Television

The haze of chain smoke in Russian Doll does little to obscure the time-slipping drama’s lightweight psychoanalysis or the failure of its pretensions to feminist interrogation.

By Helen Razer.

Russian Doll

Natasha Lyonne as Nadia in ‘Russian Doll’.
Credit: Courtesy Netflix

Big-budget TV needs a big foundation myth to hold it and last month Netflix laid one down quite thick. As printed legend has it, the A-list Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation, Saturday Night Live) phoned a lesser-known pal for a chat, during which she declared, “You’ve always been the oldest girl in the world!” This moment brought great artists together and, heroic years later, Russian Doll would bewitch us all.

Actor Natasha Lyonne took the alleged call seven years ago and, per press, was instantly smitten. This story prepares us to behold a genre-neutral noir gem for our times and to ignore our sober senses. These tell us that Russian Doll removed the gags from Groundhog Day, replaced them with offcuts from Black Mirror, and dressed it all up in a Nasty Woman T-shirt made by a blind kid in Dhaka.

The world’s oldest girl recalls her reply to Poehler. “Keep talking!” she said, as though she’d not been conspicuously menopausal on screen since the age of 16, as though this girl-with-the-eyes-of-a-woman thing was new.

No! I’ve happily watched Lyonne since her 1996 breakthrough as Woody Allen’s wisecracking midlife kid in Everyone Says I Love You. She is best known to many as American Pie’s wisecracking midlife high-schooler and best loved by the few as the wisecracking midlife millennial inmate of Orange Is the New Black. She is forever cast as a wise-beyond-her-years Cassandra and if Poehler’s remark came as a surprise, Lyonne has the self-awareness of the injured infant whose backstory reliably informs her wisecracking midlife facade.

Speaking as a tender little girl with a ballsy front, this schtick is fine with me, as it is with all self-infatuated white women. As tiring as this Jessica-Jones-Hannah-Horvath-Buffy-fierce-but-fragile female has likely become to people who are not me, surely all prefer her to the past decade’s Golightly mutant – that role filled by a Zooey Deschanel and beloved by the bint in a frock who crowdfunds Amanda Palmer. Better the tomboy with a nightmare past than the manic pixie dreamer. May the latter sleep in a very deep hole, her ukulele laid beside her.

I don’t buy Russian Doll’s origin story, but I’d consume it without guilt if the show were any chop. This PR prelude to what Lyonne has described as a “mind meld” with Poehler and playwright Leslye Headland is pure romantic comedy with a three-way twist. But fine. It’s nice to imagine that Poehler’s line about the oldest girl in the world – also the title of a quirky poem by Britain’s quirkiest poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy – ignited Lyonne’s chain-smoking Nadia.

And how she smokes. Nadia Vulvokov – last name “like vulva”, per a typical moment of dialogue somehow typically praised in review – smokes a lot. This is notable for two reasons. First, we all get that smoking means Nadia is vulnerable and invulnerable at once. We all see the smoking is a shortcut. It makes room for Nadia to pop outside and yell exposition to another smoker. She explains how she dies each day, on the same day, in a vintage Brooklyn accent that makes Bernie Sanders sound as posh as Sir Ian McKellen.

The smoking. And the Depression-era yelling. Long before La Vulva is done with her first pack we understand she is loud but also very little, which is why she latches to cigs like a starving babe to a dry nurse.

Like the Russian Doll spin, the Russian Doll smoke is a smokescreen. It conceals a lack of depth so ardently desired by the show’s creators, and perhaps does away with the bother of devising a new way to move between scenes. The smokescreen confuses many critics – in The Washington Post, Vox, The Los Angeles Times and other sites of commonly clear review there’s a lot of hazy praise.

Second, what is it with all the smoking on streaming TV? It’s not as though this unregulated sector was forced to live free or die smoking. Still, many shows now light up very freely. Mum spotted this early. She’d noticed it months before American anti-smoking group, Truth Initiative, published a smoking and streaming report a year ago. By then, I’d given her my streaming passwords and a two-day seminar in how to watch The Crown. She liked Netflix so much she forgot that she’d referred to it only as “that fucking thing” for a week. The only complaint she had concerned smoking. Princess Margaret near did Mum in as a quitter. Like her, I found the urge to smoke returned with my first streaming subscription.

This view of smoking as therapy is recent. I can’t recall any employee of Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper shot enjoying a Lucky Strike, or any of life’s risky pleasures. Betty Draper sucked ’em down and never smiled once before her smoker’s death. Smoking was bad. Then The Crown appeared and a countess was licensed to relish the habit. Truth Initiative didn’t test the content of The Crown, but it did study House of Cards, reporting 41 smokes in a season. How Claire savoured her secret White House smoko.

The study charged Netflix with the greatest number of “tobacco incidents”. That the largest producer of streaming content was also the largest producer of wicked streaming content is hardly a shock. But those 182 cigs lit in a season of Stranger Things, a drama aimed at kids, add up to one shocking carton.

Some folks claim Big Tobacco is up to its old propagandist tricks. I claim Netflix, Amazon and other colossally financed media corporations have no need of dirty money. They get the stuff laundered first at Wall Street. The power of Big Finance beats the power of Big Tobacco and that, as Nadia might say, is a fact as plain as pissing in the shower is easy – such dialogue.

Thus, it is my claim that today’s smoky screen was established in an accidental rush then consciously adopted as a means of lazy obfuscation. Russian Doll uses its cigarettes. Ten years ago, Mad Men just smoked them.

We could say that Matthew Weiner, a famously stubborn showrunner, started it all with historically faithful gaspers. We could say that The Walking Dead, another unregulated property free to light up where it pleases, did its part. The report counted 94 “tobacco incidents” on the AMC horror, none of which I can recall, probably because smoking seems as suited to a time of zombie pandemic terror as it was to the 1960s.

It’s just not right that Nadia, trapped on the never-ending night of her 36th birthday, would smoke. White millennials with mid-six-figure salaries don’t light up. They have compassionate corporate bosses who send them to an Arizona spa for a six-star quitter treatment. Quibbles notwithstanding, if there’s a central clue inside a mystery said by critics to be crammed with them, it’s the smoke. Smokes remain shocking in real Western life and their shocking appearance on screen works to distract us from an absence.

Russian Doll is absent of the deep thought its creators suggest. It is not, as Nadia’s hyper-empowered gig as a post-Gamergate girl who codes, a feminist interrogation. It is not an Amy Poehler text whose richness rivals even Blades of Glory. That same-sex ice-dancing flick is very dumb but very, very funny. It is never funnier than in those moments Poehler appears. Why an actor who can give life to Fairchild Van Waldenberg, the genetically ruthless product of evil figure-skating eugenicists, would give it up for a turn at “layered” art is anybody’s guess. To misquote Derrida more brutally than Jordan Peterson: there is nothing inside this text.

Sure, you can allude to psychoanalytic thinking and bang on about space-time at length. This doesn’t make Russian Doll a poignant portrait of a woman hidden inside another woman who is, in fact, a tender baby girl. It makes it a sham with some high-end production design and a lo-fi soundtrack composed as a requiem for the 1980s.

The reappearance of actors in different roles didn’t persuade me that Louis C. K. was a nouvelle vague genius, and the recurrence of objects – ooh, there’s that red scarf again! – doesn’t make me think Amy Poehler is realising the promise left unfulfilled by M. Night Shyamalan. Poehler, one of the truly great comic actors, proves herself one of drama’s truly mediocre theorists. This show should have been fun.

“Fun is for suckers,” says Nadia. “Staring down the barrel of my own mortality always beats fun.” Oh, shut it.

To blow such smoke into a void that swallows mirrors – an obvious Lacanian reference someone in the writers’ room probably heard about but didn’t check on Wikipedia – when you could be cracking gags is an act of wanton negligence. To sink what could have been a nice soufflé with a heavy name like Russian Doll recalls the slapdash hand of our mate Jordan Peterson.

Jordy’s no intellectual but a bloke adept at flogging unscholarly rot to an audience lost to crisis. His scientistic sale of bigotry and individualism is best suited to an infomercial. The Russian Doll creators are best suited to making us laugh. They sure don’t make us think.

Russian Doll is not insightful feminist art but sparkly rot for an audience lost to crisis. The thing looks a bit like a Cindy Sherman self-portrait and feels like no fun. It’s better than the postures of Peterson but only by a nose.

Kill four hours with this Netflix myth but don’t let those sober senses perish in a world of smoke and mirrors. Remain a critic but never a smoker – I hear that shit can kill.

Arts Diary

SCULPTURE Isadora Vaughan: Gaia Not the Goddess

Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until June 23

MUSIC WOMADelaide

Adelaide Botanic Park, March 8-11

VISUAL ART Art Month Sydney

Venues throughout Sydney, March 7-30

SCULPTURE Sculpture Bermagui

Venues throughout Bermagui, NSW, March 8-17

FESTIVAL Women in Music Festival

RMIT University, Melbourne, March 9-10

SCULPTURE Sculpture By the Sea

Cottesloe, Western Australia, until March 18

DESIGN Sydney Design Festival

Venues throughout Sydney, until March 10

VISUAL ART Quilty

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until June 2

VISUAL ART Starstruck: Australian Movie Portraits

Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, until April 28

Last chance

THEATRE Sweet Phoebe

Red Stitch Theatre, Melbourne, until March 3

CULTURE Mandela My Life: The Official Exhibition

Melbourne Museum, until March 3

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2019 as "Smoke but no mirror". Subscribe here.

Helen Razer
is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.