Spoilers for both seasons.
The first season of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt knocked my socks off. It was a show about women recovering from abuse, but this was no Jessica Jones. This was funny, irreverent, and clever without being nihilistic about it. One of the things I’ve loved about television recently is that we get to have so many different kinds of female heroes. It’s not just Supergirl OR Jessica Jones. It’s not just Buffy out there swinging by herself. We get a full range of female characters.
And this is what I loved so much about Kimmy Schmidt. It was unapologetically feminist and fun while hitting you right in the feels. When Kimmy fishes a rat out of a garbage can and tells her kidnapper he will never break her in episode one, you are all-in.
The season ended on a high note, with the inevitable showdown trial with the kidnapper who held Kimmy and several other women underground for fifteen years. Her budding romance with fellow GED-student Dong is on the rocks. Her employer has gotten a divorce from the jerk she was using for his money. And Titus’s wife shows up to confront him about why he left her.
It was a great season ending. I was looking forward to what happened next.
It didn’t take long, unfortunately, to see that Kimmy Schmidt season 2 was going to be a VERY bumpy ride.
I’m not sure what happened here. Part of me thinks there was a writing room shake up between seasons, and the second writing team spent the first half of the season trying to tie up all the loose ends laid down by the first writing team, clumsily going for easy gags and stuff that was… just not funny. It was weird to be watching the first couple episodes and realizing… wow, this is… just not funny.
The characters all wander around getting new jobs – Kimmy works at a Christmas store for awhile, then becomes an Uber driver. Her former boss, Jacqueline, bounces from trying to get back her old life by marrying rich to actually doing some fundraising for a good cause. There’s a lot of back-and-forth with Kimmy’s beau Dong which seems to go nowhere. Smartly, they no longer required Dong to speak in his embarrassing accent, which makes me think one or both of the showrunners watched Master of None and realized how rude it was to ask an actor to do that. Worse, while I kept expecting them to finally handwave the Jacqueline storyline (a white actor playing a Native American? Really?) by saying she was adopted, they instead totally doubled down on that one, giving her vision quests and putting her on the road to demand reparations through fundraising. There’s also an incredibly weird episode where Titus gives a play in yellow face as a geisha, and “angry Asians from the internet” show up and act… like a parody of people on the internet. There’s a jibe at the Black Lives Matter movement. It falls horribly flat. The worst part is that they could have pulled this episode into the realm of relevance if they had the main protester be like, “Hey, Titus, clearly you did your research and your song and story really moved me. But the problem with black actors playing Asians is that it reduces the roles of real Asians in media, so all we end up getting to play are immigrants with horrible accents who have to get into sham marriages to keep their green cards, and angry Asian social justice warriors from the internet.” They could have made this funnier while pointing back at themselves and going, “Yes, hey, we got that wrong! We get it. We’re going to do better.” But they didn’t. If you’re a white feminist and don’t get this, imagine it as about gender instead of race – a straight cis man doing a show about being a woman, and angry stereotyped feminists coming to protest the event, citing stats about female representation in plays and film. I had a feeling the showrunners would get exactly why writing this episode this way would be problematic.
In truth, there were several times over the season where I was like, “This show needs some not-white women in that writers’ room cause my god. My god.” If you understand misogyny, you should understand racism, but outside of Titus’s storylines, the show just continually fell flat there.
Speaking of Titus, his storyline was probably the most successful throughout the whole show. The scene between him and new boyfriend Mikey (the catcalling construction worker from season 1) were just adorable. The scene where they geek out and bond over the Lion King was about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Any episode with Mikey was an episode I could forgive for being fall-down unfunny elsewhere.
There’s the introduction of a soldier with PTSD as a possible romance for Kimmy, where they start to bond over their shared PTSD, but that goes nowhere. I thought, “Oh, this is great! This season is about overcoming trauma.” But it took a third of the season to get there, and then that got dropped and he never showed up again and I was like, “THAT WAS GOING TO BE GOLD! KIMMY AND A SOLDIER!” But it moved on, and Kimmy got lost in the show amid Titus’s engaging romance and Jacqueline’s increasingly bizarre attempts to rebuild her life (I enjoyed the episode with the mistresses). It kept bouncing from one thing to another, and I couldn’t figure out where it was going.
The show was also missing a lot of the ongoing/recurring gags that made it feel more linked last season (the ridiculous Bubreeze commercials, for instance). While there were a couple episodes in the middle that were all right once Tina Fey showed up as Kimmy’s therapist and we circled back to the “yes, this is a season about addressing trauma!” I still found myself less than eager to click “play” on the next episode, and it took me awhile to get to the last two episodes.
What’s funny is that the season actually finally comes together in those last two episodes, and makes it look like the show knew where it was going all along, it just didn’t know how to tell us it knew how to get there. There’s a hilarious gag where Kimmy goes to Universal Studios and is mistaken for a character. Titus goes to Titusville and works out his fear of failure among astronauts. We find out why Kimmy is afraid of velcro, and she confronts her mom while realizing that she is not going to get the closure she needs from her terrible mother, and she comes to peace with that. Jacqueline falls in love with a do-gooder lawyer and they decide to take down the Washington Redskins. Their landlady decides to fight the hipsters coming into the neighborhood by running for office (which will be great). Finally, all the things that they were muddling around with all season long came to a head, and I breathed a sigh of relief, because the final show cliffhanger had me hooked again and ready for season 3.
As a storyteller, though, I found myself endlessly fascinated with why the season was so muddled compared to last. And it reminded me that comedy is fucking hard. I could see why they wanted to have Jacqueline do a ton of weird, different things. They didn’t want her to just hook up with a lawyer and fall in love immediately after getting her independence. She needed to explore other options first (still no excuse for not going the “you’re adopted” route, which I STILL hope they’ll do in season 3). The Kimmy storyline, I don’t know. The actress was really being earnest with the material she had, and it felt so strained in those first few episodes. There was gold here, but I’m wondering if it was just uncomfortable to go where they needed to go with it. I’m currently working on a book which involves two very abusive relationships, and to be dead honest, the subject matter itself does create a lot of resistance when I’m writing it. Writing about trauma, abuse, PTSD, and overcoming bullshit is hard to do. I can’t imagine trying to do it in a funny way. The episode about the internet mob was just bad all around, but I think if they could have reframed the ending as a lesson to Titus about representation (and indirectly, a lesson to themselves) it would have worked (Sam Means is credited as the writer of this episode, but also wrote the very funny Kimmy Finds Her Mom episode, so you know, you win some you lose some).
I give the season 3 stars out of 5, because it figured out what it was doing in the end, and promises some gold in season three. If nothing else, watching this season reminded me that making comedy look effortless is really fucking hard. It was a rough season, but so is life. I’ve reached a point as a creator where I understand that sometimes shit goes wrong. Sometimes the best intentions create really problematic stuff. If I was running the show, I’d bring in some women writers who aren’t white feminists (and yes, I say that as a white feminist. This is a serious problem), or at least have some consult on the show. There was some amazing stuff they could have done this year in smart, heartfelt ways if not for the myopia, there.
Criticism aside, this is a brave show doing brave things. I would rather it continue trying to push the envelope – writing a comedy show about abuse and overcoming trauma! – and fail at it than go back to doing the safe, boring, tried and true stuff that so many other shows rely on. I salute you in your efforts. Keep doing better.
And keep on trucking, Kimmy.