Really, the impact of Russian Doll‘s first season can’t be understated.
The show was a smash hit, gained wide critical acclaim, and became an Emmy winner all on the strength of a script that didn’t seem to follow any conventional guidelines. The trippy, mind-bending narrative challenged what stories TV can tell, performed as one of the most successful Netflix series ever and landed its long-suffering creator Natasha Lyonne squarely in the spotlight.
But when I spoke to her, she was only concerned with one thing.
“As you know,” she said after I pointed out we were speaking on a Thursday, calling out a now-memetic line from Season 1 of her show Russian Doll, “I’m only in it for the memes.”
She was speaking ahead of the premiere of Season 2 — a perhaps unnecessary, though expertly executed followup to the genre-defying original — and I was giddy. That’s because talking to Lyonne is pretty much like talking to Russian Doll‘s Nadia — the same raspy-voiced, acerbic character on the show she conceived, wrote, directed and starred in.
And the experience talking to Nadia is something anyone who watched back in 2019 can imagine: she’s hilarious, wickedly smart, incisive and just the right amount of confusing.
It’s a particular blend that, three years ago, produced one of the best and strangest things on TV, and on Wednesday, a sequel: a second season that does everything to continue the exceptionally well-realized characters that originally drew audiences in, but with an expanded scope and looser focus that causes the wheels to wobble.
The sophomore challenge
It’s an interesting followup to the original about then-36-year-old Nadia, a freelance software developer who refuses to keep her cat indoors as she doesn’t “believe in dictating the boundaries of a sentient being’s existence.”
She then spends her birthday repeatedly dying before starting over Groundhog Day style, as she grapples with everything from the metaphysical ramifications of immortality, to the reckless selfishness of a mother who spent her inheritance on coats and a car, to whether it matters if co-star and fellow timeloop prisoner Alan (played by Charlie Barnett) cleans his apartment, since “it’ll reset when we die.”
The series about death, rebirth, infinite second chances and the absurd meaninglessness of life was, unsurprisingly, drawn from Lyonne’s past.
After being pushed into acting as a young child by her mother (she played Woody Allen’s daughter in Everyone Says I Love You, acted alongside Paul Reubens in PeeWee’s Playhouse at six and made an appearance in 1999’s American Pie) Lyonne struggled with addiction and nearly died in 2005 from a drug-induced heart infection, followed by open-heart surgery in 2012.
With all that in her back pocket, Lyonne partnered with longtime friend and fellow comedian Amy Poehler to craft a series based on her life. The first attempt, a pilot made for NBC called Old Soul, failed, prompting Lyonne to go even wilder on their next attempt — what would ultimately become Russian Doll — as she assumed it would disappear unnoticed anyways.
Instead, we got the 2019 then-miniseries, a completely self-contained story with an arc and ending so perfect and impactful it had this reviewer opening his interview with the unprompted and unexplained quote: “Thursday, what a concept!”
So Lyonne, like everyone else, knows the cultural impact Russian Doll‘s first season had — and the challenge of following it up.
“It is very scary to do a sort of sophomore album, which is, I guess, how I looked at it,” she said. “But there’s a real buoying sort of factor, to I guess the audience response of enjoying the deep dive that was Season 1.”
“They want to be a part of that journey. And it felt like, ‘Oh, maybe we’re all kind of asking similar questions at the similar time because the world around us is so nuts.'”
Cast returns, with new recruits
Season 2 also acknowledges the Herculean act it’s attempting by cribbing from the original at every turn. Alongside the introduction of Schitt’s Creek‘s Annie Murphy (as well as Rosie O’Donnell in a cameo as the train announcer featured in much of the show) the gang’s all back this time around.
Charlie Barnett returns, as well as co-stars Greta Lee and Leslye Headland, and we get constant callbacks to the original: the equally iconic “sweet birthday baby!” line gets thrown around by not one, but two characters; fan favourites Horse and Oatmeal (the latter Nadia’s pet and possibly literal Schrödinger’s cat, the former a possible homeless man, possible time god) earn mention. After travelling to Europe, Lyonne’s character even swaps the Thursday line for a new one: “Time zones, what a concept!”
Perhaps trying to sneak out from under the heel of a now-oppressive wave of multiversal, “many-worlds-theory” inspired stories that have grown so numerous since Season 1 they virtually constitute their own genre, Russian Doll Season 2 leans toward time travel instead.
Four years out from the original, this time Nadia is caught in a cycle that routinely sends her back to 1982. There, she stumbles through to solve the mystery of what happened to the inheritance her mother squandered — over $500,000 in South African krugerrands — before things get considerably more complex.
WATCH | CBC’s Eli Glasner reviews Russian Doll Season 1:
Russian Doll even more personal this time
A host of requirements from Netflix keep me from explaining further, while the purposefully confusing nature of the show itself means the less you know going in, the better.
But suffice to say that Season 2 is an even deeper personal examination for Lyonne, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who herself was kicked out of an Orthodox Jewish academy for selling weed.
But the personal examinations at the heart of this season do muddy the waters from the first. Where Season 1 was tight, streamlined and pithy, Season 2 can feel more aimless, experimental and grasping. Nadia alternatively struggles to sort out her mother’s past, solve the mystery of time travel, accept surrogate mother Ruth’s mortality, and come to terms with her own abysmal childhood — all while Alan has his own parallel adventure into the past.
Even the concept of a sequel itself seems out of the blue for a first season that ended with few loose threads. While Nadia’s issues with her mother were discussed in the original, the wholesale plot built around her for the new season feels more artificial — a spiritual sequel connected more by theme than plot.
All that said, Russian Doll has not fallen off. Even with a different feel than the original, Season 2 is still one of the best things on TV. Continuing from the first season, a writing room and rotating director’s chair completely staffed by women pushes forward characters so well rounded and perfectly imperfect you just want to be their best friend.
The mystery is good too. The further we go into Nadia’s (and, therefore, Lyonne’s) past, the more you want to know. And even as we spend much of our time there confused — just like my interview — it draws you further in.
I even asked Lyonne whether there might still be anything else to learn — a potential new story in a potential Season 3?
“We’ll see,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “Only time travel will tell.”