The first season of “Russian Doll” put a fresh spin on a familiar conceit. Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia is stuck reliving her 36th birthday; the night repeats itself over and over, and only the sweet birthday baby is aware of her unusual predicament — that is, until she meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), who’s also trapped in a time loop that restarts every time he dies. Soon, they learn they’re dying at the same time, which helps them discover the key to breaking free: First, deal with the ghosts holding them back, and second, move forward together.
Addressing the past as the key to a better future is an idea still pertinent to “Russian Doll’s” Season 2 story engine. Lyonne takes another familiar concept — time travel — and sends her two leads off to learn more life lessons, as they ride the 6-train into bygone decades, no dying required. (“You’re a time traveler?” Nadia is asked, to which she replies, “I prefer time prisoner.”) Many of the series’ delights remain in its surprising ingenuity, so I won’t be saying much else about what happens. At seven episodes, a majority of which run under 30 minutes, Season 2 is a relatively quick viewing experience and, for the most part, a distinct successor to 2019’s original run.
In TV terms, deviating from Season 1’s construct marks a welcome shift. Rather than doing the same thing over again, “Russian Doll” Season 2 sticks with its themes yet reworks how they’re explored. Sending Nadia on a train ride through her family history is a savvy progression from trapping Nadia in one stagnant night of her generally stagnant life; the latter demands personal reflection, the former considers how formative relationships can shape present realities (or, as Nadia quips, “It’s trickle down genomics!”)
But Season 2 ultimately suffers from a lack of momentum and misguided assembly. There was a natural urgency created by Nadia’s imminent death, waiting ominously at every set of stairs or open sidewalk hatch, like a video game character who can only get so far before re-spawning. All those fatalities also provided ample fodder for comedy, allowing “Russian Doll” to quickly establish its initial tone as a sort of jubilant fatalism. Now, Nadia simply hops a train to the past, then, whenever she’s ready, rides the same subway back to the present. A few wrinkles exist, as does a fresh set of rules, but the stakes are considerably lower, and there’s less creative glee to be found in exploring the situation. Nadia’s nonchalance over locating her own private temporal pathway bleeds over into the show’s attitude and makes for an all-too-leisurely pace. Her quest may be obligatory, but it should still be more fun.
Just as troubling is the time travel allegory’s weak application. To great comic effect, the Season 1 loop emphasized that Nadia had to die to be reborn; it forced her to examine her self-destructive choices at a level that aptly elevated their damaging effects and then made her put in the work to correct them. Season 1, in other words, used its premise as a metaphor for therapy. Watching people improve their mental health can be entertaining (see: “In Treatment” Seasons 1-3), and it can also be a snore (see: “In Treatment” Season 4), but it’s never going to be as widely appealing as a dark comic spin on “Groundhog Day,” energized by Lyonne’s crackling wit and Leslye Headland’s engrossing direction.
Season 2 often feels like flipping through a history book, rather than reliving the past — an issue made all the more glaring not only in comparison to Season 1, but recent, separate projects. Over the past six weeks, two major movies have successfully bridged the generational gap between mothers and daughters (and grandparents) through radical tales of fiction. In Pixar’s “Turning Red,” a young woman starts puberty, turns into a giant red panda, and learns to see her mother as a person, not just a parent. In the Daniels’ extraordinary “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once,” a mother confronts her past in order to save her present, which means (among other things) forming an honest relationship with her dad in order to maintain a close bond with her daughter.
“Russian Doll” had a similar inventiveness, excitement, and conviction in its first season, but Season 2 struggles to bring those foundational elements together. Lyonne is still a charismatic and singular screen presence. She excels at accentuating Nadia, from her emphatic hand gestures to her excellent gravelly voice, but even after the layered work on full display in Season 1, Lyonne’s ability to conjure authentic moments of pain and joy is underappreciated. She’s dialed into Nadia, in moments big and small, throughout every step of the story. (Lyonne’s direction also crafts a number of elegant shots out of contradicting images, like when a couple finds poetic passion next to trash swirling around a dumpster.)
Her fellow cast members do fine work, albeit in truncated arcs. Elizabeth Ashley, reprising her role as Nadia’s therapist and maternal figure Ruth, seems to be having a ball with tough material, while the always-reliable Greta Lee and Chloë Sevigny make the most with their supporting parts. But Barnett’s Alan feels particularly short-changed, and there’s no mention of a missing John, Nadia’s rekindled flame from last season played by Yul Vasquez. By Episode 7, it’s clear “Russian Doll” needed to rejigger its timeline, and the jumbled structure doesn’t do anyone any favors. Characters drop in and out before they can get any footing, which is fine for funny cameos, but Season 2 isn’t really built around laughs, and its lack of them becomes more apparent as more and more callbacks to Season 1 are forced into Season 2. (When “sweet birthday baby” finally rolls around, it’s a real groaner.)
Such choices come across as desperate, like the writers know the initial spark is missing from the second outing and they’ll do anything to remind viewers it used to exist. In that sense, Season 2 is at war with itself: trying to stand on its own by traveling through time instead of being trapped in one day, but still dependent on old memories instead of trusting in its ability to build new ones. A time prisoner, indeed.
“Russian Doll” Season 2 premieres all seven episodes Wednesday, April 20 on Netflix.