Season 1 of Natasha Lyonne’s Emmy-nominated Netflix series “Russian Doll” was riveting, original, and had a good ending — so it seemed like it was tempting fate to give it a second go-’round.
Luckily, Season 2 (streaming now) lives up to the high expectations.
The maiden season of “Russian Doll” (2019) followed Nadia Vulvokov (Lyonne), an eccentric New York woman who was caught in a time loop, repeating the day of her 36th birthday, often dying — by getting hit by a car, or in one memorably horrifying episode, falling into a sidewalk cellar door — before waking up that same morning.
Her path crossed with Alan (Charlie Barnett), a depressed man who was also stuck in a time loop, and they realized they had to help each other. The show was strange, funny, and moving, and it captured a version of New York that didn’t feel like “TV New York,” but a grittier, realistic version of the city, riddled with quirky characters who often reacted to odd events in nonchalant ways.
Time loops aren’t a novel invention, of course. From “Groundhog Day” to “Happy Death Day” to “Palm Springs,” it’s a common sci-fi concept. But what makes “Russian Doll” stand out in both seasons is its focus on heart over spectacle, and the characters’ emotions and mental states.
This show is only sci-fi insofar as it plays around with time travel; it’s not remotely concerned with the mechanics of explaining how time travel works. Season 2 (which has Lyonne as its showrunner, in addition to starring, producing, writing, and directing) goes even further into the characters’ psyches by sending Nadia on a deep-dive into her family’s past. Somehow, the 6 train sends her back to the year 1982, where she soon realizes that she’s in her mother Nora’s (Chloe Sevigny) body, pregnant with herself.
The camera cleverly shows us Lyonne most of the time, but when she looks into mirrors, her reflection shows a pregnant Sevigny.
Nadia’s family history is fraught, since her grandparents were Holocaust survivors and her mom was schizophrenic, resulting in her friend Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) being Nadia’s main parent figure.
While she’s in the 1980s, Nadia is delighted to meet a young version of Ruth (Annie Murphy, “Schitt’s Creek”) and she attempts to get back her family’s fortune, which her mother lost, in order to right the wrongs of the past. Alan, for his part, ends up traveling into his grandmother’s body in 1962 East Berlin, when she was a grad student there from Ghana.
By boldly scrapping the “time loop” concept of Season 1, but still leaning into a plot that plays around with time, “Russian Doll” manages to create a second season that feels fresh and new, but still in line with the show’s original themes.
Season 2 tells a story that’s unabashedly about generational trauma, as it addresses questions about whether it’s possible to solve or fix the past. And although it feels like a more scattered story, it’s still pulsing with a manic kind of energy that draws you in and creates a show that’s engrossing and unique, thanks in part to Lyonne’s portrayal of Nadia as a woman who always rolls with the punches, no matter how weird they are.
The show is a shining example of how the sci-fi genre doesn’t have to consist of laundry lists of nonsense fake science terms and explosions; it can be used to tell thoughtful stories that speak to the roots of human nature.