The second season keeps Lyonne at its center but ditches the “Groundhog Day” repetition. This time, Nadia’s not reliving a single day but rather jumping through time in her matriarchal line. She’s also not dying a lot, which certainly is a relief for her and her time-traveling buddy Alan (Charlie Barnett), who is also back in a structurally similar role.
One problem with sophomore seasons is how they tend to drop certain threads to focus on others, dramatically altering the texture of a show. I think of the differences between the first and second seasons of Netflix’s “Gentefied” as a good example, which focused entirely on the central family, losing the capsule episodes that center on other characters in the neighborhood. Its world felt less full because of it.
Nadia’s world is comparably more legible in season two of “Russian Doll,” which does and doesn’t work. For one, it takes away some of the deeply enjoyable nuances of the first season; without the reset/death convention, there’s no video-game tie in. To match that change, we don’t see or really hear anything about Nadia’s profession as a game maker (there’s one throwaway line about how she never works anymore … and by all appearances, she doesn’t) and we don’t watch Alan play anything either. The overall tighter focus in season two removes the initial feeling that “Russian Doll” is a complex puzzle with multiple solutions.
The show uses more traditional storytelling to work as well as it did before, and it doesn’t fully rise to the occasion. Take character development: Greta Lee as Maxine has more to do but it’s hard to top her meme-inspiring “sweet birthday baby” line, although her episode is quite entertaining. For his part, Alan is underutilized—he has his own episode at the same point as he did last season (episode four) and his own time-traveling adventure. But he’s not equal to Nadia in terms of importance or screen time, and since we already know of their connection, his whole thing feels tacked on, like they wanted to keep him but not let him truly share the narrative with Nadia. Annie Murphy joins the cast, having earned enough goodwill from “Schitt’s Creek” to be a pleasant sight on any call sheet. Like Maxine, she gets some great costumes and fun lines but that does not a full character make.