Does anyone (on TV right now) walk the walk better than Natasha Lyonne as Nadia in Russian Doll? I mean this in terms of swagger, and I keep rolling around that question in my head, and realizing how absurd it sounds. There’s so much devil-may-care about now Natasha dominates the sidewalk and the subway and the bodegas and the parks and, well, everywhere that she moves. She pounds that sidewalk with purpose, yet it still seems effortless, and I really can’t think of a better example of this than the way Johnny Depp confidently strutted through the airport in Blow. And I’m mad at myself for making that comparison because Blow, as a whole, was unmemorable beyond that scene.
My apologies to Natasha Lyonne and Nadia. Yet Natasha doesn’t even need to be walking with what I’m getting at. She’s often falling, tumbling, dying, dozens of times, and Natasha’s sense of physical comedy (and the way she moves), never fails to command the screen. And little drops of the absurd fall onto the tapestry while feeling natural. Even death-by-falling-air-conditioner doesn’t feel like slapstick here. I have no idea how they do it (they being Natasha as executive producer along with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland), but do it, they do.
What an offhanded way to begin this review. And say it with me: Russian Doll is back, and it’s trippier than ever while debuting on 4/20, what a damn concept.
(Mind you, there is no need to do the 4/20 thing while watching this season. It’s a mindf*ck on its own, but the release date is a nice touch.)
More than three years have passed since the first season, which I described as being close to perfect with hidden treasures buried within the Groundhog Day-esque framework. Since early 2019 (and despite mainlining countless other TV shows since that time), I’ve made time for a rewatch. It’s also a go-to show that I’ve recommended without hesitation, over and over again, without qualifiers and above the other great TV series out there. And that’s because Russian Doll, quite simply, is a show that carries you along for the ride. It’s a smart show, but it doesn’t hurt your head to watch.
All one has to do is click on that first episode. There’s no need to promise that the show will get better or more interesting after a few episodes. It’s ready to go, right out of the gate. It’s morbid without being too dark. It’s mercilessly funny without being offensive. It’s cerebral and heady without being pretentious. It’s serious during sparing moments and examines trauma and catharsis without being triggering. It’s also so very human in its approach, even though it’s surreal as hell, and yeah, this is simply a very fine show.
Now, what of Season 2? The strongest selling point — for anyone who hasn’t watched yet — is that this show excels in taking a well-worn “concept” and transforming the process into something altogether different. So last season, there was the spacey time loop, and this time, Nadia’s all caught up with time-travel trains. And Greta Lee’s Maxine, she of the “sweet birthday babyyyyyy” utterance, is back as well, to add even more bite as Nadia’s best friend. She’s been a fantastic constant to have, all while Nadia and Alan (Charlie Barnett) get pushed into internal transformations that they never wanted to endure but can’t escape. And Maxine keeps the tone scathingly light.
I’m convinced that Maxine’s the anchor that encourages the viewer to make an important guilt-free choice. Either enjoy Russian Doll for all of its existential nuances and how it uniquely ponders the very nature of life or simply let go and enjoy the party. Beyond her lightness, there are also hints of a greater purpose for Maxine. She seems more aware than the other side players of this show, and in Season 2, more hints come forth on her, but beyond that, she’s simply an enjoyable presence.
Here’s where I start to go even more off the rails of this being a traditional review, and that’s for your benefit, I promise. The less you know about “what happens in this chapter” before watching, the better. Everything does follow up on how the existential purgatory of Nadia and Alan came to a close in the last season finale. The show could have ended, right there, and Natasha could have moved on to doing the Columbo thing, but instead, we’re receiving a wonderful gift that’s ready-made for Netflix queues, but again, expect it to not sit for too long. This is the Pringles of TV shows. Once you pop, well, you know where this is going.
More welcome news: the show doesn’t aim to be bigger in scope, necessarily, this time around, because that would have been too much. And the tone stays the same, but what happens is even wonkier while Nadia shuttles between decades and digs into her intergenerational trauma. Annie Murphy is the biggest new recruit for the cast (she plays a past version of an existing character), but the non-Natasha actor who does the most emotional heavy lifting is Chloe Sevigny. She portrays Nadia’s mom, who we already know had no business ever becoming a mom. That relationship gets more airtime, and things can get rather heavy during moments. However, there’s no cause for concern on this season being more stressful than the last round.
And the secret behind the deceptive levity of this show is this: Russian Doll never forgets that its overarching purpose is to entertain. There’s no preciousness here while Nadia deals with the universe’s careening f*ckery while navigating stairs while we all fear for the best-worst to happen. The sci-fi components of the show take over at times, as Nadia and Alan move deeper into their own backgrounds while somehow enduring a messier set of metaphysical dilemmas than we’ve come to expect. Charlie Barnett’s new mustache is somehow one of the least interesting twists, but Oatmeal the cat still plays a surprisingly important role, beyond being a disappearing pain in the ass.
The show’s still almost embarrassingly full of riches. And I’m so overjoyed to see Natasha Lyonne crushing it at this place in her rough-and-tumble career. From child star to troubled tabloid cliché to an ensemble player of one of Netflix’s very first hit original series, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in this world playing Nadia. She has forged one of the most honest-to-god compelling, non-franchise-minded series out there today. And few people thought that the role of Nicky Nichols (a character with obvious parallels to Lyonne’s own life) in Orange Is The New Black would kickstart the Lyonnaissance, but it’s such a wonderful ongoing surprise. That puzzle of a career has led to a joyous puzzle of a show, where nothing is quite clear, but everything is somehow in sharp focus.
Climb onboard the Season 2 subway train, where the show continues its epic journey while pretending not to be epic rather than claiming to be so. Events go many decades back at times, and also moderately backward when a Travis Bickle lookalike is not out of place in New York. In addition to all the aforementioned contradictions, the show continues to be sexy without being exploitatively so and violent without being gratuitous about it. Even as confusion drives the characters, the story remains as crisp as ever. And even during an episode that takes Nadia and Charlie into a realm where they appear to be the only people in existence, they’re not alone. They have each other; they have the music (which is as impeccably curated as in Yellowjackets); and they have Nadia’s swagger. She’s still walking that walk, and may she never let up.
‘Russian Doll’ will return on April 20.