The first season of Russian Doll (Netflix) was one of the best comedies of 2019, though to call it a comedy it was to grasp at a rigidity that it never really claimed to have. It followed the trials and troubles of Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), a video game designer with a self-destructive streak, who kept dying after her 36th birthday party, only to find herself reincarnated at the same party, doomed to relive her death day in all of its glorious varieties, again and again and again. Its creators – Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland and Lyonne herself – found a morbid wit in Nadia’s predicament de ella, and mined it for comedy, though by the end it had shape-shifted into something philosophical and profound.
Fans will remember that Russian Doll resolved its time-loop crisis in the end, when Nadia and fellow frequent deather Alan (Charlie Barnett) finally came together, which begs the question of what a second season could suffer do. If it condemned Nadia and Alan to forget the lessons they worked so hard to learn in order to stick to the premise, it would have felt cruel, even nihilistic.
It’s safe to say that this second season does not repeat its former concept, except that it deals with the matter of time – although that’s about all that is safe to say. This is best enjoyed with no spoilers; even revealing which actors play which characters would dent some of the satisfying surprises that appear along the tracks. Nadia is now approaching her 40th birthday for her, and, after the universe “trying to fuck with me”, as she once succinctly put it, she is planning to celebrate with Alan in a more low-key way. It doesn’t go to plan. “The universe finally found something worse than death,” Nadia begins, and I’ll leave it there.
This is a truly gorgeous series, from its aesthetic to its script, and it feels incredibly rich. It is filled with directorial homages to 1970s cinema, particularly the films of Robert Altman, and there are lots of clever scenes involving mirrors and reflections. It is stuffed with Lyonne wisecracking and swaggering around a variety of locations (again, I’m wary of spoilers, though New York City is a key character at this point) in her trenchcoat and sunglasses, to an apt soundtrack of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus . She is mesmerizing as she lobs out erudite riffs on anything from hospital waiting rooms (“Is the hospital actually treating patients today or are we just putting on a Beckett play?”) to her inability to give up smoking: “I am keenly aware that my lungs are essentially two shriveled up Nick Caves.” Just wait until she says “cockroach”.
Once again, Lyonne takes the spotlight here and, by all accounts, the family-based storyline that runs through this season is personal. The supporting cast, including Chloë Sevigny returning as her mentally ill mother Lenora, and Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy, who appears as, let’s just say, someone else, are also excellent, as are Nadia’s inner circle, particularly Elizabeth Ashley as Nadia’s substitute mother, Ruth. It feels more settled in its own skin than the first season, leaning more towards the dramatic than the comedic, though the old adage that comedy equals tragedy plus time gets a vigorous cross-examination here.
I adore this series, and adore this season, though I do appreciate that its quirks may not be for everyone. Nor is it a flawless five stars. Alan’s storyline feels adrift from the rest, as if it exists only to keep Barnett in the mix. He and Nadia are having mutual-ish experiences, again, though they are less anchored to each other. It is more sprawling, and less concise, despite having one fewer episode than season one, and it lacks the easy charm of the timeloop concept, which in turn makes it a more demanding watch.
But it is so inventive, and creative, and original, that it seems petty to quibble. As the story progresses, it gets smarter and weirder, and the surreal twists once again land in an unsentimental yet beautiful place. It dares to ask big questions about trauma, grief and fate. If that doesn’t sound amusing, well, it still manages to be. Lyonne has said that if the first season was about how not to die, the second is about how to live. There are few television series that I want to watch again, and even fewer that I want to watch again immediately after the final credits roll. Who has the time? But this is all about bending the rules of time, and I plan to go back to the start to find out what I missed.