Russian Doll Season 2: The Desperation’s Gone
Sometimes we really don’t need a sequel.
The economics of entertainment always inspire a race to the bottom1. What starts out as an innovative or spirited original gets watered down in repeated sequels, reboots, and spin-offs until its a cold, dried-out husk2. This makes sense—if you own some intellectual property that somehow, miraculously pierces through the collective ennui and hostility of an audience3, why wouldn’t you milk it for all it’s worth? Give the people what they want, after all, until they get sick of you and don’t want it any more.
So once Russian Doll, the Netflix series created by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, Amy Poehler (and starring Lyonne), was a hit, a second season was inevitable. Sure, it’s yet another Groundhog Day riff, but it was done with a nice dose of black comedy as Nadia Vulvokov (Lyonne) died over and over again, and it found some interesting twists along the way4. Spoilers will follow, FYI.
What really fueled that first season of Russian Doll was desperation. Nadia spends the majority of the early episodes confused and terrified, which tracks, and much of the story is concerned with her increasingly desperate attempts to break out of the deadly time loop she’s become mired in5. With Lyonne playing her as a sarcastic, unhealthy, intelligent woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, that crazy, black energy propelled the story nicely.
A second season was always going to be a challenge, because recapturing the complex dynamics of a time loop premise is never easy. The second season has gotten some solid reviews, surprisingly6, but it’s not particularly compelling for one simple reason: The desperation’s gone.
This is Fine
When you’re working with a fantastic premise, you have to ground it somehow. You can do this with humor, or with gravitas, but you have to sell it to your audience. Russian Doll chose both gravitas and humor and managed this in its first season through Nadia’s confusion and horror at what was happening to her. This was a natural enough reaction, which immediately grounds the story for the viewer—I’d be fucking terrified and confused, too, if I started reliving my death over and over again7. And throughout the first part of the story, her confusion and dread grow steadily.
The ultimate result of this is twofold: First, it gives us a feeling of real stakes. We want to see how the story resolves because we’re sold on Nadia’s desperation, rage, and terror. Second, it makes the twist—and the revelations it leads to—really sing, because all of this tension has built up. We watch this woman go through hell (having a great, blackly comedic time throughout, of course), and when she finally starts to figure out what needs to happen, what she needs to do, it’s exciting for the audience.
And exactly none of this happens in the second season.
One challenge that Russian Doll set up for itself was the fact that it resolved its conflict—Nadia got out of the time loop and was able to reclaim her life. That presents a challenge for a second season because having the same premise again is lazy and uninteresting8, but coming up with a riff on that premise that doesn’t totally reinvent the show isn’t so easy. And the suspension of disbelief becomes counter-intuitively more difficult because the audience will find it hard to believe the same damn thing happens to the same damn people twice in a row9.
But that’s not even the real problem that Russian Doll encounters in its second season. The real problem is that Nadia is no longer confused or desperate. The premise is slightly different this time around: Nadia isn’t in a time loop any more—she’s traveling backwards to the 1980s and inhabiting her own mother’s body. And her attempts to change her own history get really messy10.
This is a fun enough premise11! But it’s kind of undermined by the fact that in the first few episodes Nadia a) almost immediately understands what’s happening and b) almost immediately accepts it with a high level of cheer and calm. On the one hand, this makes sense—if you had recently navigated a time-loop Groundhog Day situation, you might very well be very chill when time once again worked against you, and you might also be very speedy in picking up the details of your new situation. Sure! That scans.
But the fact that it makes a certain amount of sense doesn’t change the fact that it completely removes all the tension that a story needs. Nadia greets the fact that she’s somehow going back in time to be her own mother with a sort of crazy cheer that might make contextual sense, but makes the viewer feel like there’s no real tension or conflict here. Nadia seems pretty certain she’ll figure it all out in the initial episodes, after all, so why should the viewer get invested in this conflict? The answer is, they can’t—and won’t try too hard.
If I Make It to My Low 70s, I’ll be Shocked
None of this is tot say that season two of Russian Doll is terrible or anything—there’s plenty of entertainment value, and if you enjoyed the first season you’ll like enjoy the second to some acceptable extent. It’s not like Nadia is suddenly Queen of Time, breezing through conflicts and obstacles with glowing eyes and a cool cape that always flaps gently behind her as if she’d caught in some invisible wind12. The point is that entertainments often work because of a specific balance of elements, and maintaining/recreating that balance in subsequent sequels/seasons is what literary scientists call a bitch.
The most sobering aspect of Russian Doll’s sophomore effort is how logical the assumption is: It makes sense that Nadia isn’t so gobsmacked this time around, so you can totally understand why the writers figured this approach would work. It’s sometimes hard to see what’s actually vital in a story until you’re way too deep into it13. I have personally written 100,000 words before realizing that something just wasn’t working in my story the way I assumed it would14.
Personally, I’d be delighted to get stuck in a time loop as long as it was a useful amount of time—say a day at minimum. First of all, effective immortality. Second of all, a slightly more magical world15. Third of all, I could punch anyone in the face at any time and there would be zero long-term consequences! HUZZAH KING JEFF LORD OF THE TIME LOOP16.
Next week: Low Shoulder for the win.
Is “A RACE TO THE BOTTOM” the title of my memoir? Sadly … yes.
For some reason the Star Wars theme is running through my head right now. Not sure why.
One of the most eye-opening aspects of publishing a creative vision is the absolutely anger you’re often met with. From people who ostensibly like your work.
This show is a monument to the power of interesting characters. You can have the most overdone premise and hit the tiredest plot beats, but if your viewers/readers are interested in your characters they will still enjoy themselves.
While most “Groundhog Day” scenarios rely on this sense of existential dread, most don’t really convey the sheer horror of a time loop, which magnifies the ennui of everyday life to a horrifying level. Russian Doll’s season one had this in spades.
Although in today’s world of content creators (my ears are burning!) I am very, very sus of the positive review industrial complex.
Especially because it is increasingly likely that my death will come as the result of a series of spectacularly bad decisions culminating in me falling off a roof, pantsless.
Speaking of lazy premises, maybe they should have had Nadia regenerate into a completely different actress every season and experience a new kind of time loop. And maybe give her a machine that generates time loops. And a faithful companion who needs things explained to them all the time. God, this shit writes itself!
These people have never watched me consume 13 Whiskey GoGos in one sitting, stagger off to the restroom, and return partially naked, night after night.
Which means Nadia is screwing Sharlto Copley (as one does) while inhabiting her own mother’s body which … yeesh.
Except for the aforementioned having-sex-in-the-body-of-your-parent-yeesh thing.
Though … that would be cool and I am going to call my agent to pitch QUEEN OF TIME in a few minutes, thank you.
Am I, a professional fiction producer, suggesting that making sense isn’t always your best bet? No comment.
Sadly, the thing not working in a story is very often: The story.
Greatest exchange of all time:
Sadly, I still like QUEEN OF TIME better.