By Tim Kroenert
16 June 2022
Season one of Russian Doll was a dark comic tour de force. Co-creator (with Amy Poehler) Natasha Lyonne stars as Nadia, a brash, hard-drinking New Yorker cursed to relive her 36th birthday party over and over. On this hellish night she repeatedly dies, only to reset each time to the start of the evening. That present trauma gradually opens a window to deeper trauma: a generational trauma of parental neglect, stemming back to the communal trauma World War II was for Nadia’s Jewish forebears. What emerges is an irreverent, modern rabbinic parable on confronting the past.
Season two is less about confronting the past than healing from it. Lyonne and Poehler abandon the first season’s gruesome Groundhog Night conceit. In its place is a time travel story that sends Nadia into the past and back via magical subway train. Gifted the opportunity to embody her mother and grandmother in their younger years, Nadia seizes a chance to repair the mistakes (in her view) they made that led to her own discontent in the present day. Specifically, she sets about trying to salvage the familial wealth that was either squandered by her mother, stolen by the Nazis, or both.
It is a bold digression story-wise. Gone are the vivid visual and aural motifs that drove season one –the recurring image of Nadia meeting a mundane fate, then jolting awake in front of a bathroom mirror as party hubbub and Harry Nilsson’s debauched anthem “Gotta Get Up” filter in from the next room. Absent in large part, too, is the engaging friendship between Nadia and the helplessly beta Alan (Charlie Bennett), who was her one companion on season one’s life-death loop. Alan has his own subplot here but they spend little screen time together, to the story’s detriment.
What does remain is Lyonne’s incredible performance, which is a captivating blend of loud-mouthed bravado and sarcasm that can turn in an instant to heartbreaking vulnerability. And, the scripts are still punchy and nuanced enough to support it. It may lack the must-binge drive of the first season, but sustains interest enough for its deeper concerns to reveal themselves to patient viewers. From its first episode it was clear Russian Doll was underpinned by a potent vision. Season two proves the creators are more interested in the integrity of that vision than in doubling down on gimmicks.
Streaming on Netflix.