The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Jane Krakowski
It doesn’t take long for the third season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to remind its audience why it’s such a powerful and unexpected treasure; by the time the first new episode “Kimmy Gets Divorced?!” is over, it’s proven itself, once again, to be a truly wacky and wounding oddity. The first season of the show introduced the audience to Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper)—the perpetually enthusiastic former cult member unleashed onto the streets of New York after being held captive for over a decade—with aplomb and style. It was a fantastic season of television, and if the second season expanded the narrative goals somewhat unsteadily, the third installment is a rollicking return to form by getting to the sadness beneath its day-glow wonderland aesthetic.
When we’re reintroduced to Kimmy, she’s received divorce papers from her former captor and cult leader, Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm). Initially, she’s ecstatic to have another remnant of her old life pushed aside, but falters in signing the document, partly because her friend, the wealthy Upper East Side socialite Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), introduces her to the idea of spousal power dynamics. Kimmy, Jacqueline argues, is now the powerful party by virtue of the fact that she has something that Richard wants. For a woman who had all of her agency removed from her and whose life was a constant struggle for even small shreds of personal empowerment, the prospect of withholding something Richard wants is irresistible.
It’s an enormous testament to the show in general that this comedic set-up, in which Kimmy comes up with more and more elaborate excuses for not signing, feels so nuanced and emotional. Kimmy’s motivations are evident without being signposted; the joke ends up being a funny one, but it’s the emotional wallop that leaves a bruise. When she finally decides to grant her enemy a divorce, it feels like genuine development rather than an easy narrative cop-out, because it’s so rooted in character growth. Kimmy’s reminded that even if she’s at the head of the table, she’s allowing Richard to have a seat next to her; power means proximity, which ultimately leads to powerlessness again. Characters have realizations like this throughout the show—Kimmy’s outrageous roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess) more than anyone—but they never feel cloying or blithe, and never get in the way of the joke.
For many sitcoms, the trick to longevity and success is finding ways to constantly re-establish the formulae, to reset at the end of each episode so that the audience knows exactly what to expect next time; but Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt blows that dynamic up, demanding that the viewer accept that these people will be different with each passing episode: that sadness will seep through, that trauma will rear its ugly head at inopportune times. Part of what made the second season feel fragmented was the difficulty it had in giving each character side-plots whilst still maintaining the fun group dynamic that was so successful.
Season three feels much more fluid, making a virtue of the fact that Kimmy’s apartment is a place of perpetual forward motion; characters whizz in and out of it with remarkable speed, whilst still touching base with each other. Each character is integral to the fabric of the show, so their own stories feel like extensions of the narrative rather than peripheral to it. This is helped by the fact that there isn’t a dud story amongst the four main cast members; each have their moments of whimsy, horror, and breakthrough.
That’s what’s always been the show’s greatest strength and perhaps the thing that may stop people from entering its world: the clash between the bubble-gum pink colour scheme and the darkness of the premise takes a few beats to get used to, even for someone who knows what to expect. It’s a sad show enacted by characters that, at least on the surface, appear to be clowns. Kimmy’s gee-whiz-ness, Jacqueline’s privilege, Titus’s zaniness, are all extremely well-constructed joke personas until the characters are revealed to be all too human: lonely, impatient for change, waking up to the injustice around them. Titus, who left New York to pursue a career as a cruise singer in season two and returns under mysterious circumstances, gets a particularly well-shaded character arc that forces him to realize that love isn’t owed as much as it’s earned.
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All of this makes it sound like the third season is significantly gloomier than what preceded it; it isn’t. It still has a manic comedic energy like nothing else on television and follows the Tina Fey school of lobbing so many jokes at the screen that if some miss it doesn’t really matter. Maya Rudolph has an especially loopy supporting role as Dionne Warwick in a plot line that sees her playing against Burgess expertly. In order to pay her way through college, Kimmy takes part in the gig economy in increasingly elaborate and ludicrous ways. A recurring joke about robots being part of the New York populace is absurd, precisely because the show refuses to acknowledge its absurdity. Fred Armisen returns with his weirdly modulated Robert Durst impression and Krakowski is excellent in a late season twist that sees her husband getting crushed by a reversing car and emerging from hospital as a significantly younger, significantly hunkier version of himself.
It certainly has one of the highest joke to screen time ratios on television at the moment, and it’s remarkable how smooth each delivery is; there are very few times when the episodes feel as if they’re reaching for a punchline. A sequence that shows Titus happily singing extremely offensive things about politics, religion, and gender, only to be horrified and offended at singing a breakaway pop hit called “Boobs in California”, is particularly noteworthy for its strangeness and hilarity.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is still, rest assured, very bizarre and rabid in its pursuit of a punchline. The sheer variety of joke formats is impressive; puns, pratfalls, satire, camp, word play, musical comedy, pop-culture riffs and sheer showmanship are thrown at the screen, making the whole show worthy of a second watch. Yet, it’s hard to argue that this year the show isn’t more interested in the darkness that constantly threatens to disrupt the candy-toned hilarity. In the third episode “Kimmy Can’t Help You!” the excellent Laura Dern—the queen of making sadness feel funny and vice-versa—makes an appearance as Wendy Hebert, a divorce attorney who wants to rush through Kimmy’s divorce in order to marry Richard Wayne Gary Wayne herself.
Eventually, it’s revealed that Wendy is in love with the cult leader because he’s incarcerated, not despite of it. Her previous relationships have been so bad and abusive that the prospect of being in love with someone who’s physically incapable of damaging her seems like a dream. It’s heartbreaking, but made even worse when Kimmy, in an attempt to convince Wendy that she’s doing the wrong thing, calls Richard a rapist. Previously, the show has referred to Kimmy’s history with “weird sex stuff”, but it’s never been so forthright in its depiction. Kimmy’s recovering from trauma the likes of which she doesn’t completely want to reveal to those around her; putting a label on her experiences, it’s made clear, makes them feel more real to the protagonist.
It also makes sense of one of the seasons more thought-provoking elements: Kimmy’s constant cycling through institutions and ideologies. In the aptly titled episode “Kimmy Is a Feminist!”, Kimmy comes up against the multitudes of modern feminist thoughts, vacillating between staunch feminism and rejecting it all together. Kimmy also decides to throw herself into religion, only to discover that she’s replacing the indoctrination of her past in the bunker with a new, more socially accepted one.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is at its most humane when it allows itself, and its characters, to try on different lifestyles and points-of-view, building Kimmy’s worldview in front of the viewer’s eyes. By showing Kimmy coming up against the concept of utilitarianism, the season poses interesting questions about how difficult it is to wrestle with morality, especially for a person who was forced into arrested development. It makes the show deeper than a lot of much more traditionally “serious” shows on air; it’s its levity that allows it to sneak in so many interesting concepts about personal responsibility and reinvention.
That isn’t to say that everything works. Season three doubles down on the storyline that many fans have found the most off-putting; Jacqueline’s personal struggle with her Native American heritage and her guilt about “passing” in the extremely white, extremely wealthy Upper East Side. This may not sound controversial, but Jane Krakowski is decidedly not Native American, and the show has been criticised in its clumsy handling of the whole thing (the show was also criticised for its handling of Asian American characters), and this season sees Jacqueline taking on the owners of the Washington Redskins. It’s certainly an interesting discussion about the role of heritage vs empathy, but it’s still never fully convincing or barbed enough to be cutting. There’s also a strangely pointed joke at the expense of college campuses insistence on sexual consent, which seems strangely out of synch with Kimmy’s history, that amounts to “aren’t young people sensitive about rape culture”.
Overall though, it’s a very good, thoughtful season of television, buoyed by a fantastic performance from Kemper, some truly hilarious punchlines, and a keen, startling interest in the emotional lives of its characters. By being brave enough to suggest that the world isn’t always fair or kind, even to those who approach it with nothing but fairness and kindness, it emerges as an inspiring and inspired, sly and sentimental. Oh, and if you’re a Beyoncé fan, you won’t believe what Titus has planned when he decides to “Lemonade”.