TV: Russian Doll (Season 2)

When I reviewed the first, brilliant season of Russian Doll at Lightspeed, I must have had a premonition when I commented that I was mildly hoping it would get cancelled. Superb as it was, that first clockwork year gave the series an impossible act to follow, and sure enough season two—while admirable and ambitious, in many respects—follows it poorly.

Season one’s Groundhog Day timeloops are four years in the past for our hero Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) as she begins her latest journey into mysterious cosmic fuckery. With her fortieth birthday approaching, a casual commute on the subway turns into a journey backwards in time, inexplicably delivering Nadia to the early eighties. Even worse, she’s inhabiting the body of her own pregnant mother Lenora (Chloë Sevigny)—and guess who she’s pregnant with? Nadia being Nadia, she instantly delves deeper into the time-warpy strangeness, seeing the situation as an opportunity to repair her timeline, and maybe even recover the lost family fortune that still looms in her history. This investigation is upsetting to her “partner in time” Alan (Charlie Barnett), who once again seems tied to Nadia’s bizarre metaphysical dilemma, mining an altogether different but just-as-storied family history. As Nadia digs herself further and further into a hole of paradoxes, Alan’s perspective finally helps her shift from the phantom problem she’s trying to solve to the lesson she actually needs to learn.

Russian Doll would have been hard pressed to follow up its inaugural season with something anywhere near as brilliant; alas, season two doesn’t really come close. Indeed, even as it strives to recreate the show’s manic, colorful energy, there’s something decidedly ineffectual about it, despite Nadia’s complicated personality and a heavy focus on the traumas that built it. The timeloop that ensnares Nadia in season one gives her an immediate, compelling problem to decipher, but season two’s time train is more forgiving, creating no real urgency until the season finale. As Nadia figures out what’s happening, she commits herself to a MacGuffin mission the audience doesn’t much care about, and indeed for much of the season the train is rather compliant with her efforts, delivering her back and forth on a decades-removed treasure hunt. But the scripts fail to make sense of her decisions—are the bad decisions her own, or her mother’s, or just for the sake of the plot?—nor do they give her enough sounding boards to guide us through the structural paces. Lyonne gamely ad libs her way through the unpredictable tangle, but it often comes across as muttery confusion. There’s still fun to be had, with the return of Nadia’s zany friend Maxine (Greta Lee) and the arrival of Annie Murphy. Murphy in particular is a welcome, if underused, addition, inspired casting as the younger version of Nadia’s quasi-aunt Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley)—who is the thematic key to the season. Finally, there’s plenty of quirky, eyebrow-raising oddness and visually striking moments. But unfortunately in trying to do something differently clever than its intricate, uplifting first season, Russian Doll only manages to pale in comparison.

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