It has been a weird few years since Natasha Lyonne debuted her series “Russian Doll” on Netflix. We saw a violent insurrection in the United States capital and a global plague that turned society upside-down. These are times when you want to say, as Lyonne’s Nadia Vulvokov so eloquently puts it before tossing back a shot of bourbon, “When the universe f***s with you… let it!”
This might be a good quip, but not what any true New Yorker actually does. Nor, if you follow Jacob’s lead, how a Jew handles things, either. Luckily Vulvokov, like her creator Lyonne, is both, and once the trippy science fiction premise of this sequel series makes itself known, it is clear that Nadia is going to face its implications head-on and make the difficult, righteous choices. Eventually.
While the original season’s “Groundhog Day”-ish premise formed perfect cause-and-effect figure 8s, part two, airing April 20 on Netflix, doesn’t quite snap together like a jigsaw puzzle. I believe this is by design. Nadia, our downtown hipster Jewess — one of the most “oh-my-God-I-know-her” characters ever seen on television — experienced a lot of self-growth last time. Now she has to somehow make corrections for her family, and this is going to get complicated.
For starters, her mother and grandmother have both died, but when she hops on the downtown 6 train one night, she discovers that her $2.75 buys her a ride back in time. Days before her 40th birthday in 2022, she emerges at Astor Place 40 years ago and, once she starts putting things together, she is actually in the body of her pregnant mother, played by Chloë Sevigny.
Her mother, who committed suicide at 36, broke with her own mother after she lost the family fortune, which had been invested in South African gold Krugerrand coins. If Nadia can somehow recover this stolen satchel, she can create a whole new timeline, right? No, of course not.
Nadia’s grandmother invested in Krugerrands because, like many Holocaust survivors, she maintained a healthy degree of distrust in… everything. She witnessed government lies and mass theft, specifically, given that everything she had of value was taken away on the Hungarian Gold Train, a very real (and strange) footnote from World War II. (Without getting too much into spoiler territory, I’ll simply say that Nadia’s magic tracks don’t just take her to the East Village in the ’80s, but Budapest in the ’40s, too. For a woman who has lived with the specter of Nazism tormenting her family her whole life, it makes for a terrifying realization.)
But also… funny! Because Natasha Lyonne, who wrote and directed many of the seven episodes herself (and served as a producer on the whole shmear) is one of the great creative personalities of our time. Exuding a frazzled beauty that wavers between extreme self-confidence and the woes of the perplexed, she is tougher than nails one minute and a sweetheart who just wants people to be happy the next. She also never misses an opportunity to make a wisecrack, even if no one is listening. No one but us, anyway.
I jotted a string of zings while blazing through the series, then gave up when the list got too long. Half of the time it’s the delivery of the lines (“looks like Purim came early this year!”; “we’re Ashkenazi Jews, not wizards!”) that sells them, anyway.
Nadia’s investigation of her own Judaism isn’t a dialogue; it’s a sitcom between herself and her fate. “You’re not a creationist, are you?” she is asked as she tries, against the pull of time and destiny, to change her family’s story. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have somebody to blame!!?” she snaps back. She doesn’t have time to wonder about God’s plans for her; she’s too busy trying to work around them.
A project this rich has many avenues worth discussing (all the music chosen — from Van Halen to Bauhaus to Falco to Franz Liszt to the Velvet Underground to Brian Eno — is perfect), as are the delightful in-jokes for people who have lived a life similar to Nadia’s. (It was great to see Crazy Eddie again.)
But beyond the weirdo sci fi and the tough gal exterior, this is a wise, tender, and extremely clever exploration of generational trauma. This is a show that Jews of my generation — the grandchildren generation — will feel deep in their bones.
There will be debate if season two was as good as season one, but one thing is for absolute certain: the world could use a season three.
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