New York is the city that never sleeps and a city of the American dream and heartbreaks. It is a city that so many of us visit in our dreams, a city where art and commerce make love amidst the hustle and bustle and the grandeur and grime. New York is one of the most overused locations in films and shows and has a distinct identity.
A complete urban jungle, the lush greenery in certain parts of the city forms a unique heterotopia amidst rising homelessness, crimes and other problems. Amidst all the beauty and hostility surrounding New York, it has a lot of stories to tell through the hubbub and silence; Netflix’s Original series Russian Doll is proof of just that as it personifies the city into a living, breathing character.
Created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland, Russian Doll is inarguably one of Netflix’s best-ever creations as it tackles grief, mortality and other existential thematics via a chain-smoking crass-talking Manhattanite existential heroine. She keeps finding herself trapped in weird, metaphysical elements involving space and time. Starring Lyonne and Alan Barnett in prominent roles, the show brims in profound nihilism and delves into the politics of time travel while examining grief and trauma.
The two seasons of the show are set in various neighbourhoods of New York City which goes on to become an intrinsic part of the characters. The city is a constant reminder of the protagonist, Nadia Vulvakov’s past, present and future as it harrowingly presents the intergenerational trauma and grief that pervades the show. While the first season begins in a cramped-up Manhattan apartment, Nadia quickly moves around New York City, finding herself dying multiple times on her thirty-fifth birthday while trying to find solutions to her problems.
The show is a free, fool-proof city tour. From the vast Tompkins Square Park to the various subway stations and bars, the cameras follow Nadia and the other characters (mainly Alan) into every nook and cranny of New York City. The city is a silent spectator to all the events within the show; she quietly observes the growing panic and anxiety that Nadia grapples with as she tries to make sense of her nightmarish predicament of getting stuck in a continuous-time loop.
The second season sees present-day New York as well as New York in all her ‘80s glory, basking in grunge elements and aesthetics. Still, a mysterious beauty with her narrow alleyways and distinct features, the city’s timeless beauty across the timelines seems to suffocate Nadia, who is simply facing a worse situation than dying- she is travelling between timelines, often blending into her mother’s body to restore a treasured family possession.
New York’s geographical and socio-economic elements are rambunctiously brought to the fore. From introducing a homeless man who becomes Nadia’s friend to giving an intimate insight into New York’s culture and sub-culture, the showrunners breathe love and life into the darkness of the city. They pay tribute to America’s most fabled cities by introducing the much-coveted nightlife. New York’s cosmopolitan environment sees a conglomeration of all kinds of people.
The showrunners add in a hint of fantasy elements while keeping the story rooted in the reality of a city that has stayed resilient against innumerable waves of gentrification. Via its lens, Russian Doll pays homage to the city that stands still as proud, beautiful, mysterious, haunting and ancient.