Series two of Russian Doll arrives at the worst possible time for that particular title; we’re not fine-tuned to appreciate all things Russian right now. But we’re also scuttling out from the shadow of Netflix, the ubiquitous streaming service that’s functioned as an in-flight entertainment for captive audiences aiming to sit out the pandemic at home in goblin mode. The pandemic isn’t over, but as the wheel slowly begins to turn in terms of seeking alternative entertainment, most media voices are gleefully jumping on the “Netflix is so over’ bandwagon in the hope that previously popular outlets will regain ground and we’ll somehow go back cheerfully to our 2006 viewing habits. Spoiler alert, we won’t, that’s not how audience fragmentation works.
Back in carefree 2019, Russian Doll was something of an unexpected sensation for Netflix; it certainly set a high creative bar that precious few of the streaming services’ products have matched up to. Well-known from her turn in Orange Is The New Black, Natasha Lyonne’s film career is varied to say the least; the star of American Pie, Yoga Hosers, Scary Movie 2 and Show Dogs wouldn’t necessarily be your first port of call for an existentialist comedy/drama. Yet as executive producer, creator and writer of Russian Doll, Lyonne deserved credit for pushing the boundaries to create a fresh, original and ground-breaking television programme. From Maniac to The Good Place, Netflix never saw a portal-based narrative they didn’t like, and so Russian Doll follows Nadia (Lyonne), a young woman with a good-time attitude, an appetite for drink, drugs and men, and a strange predicament by which she keeps dying, and finding herself leaving the bathroom at her own birthday party over and over again a la Groundhog Day, Palm Springs and more. Russian Doll has layers, as the title might suggest, but it avoids conventions and manages to suggest how repetitive patterns in human behaviour might be changed. It was fast, scabrous, rude, adventurous, and everything that a new TV show should be, held up as some of the exciting new fare that Netflix had to offer until Season 2 came along.
‘Are you haunting me, or am I haunting you?’ is Nadia’s pertinent question in the opening episode of series 2; it’s a good question, because Nadia is slipping through time again, but now in a different, Back to the Future scenario; Nadia slips back to the 80’s, where she inhabits the body of her mother, played by Chloe Sevigny. Nadia correctly notes that she’s not previously been a time-traveller, like Dr Who, but a ‘time prisoner’, but that key aspect from the first season is AWOL here. Season 2 of Russian Doll goes off on a mid-season three episode shaggy-dog story as Nadia adventures herself to 1940’s Europe to investigate stolen Nazi gold, then rushes back for a confusing metaphysical climax that starts with Nadia giving birth to herself on a subway platform.
Russian Doll 2 has its moments; watching Lyonne get on and off a La-Z-Boy-type armchair is a funny sight-gag in itself. But Russian Doll 2 jumps the shark quickly; the narrative is too different, and meanderingly self-indulgent, and the charm of the cast wears thin when the scenarios they find themselves in are so tricky and exhausting. Netflix have been widely derided for their swill-pit of films and tabloid tv, but their inability to develop rather than buy-in hit television has been notable; even imports like You went off the boil after Netflix gave it a platform, and hits like Bridgeton and Ozark seem to be losing their impact through repetition. Netflix still have a huge audience to service, but they’d do well so find new creative teams; the audience is no longer guaranteed, and flagships shows like Russian Doll seem to have curdled quicker than yesterday’s milk. A week after release, it’s entirely absent from the streamers’ self-regulated metrics of top ten tv shows.