thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Breaking Down ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’

In Netflix, race, TV, Uncategorized, violence on April 20, 2015 at 5:00 am

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Sarah S.

For me, Kimmy Schmidt came out of the bunker as an incongruous maelstrom—a pickle juice cocktail, fuschia and lime confetti, hail on a sunny day. I was excited for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, show creator Tina Fey’s “television” follow-up to 30 Rock, and it almost immediately presented a combination of the expected and the surprising, the standard and the bizarre.

Ellie Kemper as Kimmy brings an oddball charm to a rather complicated role. Kimmy takes up life in New York City after being rescued from a bunker in which she was held captive for 15 years. She and the other “Indiana Mole Women” were kidnapped and held by a deranged preacher who told them the apocalypse had happened and they were the only people left on earth. So Fey set herself a challenging task: create a comedy about kidnapping, rape, trauma, and the will to survive. Fortunately, Kemper is all in, playing Kimmy as an uncomfortable-but-funny combination of plucky, outdated, dopey, and indomitable.

Kimmy surrounds herself with a motley crew—Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), an aging, trophy wife who hires Kimmy as a nanny, personal assistant, and general underling; Lillian (the incomparable Carol Kane as), a Jewish, New York hippy who owns Kimmy’s apartment building; and Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), Kimmy’s roommate, an impoverished, down-on-his-luck actor (is there any other kind?). All of these characters are stereotypes but with enough twists or charm or combinations thereof to make it work. Titus works the black GBF for all it’s worth and Lillian is a genuine kick in the pants. Jacqueline is a Native American passing for white in order to sustain the materialism she always idolized, an interesting twist on “demanding, clueless, rich white woman”—a character Krakowski has made a career out of playing. These characters aren’t going to change narrative television but they are played and written with enough aplomb to carry them through, particularly as offsets to Kimmy’s quirk.

Fey is also clearly trying to be savvy and funny about race in this show. This attempt begins almost immediately, with the fake headline, “THREE WOMEN RESCUED” and then in much smaller font runner below, “Hispanic woman also rescued.” Kimmy Schmidt features multiple characters-of-color, although as Feliks Garcia points out, they are a mixed bag in terms of representation and virtually none of them are afforded the same depth as Kimmy. Jacqueline’s effacing of her Native background serves as a metaphor for how we describe Native American history and people and draws attention to whiteness as a cultural construct. Titus finds that he gets treated better on the street when in costume as a werewolf and his nemesis is another portly, gay, black actor—highlighting the limited roles for actors of color and the way the industry only “needs” one non-white actor to play a “type” at any given time. Kimmy’s friend and math tutor “Dong” (Ki Hong Lee) informs our heroine that her name means “penis” in his native Vietnam. Some of the show’s jokes on race work; others really don’t.

Furthermore, in acknowledging race in her show, Fey actually draws more attention to her main character’s whiteness, unconsciously emphasizing whose stories get told and how often. I don’t want to be too hard on Fey here because certainly it’s better to acknowledge racial diversity and inequality than ignore it, but Kimmy Schmidt ultimately highlights the profound need for greater diversity in the leads of television, books, and movies, as well as in depth of character development.

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Despite its myriad strengths and weaknesses, Kimmy Schmidt was entertaining me until it completely fell apart in the last three episodes. This finale arc focuses on the trial of the man who kidnapped Kimmy and the other women, Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, played by Jon Hamm. Here the show stutters, the jokes becoming tired and offensive in the broadest, dumbest ways. How you may ask? Let me count the ways:

  • Wayne looks poised for acquittal because his charming antics wow the clueless yokels in the courtroom—spectators, jury, and judge alike. I think Fey may have been trying to make a comment about patriarchy but instead it comes off as a smug New Yorker making fun of the hicks.
  • The guest stars overwhelm this section, starting with Hamm but extending to Fey herself (playing one half of the “mole women’s” incompetent attorneys) and Tim Blake Nelson as the moronic local sheriff (and Kimmy’s stepfather). Instead of feeling fun it feels cliquish and self-congratulatory, a gathering filled with in-jokes rather than a performance to entertain.
  • All attempts to be thoughtful about race also collapse in this finale. Jacqueline embraces her Native ancestry, signified in her beating up a high school mascot because he’s wearing an “Indian” head and then howling at the sky alongside the opposing teams’ wolf mascot—a cringe-inducing moment. Titus suffers a scathing humiliation in his quest for fame, a crisis that could have been averted if he’d listened to the “wise, old black man” who first found Kimmy and her friends. Then we’re given the “twist” that Titus has a wife who is, apparently, the loudest, sassiest, angriest black woman this side of the Mississippi. Last, Kimmy’s love interest, Dong, marries an old woman in an attempt to get a greencard and not be deported. All of these supposed jokes and twists traffic in the broadest stereotypes and clichés, undermining the show’s other attempts to be savvy about race.

We’ll likely never know for certain what caused this implosion of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But I have a theory. My hunch is that the show’s ambition exceeded its abilities. It’s no easy thing to pull off a comedy about kidnapping, rape, trauma, and the will to survive. Such comedy needs to be handled with a dexterity and complexity Kimmy Schmidt simply doesn’t have. Indeed, when the creators decided to wrap-up the season with Wayne’s trial they might have been wise to shift the tone and allow some seriousness to enter into what is a serious topic. But for whatever reason—lack of resources, talent, or time?—the show concludes with an unimaginative soup of tired jokes and stupid clichés. In seemingly being unwilling to treat the material deeply Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is unable to treat it at all, and the resulting mess undermines whatever it was trying to attempt.

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