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As it enters its third season, now seems a good time to ask: What exactly is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, premiering Friday on Netflix, about?
Season 1 managed to work around what should be an inherently unfunny premise—about a young woman who is rescued from a doomsday cult—to become a perfectly absurd follow-up to 30 Rock, creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s previous show together. Kimmy Schmidt pushed the wackiness that was inherent in later seasons of 30 Rock to new heights that Fey and Carlock probably wouldn’t have been able to get away with on network television (where the show was originally slated to land), while also building on 30 Rock’s themes of female empowerment. After all, the show’s title sequence reminds us every episode that “females are strong as hell.”
Season 2, however, found Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt going in a slightly different direction. It took longer to find its footing, leaning into the race humor which bothered many viewers during the first season and getting combative with the internet in a way that turned some off. The show picked up steam in the latter half of this season though, with creator Fey guest-starring as Schmidt’s drunk therapist, and Lisa Kudrow making an appearance as her estranged mom.
These characters moved the story forward, but more importantly, they brought out a different side of the show’s titular hero. The most interesting thing about season 2 is instead of running from and ignoring her trauma, Kimmy was forced to confront it. The absurdity was still there, but there was a more serious undercurrent too. And by acknowledging that the series is basically, as the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum put it, “a sitcom about a rape survivor,” Kimmy Schmidt reached a point of no return.
Where season 3 succeeds is in merging the show’s disparate instincts. Kimmy may not have fully dealt with her PTSD, but she is still strong as hell. Moreover, she’s now using her experiences to help other women too. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a show about being a survivor, in every sense of the word. As Titus (Tituss Burgess) reminds Kimmy in the first episode, “escaping is not the same as making it.” But by season 3, it seems that Kimmy has made it; she’s going to be OK. But how do you move on once you’ve made it, and how can you help others do the same?
For those of you reading this and thinking, “that does not sound like a fun comedy show,” don’t worry. The latest season remains as ridiculous as ever, including such storylines as a potential puppet threesome, a wedding with the groom in a full-body cast, a Waco-like cult populated by a bunch of pubescent boys, the ghost of an old woman who appears to sensually help one of the main characters make corn pudding, and a running series of horrifying hints about how Titus ended up stranded at sea.
In general, the first half of season 3 far exceeds the beginning of season 2. Kimmy’s decision to go to college appears to be the main arc of the season, although this is just one piece of a busy plot. And while there is a lot going on this year, the show feels more focused overall. Kimmy Schmidt is at its best when Kimmy and the rest of the characters have a goal or purpose, but get pulled into wild situations along the way. This is also the reason why season 2 struggled to settle into a groove; after an introductory season where Kimmy was trying to reclaim her life, season 2 found her and the show floundering to figure out what comes next.
Problem solved: Star Ellie Kemper is completely self-assured in the lead role. She is not only the most moral but the most intelligent person on the show. Longstanding worrries that Kemper’s performance is infantilizing should be put to bed; yes Kimmy is a goofball, but she’s also a resilient, capable woman.
Season 2 addressed Kimmy’s issues with always wanting to help those around her, even if it means sacrificing her own needs. Whether she’s saving a group of drunk college students or a former friend from her bunker days, Kimmy is as helpful as ever in season 3, but she now seems to be coming at it from a place of understanding rather than neediness. Case in point, another storyline this season involves Kimmy’s former captor, the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, trying to get her to sign divorce papers from prison. In one particularly piercing episode, a woman named Wendy Hebert (Laura Dern, who is quickly proving a stealth comedic genius) shows up at Kimmy’s door revealing herself to be the reverend’s fiancée. (Jon Hamm reprises this role, in which he’s so funny that despite playing someone who is objectively a monster, you can’t help but laugh whenever he’s on-screen.)
By the time Dern shows up, Kimmy is ready to put her ugly history with the reverend behind her. And yet Wendy so desperately needs her help, in the end she can’t say no. This woman is not who you would think; Wendy appears to be classy and successful with everything going for her. Yet she is so delusional, so clearly crushed by the patriarchy, it’s a brilliant reminder that not all “victims” of abuse look the same.
Not everything Kemper has to do is so heavy. Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs appears this season as an exceptionally charming new love interest, who opens Kimmy up to the exciting questions of philosophy.
Meanwhile, Jacquelyn (Jane Krakowski) and Lillian’s (Carol Kane) storylines pick up exactly where they left off last season. Jacqueline and her boyfriend Russ (David Cross) are waging a secret war against his football magnate relatives, who own the Washington Redskins. Lillian is still attempting to keep yuppies out of her neighborhood, but this time she’s taken concrete action by running for city council. Given that Lillian’s plot was one of the weak points last season, it’s a relief that Carol Kane actually gets to be a driving force in the narrative this year rather than merely a raving lunatic (although she’s that too).
But as always, the highlight of the show is Titus, who steals every scene he appears in. Besides the ongoing mystery of how he lost his job on a cruise ship and washed up on the beach, there’s also his amazing Lemonade tribute (featured in all the show’s promos). There’s also an amazing song he’s forced to record about the wonders of California, and an amazing episode where he has to “play straight.”
With Netflix’s ever-growing arsenal of shows, it’s increasingly hard to know which ones are worth sticking with and which ones deserve to fall by the wayside. Rest assured, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the former. Even with the plethora of great titles streaming, Kimmy Schmidt continues to be one of the very best. Its third season is strong as hell.
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.