Netflix’s original series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is nothing less than delightful.
By now, you’ve likely already binge watched it. If you haven’t, stop reading this article and go grab your computer.
The Tina Fey and Robert Carlock creation focuses on Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper of “The Office”) a girl who has survived 15 years underground in a doom’s day cult. The show follows her transition out of the bunker and into real life, as she navigates New York City and new friendships with an unbreakable optimism and strength.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is merely the latest in what I hope to be a long train of female driven comedies such as the big hits we’ve seen penned by Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, and Tina Fey. While a giant fan of Fey herself, I haven’t enjoyed anything she’s written since Mean Girls, and I admittedly do not like “30 Rock” (for reasons that don’t involve Alec Baldwin). I often feel that Fey gets so carried away with absurdity that strong plot lines or lasting humor fall by the wayside.
I also have strong issues with Liz Lemon, but that’s a whole different article. But where Liz Lemon has sort of devolved from a successful career woman to a lonely caricature, Fey seems to have taken a page out of Amy Poehler’s book for penning “Kimmy Schmidt.” This new series feels more like “Parks and Recreation”- lunacy with a nice heartwarming moral and a side of seriousness. Or maybe it’s because of the similarity in leading ladies—optimistic, driven, stubbornly flawed, yet endlessly inspiring.
However, unlike “Parks and Recreation,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is very much a dark comedy. With wicked precision, Fey and Carlock poke holes at American culture—from our morbid fascination with other people’s tragedies to the upper class elite, little goes unscathed.
One of the strengths of the show is being able to view culture through Kimmy’s eyes—a girl who’s social and emotional growth was stunted at age 15. Selfies, dancing, popular music—it all is critically examined and lambasted with a ridiculousness that only Fey could pull off.
One of the best strengths of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is that it revolves around the narrative of “otherness” and the idea that outsiders come in all shapes and forms, be it Titus, Kimmy’s gay, black roommate with a passion for Barbies and “The Lion King,” or Dong, her conservative Vietnamese love interest. (Side shout out to the writers for actually putting an Asian guy in the role of love interest/heart throb). Angsty teen Xanthippe Lannister Vorhees (isn’t that name both amazing and horrific?) shows the flip side of being an outsider, as a rich and snobby New York teenager who desperately tries to hide the fact that she doesn’t do drugs and is still a virgin.
Most characters are presented off the bat in a traditional, stereotypical TV trope—but almost every character receives the benefit of having their character fully unpacked. The tropes serve as a gentle support, instead of the straitjacket found on most other comedies.
However, while the show goes very right in a lot of ways, it also can go very wrong. In its desire to showcase the idea of otherness, Fey sometimes goes too far for a laugh, such as with Jane Krakowski’s strange and (probably?) offensive side plot as a secret Native American. Krawkoski, who plays Jacqueline Vorhees, the uber rich New York trophy wife, has run away from her identity as a Native American, dying her hair blonde and wearing fake contacts. While I applaud the effort to actually portray Native American culture outside of poor stereotypes, I don’t think the way to champion greater representation and understanding of the Native American culture is to cast a very white woman.
“If you want to get anywhere, you need to be blonde and white,” she tells her parents (who are actually and thankfully portrayed by Native American actors). At first the line is funny. But the longer the subplot continues, the more uncomfortable it becomes. The intent was to be subversive, to discuss the pressure on many American subgroups to Anglicize themselves. However, this intent doesn’t translate well.
Despite this inexplicable and mostly unnecessary departure, the show handles difficult topics such as race and otherness deftly, openly, and with humor. One episode in particular shows Titus getting a job acting as a werewolf, and realizing that he receives better treatment as a werewolf in New York City than as a gay black man. There are no preaching moments or soap box campaigns or scenes intended to shame viewers. Instead, we see a frank, humorous, and sometimes touching narrative about the fact that everyone is trying to fit in.
This is the strength of “Kimmy Schmidt,” and what I’ve been craving from Fey’s writing. While the first season starts off slow, by the end it has developed into a perfect combination of social commentary, relatable moments, and over the top humor. I hope that come season two, Fey continues with this formula and avoids the “30 Rock” path. There are points where the show seems perched on the edge (the Yuko plotline, or the trial plot in general) but it always recovers itself well.
I genuinely hope that the show can expand upon these strengths come season two, and not forget about the underlying message: Females are strong as hell. And damn near unbreakable.
Troll the respawn, Kimmy. Troll the respawn.
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