readings, something that TV (which is always fond of hammering the subtext into the text) often struggles with.
Much of why the show is so effective in this regard is thanks to its all-women writers’ room and all-women directorial team, as pointed out by journalist Maddie Holden in a viral tweet. But there have been plenty of other shows, both good and terrible, that boasted all-women staffs, and few have felt like the alchemical work of genius that is Russian Doll.
I think what ultimately makes Russian Doll work is the way it centers women’s perspectives without really calling attention to what it’s doing. On the surface, you’re getting a compelling story about one woman battling her inner demons via a wildly entertaining time loop plot device.
But if you start to dig around in the bones of the thing, you’ll realize just what’s going on. In particular, if you look at how Russian Doll uses men, you’ll realize how deep the series’ interest in centering women’s perspectives goes. This show uses men the way most pop culture uses women — which is to say it turns them into supporting players whose inner lives are mostly glossed over in the name of what the protagonist is going through.
And it very intentionally turns all three of its major male characters into masculine spins on ancient women character types.
Spoilers for the first season of Russian Doll follow.
You’ve seen Russian Doll’s male characters before. They’re just usually played by women on other shows.
Let’s start at the highest level possible. Russian Doll has three particularly significant men in its ensemble — Alan, John, and Mike. Alan, played by Charlie Barnett, is the plucky, younger, attractive sidekick to Nadia (Lyonne). The two have a sexual fling, but it’s a one-off thing, and he’s ultimately there to be handsome, supportive, and emotionally available. (It’s notable that Barnett is the performer on the show who most often appears onscreen without much clothing on.)
John, played by Yul Vazquez, is Nadia’s ex, the guy she broke up with when she realized she wasn’t ready for a relationship. But on some level, he’s always there, waiting for her to come home to him. Mike, meanwhile, is played by Jeremy Bobb and is something of the series’ femme fatale, the guy who’s bad news but irresistible for some reason.
To be sure, Russian Doll has other male characters, but figures like Farran (Alan’s friend) and Horse (a local homeless guy) exist to help flesh out the world of the show and potentially even tease future seasons. (I’m convinced Horse knows more about the time loops than he’s letting on.) That’s not to say they’re unimportant characters, but they are mostly confined to the story’s sidelines.
So if you look at the three major male characters, you’ll see they play, in essence: plucky sidekick, supportive spouse, and temptation. And guess what roles women are so often asked to play in shows centered on the perspectives of men?
This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with any of these characters, or even with the more thinly conceived women characters slotted into those roles in other projects. By the virtue of how stories work, they require protagonists and supporting players who won’t be as well-developed as the protagonist.
And Russian Doll is empathetic to everyone in its ensemble, which includes the men. So it’s not as though you’d sit there and think, “Yes, Alan is a thin character!” because he isn’t one. The show gives him dimensions, depth, and an arc of his own. (Okay, maybe the show isn’t as warm toward Mike, but Mike’s just a jerk.)
By subtly slotting the men in its story into the roles that women would often be asked to thanklessly play in so many stories centered on men, Russian Doll proves a lovely experiment in what happens when you shift the perspective of any story. Nobody involved in Russian Doll sat down and said, “Now let’s make men play the roles that women are usually asked to play!” Simply by virtue of making the story so fundamentally about Nadia’s struggles to understand herself and the unusual situation she becomes trapped in, the story traveled in that direction anyway.
Radical art that fundamentally challenges our sociopolitical assumptions is necessary, to be sure. But so is stuff like Russian Doll that nudges things in a different direction through its own sheer, dogged sense of self. The series knows what it wants to be, and in so doing, it provides an object lesson in how to make a point about flat characters, and which gender is disproportionately asked to play them, by showing, not telling.
Stream Russian Doll on Netflix. This is informational text but also a clear command. It’s so good. Seriously. Go watch it.