‘Russian Doll,’ ‘Flight Attendant’ boast two of TV’s best performances

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By the end of “Russian Doll’s” first season, when Natasha Lyonne’s character, Nadia, finally figures out why she keeps dying and being brought back to life on her 36th birthday, the last thing the existential mystery seemed to need was a renewal from Netflix . That’s a credit to its creators – Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland – who crafted a narrative that felt complete, comprehensive and self-contained.

I was among the minority of critics who didn’t fall head over heels with the series, a talky, cerebral, therapyspeak-infused take on “Groundhog Day” that probably should’ve been a movie. But even a viewer like me, who was left relatively cold by the show, found plenty to admire, from its thoughtful genre play and lived-in East Village bobo milieu to its thematic capaciousness and Lyonne’s exquisite, Emmy-nominated performance. (Not that I expected anything less from our finest Muppet-American actor.)

Three years and a covid-related production delay later, “Russian Doll” returns Friday – and more than justifies its sophomore season. Lyonne, who took over showrunning duties from Headland, nails the Year Two challenge of giving the audience more of the same, but in a way that feels novel. The new seven-part season takes inspiration from “Back to the Future,” swapping out time loops for time travel. Just as compellingly, it’s less interested in whatever trap Nadia might find herself in, and more the ones her brain has created for her.

A few days before her 40th birthday, Nadia gets in a subway car that transports her to 1982, the year she is to be born. Perhaps even more jarringly, she soon discovers that she has a life there – complete with a scuzzy boyfriend (Sharlto Copley), a difficult mother (Irén Bordán) and an adoring best friend (Annie Murphy). I won’t reveal much more of the plot, save to say that part of the fun of this season’s genre subversions is that, instead of trying to leave the past intact so as to preserve the present, Nadia is desperate to change as much of her childhood as possible.

In Season 1, we learned that Nadia’s mother, Nora (Chloë Sevigny), frittered away a small fortune that her own mother, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, had painstakingly rebuilt after the war – money that Nadia believes should’ve been her college fund . The granddaughter sets out to recover her inheritance but soon realizes that when it comes to cycles of trauma and imperfect parenting, there are no easy answers as to where the story starts.

Season 2 offers a more conventionally enjoyable (and more surreal) yarn, hopping decades, continents and bodies. It’s messier than its predecessor but less insular and claustrophobic, too, taking place in a universe that lets you take a breath without the protagonist abruptly plunging to her death. The season also provides more warmth, despite being largely set in a chilly New York spring at night, rainwater slicking the streets and reflecting the blurred lights of the city. In the first season, I couldn’t get enough of Elizabeth Ashley, who played Nadia’s smoky-voiced, winkingly wise godmother Ruthie, and the follow-up smartly leans on the relationship between Nadia and the closest thing she’s had to a maternal figure in her life.

It’s been a great spring for mother-daughter sagas; “Russian Doll” joins the third season of HBO’s “My Brilliant Friend” and the movies “Turning Red” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” in sorting through the joy, heartbreak, connection and complications of this primal relationship. There’s a love and a horror, inextricable from each other, that emerges as Nadia learns more about what her own mother went through as the wild child of a widow who survived the abyss, as well as an adjoining desire to save herself from Nora’s manifold mistakes . But the flip side of such intense poignancy is the relative flimsiness of the supporting characters. Though several of the tertiary characters get winsome callbacks scattered throughout the season, Nadia’s time-loop buddy Alan (Charlie Barnett) is saddled with a storyline that the show itself seems wildly indifferent toward. Equally disappointingly, Greta Lee’s Maxine (of “Sweet birthday baby!” Fame) only becomes more grating with her increased screen time as a vehicle for satire in search of a target.

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To watch “Russian Doll” is to be reminded of what a singular screen presence Lyonne is – here, a charmingly world-weary curmudgeon with raspy wisecracks and a mane of overgrown “Annie” curls. Borrowing details from her own life, the actor-writer-director lets us see, in this role of a lifetime, the matryoshka that comprises her character: the wounded girl, the lost woman, the exasperated daughter and the worldly yet deeply invested elder she may yet age into. Lyonne reveals the exhaustion and exhilaration of carrying so many multitudes within. She makes complexity look easy.

HBO Max’s comic thriller “The Flight Attendant,” which kicked off its debut season in 2020 with its gallivanting party-girl protagonist waking up in a swanky Bangkok hotel room next to a very handsome man with a very slit throat, is no less a star vehicle. After 12 seasons on “The Big Bang Theory,” Kaley Cuoco has reinvented herself in the past few years as a streaming darling, lending a ditsy yet rage-prone humanity to the titular character of the terrific, adult-aimed “Harley Quinn” cartoon (also on HBO Max) while mastering the shades of screwball comedy, sobriety drama and everything in between on the surrealism-tinged murder-mystery series.

Season 2 makes it clear that both Cook and her character are better than the show, which keeps getting bogged down in convoluted espionage plots. There are, admittedly, more effective signposts in the new batch of episodes (I’ve seen six of the eight chapters, the portion previewed for critics). But the premiere dangles such a delicious puzzle – Cuoco’s Cassie suspecting that a woman who looks exactly like her is somehow connected to a car bombing she witnesses in Berlin – that it becomes ludicrous how often our protagonist lets herself get sidetracked from her doppelganger who may have killed a man of interest to the CIA.

At the end of the previous season, Cassie was offered a part-time gig with the intelligence agency, her globe-trotting day job coinciding with her targets’ locations. The spy work is her version of the community service encouraged by her recovery group, but as the season progresses, it becomes clear how much Cassie – who follows her marks in bright-red coats, her long blond hair fanning behind her – treats it as a thrill-seeking activity to distract from her anxieties that teetotaling has made her dull and predictable. In a welcome contrast to the show’s first year, the whodunit and sobriety storylines are far better integrated, providing not just a moving but also bracing portrayal of alcohol dependency amid crisis.

Still, it’s difficult not to notice that the overstuffed season – which adds Sharon Stone, Cheryl Hines, Margaret Cho and Mo McRae to the cast – is missing some of the series’ signature propulsiveness. Along with most of the Season 1 players, Rosie Perez returns to continue her character’s storyline as a fellow airborne spy, though she’s been forced to flee after realizing the gravity of her actions.

But “The Flight Attendant” is Cuoco’s show and drags accordingly when she’s not on screen. Thankfully, we get more than one Cassie: the hallucinatory conversations with the original murder victim that her subconscious once forced her into atopportune moments now take place with versions of herself. Cuoco, who was nominated for an Emmy for her performance last season, is gunning for a win this time around, and it’s hard to mind, with her showing us all the snarling and shivering facets of her character that the recovering alcoholic would prefer to hide behind the prefab contentment she knows her loved ones want to see. But Cassie’s still running – and it’s easier to do it from bad guys than her cruelest thoughts about herself.

Russian Doll (7 episodes) returns Wednesday on Netflix.

The Flight Attendant (45 minutes) returns Thursday on HBO Max with Episodes 1 and 2.

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