New sitcom Russian Doll sees a wise-cracking, chain-smoking woman trapped between life and death. Along with The Good Place and Black Mirror, it’s yet more proof of TV’s fixation with the great beyond

  • Warning: this article contains spoilers for Russian Doll and Forever

In new Netflix show Russian Doll, the main character, Nadia, dies approximately nine minutes into the first episode. She dies again 10 minutes later. By the end of the second episode, it has happened five more times.

Instead of going to a better place each time she dies, Nadia, played with buckets of charisma by Natasha Lyonne – best known for her role in Orange Is the New Black – reawakens staring at herself in the same bathroom mirror as the same jaunty refrain from Harry Nilsson’s Gotta Get Up plays. It’s her 36th birthday (over and over again) and her best friend, Maxine, is throwing her a party. Written and directed entirely by women, Russian Doll struts rather than walks the line between spiky comedy and dark gut punches, as wisecracking, chain-smoking, pantsuit disciple Nadia is tripped up (often literally) by deaths that veer from bleak social commentary to pure slapstick.

As she tries to figure out what is going on and, crucially, whether or not she still exists, Nadia considers that her Groundhog Day-esque loop could be the fault of religion, drugs, dark gravitational forces or her own insanity. At one point, she tries to shrug it all off completely, saying: “The universe is trying to fuck with me and I refuse to engage.”

Nadia’s conundrum is part of television’s increasingly anarchic obsession with the afterlife. A character death used to be climactic – a hard-earned pay-off from season-long narrative arcs. Now it seems that shuffling off the mortal coil is a sign that the fun (or the eternal damnation, as the case may be) is only just beginning.

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