How do you follow up the first season of a show that features a time loop? In the case of Netflix’s Russian Doll, the answer seems to be to wait three years and then try to a new formula, one that preserves what worked best but changes the rules. Since, as far as we know, time travel is impossible, there are so many different theories about how people might be able to move through it. For Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia, she gets to trade a never-ending birthday party for a subway car that takes her back to the past.
The experience of both seasons one and two of Russian Doll could not possibly be the same without series star and co-creator Lyonne. The way Nadia responded to dying over and over as she was supposed to be celebrating her birthday was entertaining enough in itself, reluctant to confront the fatality of the universe and desperate to escape her circumstances but hopeless to know how. The dialogue she fires off feels almost entirely natural and improvised, and she might be worth watching on her own even without the context of this setup.
If season one was about Nadia trying to figure out how to survive, season two is about her struggling to understand her existence. When she boards the 6 train, she is startled to find the doors open in 1982 in the East Village, where she has the chance to get to know her mother (Chloë Sevigny). Alan (Charlie Barnett), who endured a similar time loop experience in season one, is also transported to his own history by each subway ride. The crucial difference here is that, every time they get back on the train, they are able to return home, and make the choice to get back on the train again.
But just being able to visit the past wouldn’t be interesting enough on its own, and so naturally these characters are compelled to act to try to influence events that predated their own births. Watching that hamster wheel process is fascinating, especially since their understanding of how this inexplicable power works is based mainly on the movies they’ve seen. Science fiction aficionados may be frustrated by the inconsistencies of how time works on this show, but the point isn’t to define or comprehend the rules, but rather to accept that Nadia and Alan have no choice but to play by them.
To call Russian Doll a disorienting experience is an understatement, and that’s even truer with season two with changing set pieces and subtle indicators about what time period its characters have entered. Lyonne and Barnett are starkly different guides for audiences, with Nadia acting almost entirely the same no matter where she is, unconcerned with how she might stick out or how others might react to her. Alan, on the other hand, is a quiet observer, eager to take in what is going on around him and not as intent on getting his own opinion in to the conversation.
What may disappoint returning fans or new viewers is that season two runs just seven half-hour episodes, one fewer than season one’s eight. But even in just that short span, there is ample room for zaniness and sincere drama, which are well-balanced, as is the sense of fatality that is gradually introduced as Nadia’s incessant sarcasm proves insufficient to confront every situation. With this second season, Russian Doll proves once again that it is able to take a concept that might have been done before and make it vividly interesting and engaging with the right people at the center. It’s a wild, rocky ride whose bumps are just as worthwhile as its smoother segments.
Season two of Russian Doll premieres on Netflix on Wednesday, April 20th.