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What ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ gets right (and wrong) in season 2
The second verse is much the same as the first.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is struggling to leave the bunker. In its second season, Netflix’s girl-escape-cult-moves-to-big-city comedy remains one of TV’s most spirited screwball creations, so densely packed with off-kilter jokes that viewers often only have to wait seconds between laugh-out-loud punchlines. The show’s sophomore effort is both immensely charming and incredibly frustrating, often marred by its own worst tendencies. Recent episodes appear to be exploring how each of us is trapped in a shelter of our own creation: whether it’s the struggle to come out or reclaiming your identity after leaving a bad marriage. But Kimmy Schmidt has yet to learn its own lessons.
This season opens after our plucky heroine, Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), ends things with Dong (Ki-Hong Lee), the Vietnamese student in a green-card marriage with a much older classmate (Suzan Perry). To give herself a sense of purpose, Kimmy wins a job in a year-round Christmas store after begging a male elf she mistakes for a woman to help “get her life back on track.” “I’m like a lollipop with a question mark on its wrapper,” she says. “I don’t know what’s going on inside.”
Those existential dilemmas seem to frame the season itself. Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) also finds herself at a crossroads of identity: Now divorced from her husband, she moves back home to be with her Lakota family, who quickly grow tired of her presence. Jacqueline is clueless about her Native American heritage, mistaking the phrase “white idiot” for a sacred call. She repeatedly sets their grain on fire. (“Two silo explosions, how?” her father asks. “If I knew, it wouldn’t have happened twice?”) Her family urges her to go back to New York to her real tribe, but Jacqueline finds it hard to reacclimate to high society after how little she got in the divorce (just $12 million!). She laments her lowly status as a “dozennaire.”
Tituss Burgess—playing Kimmy’s queer force-of-nature of a roommate, Titus Andromedon—remains a walking Emmy reel.
Kimmy Schmidt continues to succeed for many of the same reasons it became such a massive cult hit to begin with: The cast does truly extraordinary work. Tituss Burgess—playing Kimmy’s queer force-of-nature of a roommate, Titus Andromedon (aka “Flidian Garro”)—remains a walking Emmy reel. He effortlessly owns material that in lesser hands might be cringeworthy. In one scene, Titus performs a number from his “Helen Keller–inspired but unauthorized musical,” titled Feels Like Love.
A particularly welcome presence is Carol Kane, who is given greater screentime as Kimmy’s landlord, Lillian Kaushtupper. With giant, frazzled hair she compares to “big beautiful spaghetti” and a voice like a rusted porch swing, Lillian vaguely resembles a Manson groupie who never received an invite to the party. This season, Lillian rails against gentrification in her neighborhood by spraying graffiti on a new development and strikes up a romance with a childhood friend, Robert Durst. Lillian waxes nostalgic about growing up together on Roosevelt Island, commenting that “Bobby” was her “first crush.” She recalls, “Literally, he tried to crush me.”
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s trademark non-sequitur humor, a staple of Tina Fey-produced comedies from 30 Rock to Mean Girls, is paired with a surprising amount of visual invention for a TV sitcom. (Comedy isn’t known as a cinematographer’s genre.) The show routinely contrasts the cotton-candy palette of Kimmy’s buoyant universe with the urban reality of New York. That’s beautifully underscored in a scene where Lillian and Titus duet on a discarded piano with “bedbugs!” written on the side.
But while Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt dazzles on a pure moment-by-moment basis, its sophomore outing often lacks direction. Its first season provided Kimmy with a compelling antagonist that gave the show a clear focus and drive: Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm), the cult leader Kimmy fled to New York to escape. Lacking his heir apparent, the show has a tendency to narratively wander—doubling down on many of its worst ideas in the interim. In addition to the still-awkward Native American storyline, Kimmy Schmidt throws in a subplot involving Murasani, a geisha Titus believes himself to be in his past life. He decides to stage her life as a one-man show, Kimono You Don’t.
This plotline totally derails the season’s third episode, “Kimmy Goes to a Play!,” which serves as a callout of the show’s critics so thinly veiled it may as well be made out of cling wrap: Titus makes the mistake of Googling his upcoming play, only to find out that Asian-American groups are trashing it online as “offensive.” Kimmy Schmidt, however, dismisses them as nothing but overly sensitive and uninformed. When Titus attempts to assuage their concerns by telling a group of protesters that it’s “about a past life I actually lived,” they shut him down: “I don’t want to hear the end of anything anyone has to say!”
You might wince, but you can’t say you didn’t also laugh really, really hard.
The exchange is intended to be vindication for Fey and her co-producer, Robert Carlock: In 2015, Kimmy Schmidt was widely criticized online for casting Jane Krakowski as a woman of Lakota descent. (This practice is often referred to as “whitewashing.”) It’s clear that the producers have learned little about cultural appropriation in the past year, and their response comes off as defensive and tone-deaf as Fey and Carlock accuse their detractors of being. Of course, Titus’ show must go on, if only to prove him right: At the end of the episode, the Asian protesters actually apologize.
Here’s the thing about political correctness in comedy: If you’re going toe the line of being problematic, your material has to be on point. There’s a line in the second episode that nearly killed me. While scheming about how to make her ex-husband jealous, Jacqueline exclaims, “Time to get more D’s than a kid with undiagnosed dyslexia!” You might wince, but you can’t say you didn’t also laugh really, really hard.
What’s so galling is that, when Kimmy Schmidt isn’t penning its own apologia, the show actually offers some penetrating insights on the subject of race. When Kimmy registers for the GED, she explains to the receptionist, a black woman, that Kimmy and Dong were like the “Roz and Frasier” of their class, a clear nod to the ’90s sitcom. “I get it,” the receptionist responds. “I kind of have a Kyle and Maxine thing with my boss.” Kimmy doesn’t get the reference. The woman groans, “Oh, you don’t know Living Single, but I’m supposed to know everything about Frasier?” It’s such a hilarious critique of white privilege and cultural assumptions that it’s a shame that Fey and Carlock couldn’t apply it to their own writing more often.
If you liked the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (I did), the second is more of the same. It’s good; it just could be better. It’s up to you, however, to decide if that’s a sucker you’re interested in unwrapping.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.