Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (left), Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll

How Russian Doll uses Groundhog Day to make a better—not necessarily novel—show

Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (left), Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll
Photo: Columbia Pictures (Getty Images), Netflix

This article discusses plot elements of Russian Doll and The Good Place.

One of Russian Doll’s best jokes is the one it doesn’t tell. The Netflix series, in which Natasha Lyonne plays a Dionysian computer programmer who keeps re-living the events of her 36th birthday party, never once says the words “Groundhog Day.” The show doesn’t even invoke the name of Bill Murray, though co-creator and star Lyonne does a pretty good job conjuring the spirit of his many prickly, sardonic screen personae in her gruff, guarded, acid-tongued performance. No explicit references to the 1993 comedy are made in spite of the extraordinary circumstances faced by both its unstuck-in-time protagonists, Phil Connors, and Lyonne’s Russian Doll character, Nadia. This despite parallels as obvious as the cheery pop tunes that signal the resets of Phil’s and Nadia’s respective loops (“I Got You Babe” by Sonny And Cher for him, “Gotta Get Up” by Harry Nilsson for her), or as subtle as the connections they each spark with a homeless man. In one of multiple instances where Phil fails to save the old-timer, he’s told by an emergency room nurse, “Sometimes people just die.” Nadia can relate: Her dark night of the soul begins again whenever she kicks the bucket, which, by the end of Russian Doll’s eight episodes, is a good dozen-plus times.

It’s not as if the series, or anyone involved with its production, are ignorant to the similarities. Leslye Headland, who created Russian Doll alongside Lyonne and Amy Poehler, acknowledges the influence in this interview with Forbes:

It’s funny because with the trailer and the first three episodes especially you kind of get that Groundhog Day feeling from the show. I kind of see that more like the container that the show is in if that makes sense?

Russian Doll’s release date also counts as a wink in the direction of the Harold Ramis-directed film, arriving on Netflix one day before the annual tradition of “a large squirrel predicting the weather” that big-city meteorologist Phil is forced to live and re-live for (by Ramis’ own calculation) at least 10 years. And why should the show draw the lines between itself and Groundhog Day when practically everything that’s been written about it (this essay included) is all too happy to do that work?

The show is smarter, and better, for never coming out and saying, “Hey, you know what this feels like?” But it also doesn’t need to. Nadia’s trapped in a pattern that pop culture has been repeating ever since Groundhog Day first emerged from its hole and didn’t see its shadow, guaranteeing decades of time loops on the screen and the page. “There are a few films, and this is one of them, that burrow into our memories and become reference points,” Roger Ebert wrote in his Great Movies retrospective, with only a modicum of exaggeration, considering the eventual adoption of “Groundhog Day” as both a narrative convention and shorthand for grinding drudgery. This 2017 column in Vice by Pilot Viruet does a thorough job of running down the company Russian Doll is joining; to get a feel for how fast the Groundhog Days keep coming, consider that in the two years since that article was published, The Good Place picked up the spiritual threads of Phil Connors’ plight, and Legends Of Tomorrow staged an ABBA-fied riff on the concept. On the big screen, Happy Death Day and its forthcoming sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, pull the existential terror of Groundhog Day to the surface and dress it up as a slasher movie.

The loops of Happy Death Day and Russian Doll intersect with the most desperate points of Phil’s, where the protagonists aren’t just going through (and going through and going through) one of the worst days of their lives—they keep re-living their deaths, too. This is one of the spots where the show gets to make the repetition its own, linking its central predicament to its protagonist’s profession. When trying to solve the mystery of what’s happening to her and her partner-in-seeming-immortality, Allen (Charlie Barnett), Nadia likens it to a coding error:

It’s just a bug. It’s like if a program keeps crashing. The crashing is just a symptom of a bug in the code. If the deaths are us crashing, then that moment is the bug that we need to go and fix.

But that cycle of death and rebirth is also inherent in the specific type of programming that Nadia does: for video games, in which the player controls characters who are killed and regenerate ad infinitum. A death in one of her earliest games eventually joins Russian Doll’s chorus of rhythmic cues, a trapdoor opening beneath a sprite, like the sidewalk cellar that bedevils Nadia throughout the series. It’s a reference point that wouldn’t have been as readily accessible to Groundhog Day’s initial audiences—games were a popular pursuit in 1993, sure, but the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo were still largely considered kids stuff. Certainly not anything a serious-minded, self-disciplined adult like Allen would devote his free time to.

The deeper I got into Russian Doll, and the more times Nadia and Allen died, the more I thought about the games within games that allow the player to play sadistic trickster god: opening intentionally dangerous rides on Roller Coaster Tycoon, building a toilet-less house for The Sims, or my colleague Caitlin PenzeyMoog’s old hobby of drowning Lara Croft. It added another intriguing wrinkle to Russian Doll’s time capers: Should we find Nadia’s deaths entertaining, disturbing, or some combination of both? Because they’re often staged and executed for maximum amusement, calling on the slapstick physicality of Lyonne’s performance as her character takes tumble after tumble down the stairs, or pitches backward into a river, or gets crushed by a falling A/C condenser shortly after Allen says, “I told you, I think we’re dying at the same time.” The Wile E. Coyote hijinks fit Russian Doll snugly into Headland’s pitch-black oeuvre—next to the apocalyptic pre-wedding festivities of Bachelorette and Sleeping With Other People’s caustic pair of sex addicts. There’s a command of tone and a level of care in the performances and characterization that keeps the series from falling prey to the cheap, empty thrills of “bad things happening to bad people” cringe comedy.

Because after enough onscreen deaths, Lyonne, Headland, Poehler, and company start prodding at the laughter. This isn’t Tom Cruise’s movie-star charisma beaming forth from within a tiny mech suit, getting endlessly wrecked in Edge Of Tomorrow. It’s a person whose armor—a helmet of red curls, dramatic shoulder pads—has been acquired across a lifetime of looking out for herself, who more than once goes out alongside one of the few people she hasn’t managed to push away. Out of pure shock, I guffawed when it appeared that Nadia had set off a gun while rifling through some old belongings at her godmother Ruth’s place. I was subsequently mortified when the point of view of the scene shifts, to show Ruth, red-eyed and grief-stricken, grasping a revolver.

Rebecca Henderson (left), Greta Lee, and Charlie Barnett in Russian Doll
Rebecca Henderson (left), Greta Lee, and Charlie Barnett in Russian Doll
Photo: Netflix

Getting Nadia to this place of vulnerability—where she’d allow gutter punk Horse to cut her hair and hound 3-1-1 about the gas leak in Ruth’s kitchen—both mirrors Groundhog Day and feeds into Russian Doll’s variation on the premise. In the way that Phil Connors eventually finds it in himself to make the best of the situation in Punxsutawney (and, in the process, the best of himself), Nadia wakes up to the friends who’ve stood by her through all of the destructive behaviors that haven’t resulted in her death. When objects and people start disappearing late in the season, her instinct is to gather those closest to her and flee the party, as if proximity will keep these essential layers from peeling away from her reality. That recursive disintegration is a fresh spin; it’s a righteous subversion that she doesn’t seem to mind either of the show’s prospective romantic interests poofing out of existence.

It’s also an articulation of why storytellers keep coming back to Groundhog Day. For all the room that Russian Doll finds to move around within its “container” (to borrow Headland’s phrasing), it never strays too far from that powerful, elementary notion that no one goes it alone, that our personal burdens and baggage are so much easier to carry when there’s someone else to shoulder the load. It’s the illuminating idea of the show’s conceptual and thematic cohort, The Good Place, where the repetition takes on a scientific-experiment quality, demonstrating that the four main characters make one another better people over time.

Looking back at Groundhog Day, Ebert was careful to note that its key transformation is that Murray’s character “becomes a better Phil, not a different Phil,” and the same can be said of Nadia, Russian Doll, and the cinematic influence it lets go unspoken. The show might not change the Groundhog Day concept or its core message, but it does tweak it and adjust it in order to be the best Russian Doll it can be.