For those without kind and loving friends from whom you steal Netflix, let me introduce you to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and for those sensible enough to watch less TV than this writer, let me remind you of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. First released in 2015 and having just released its eagerly-anticipated third season, the show centres on the life of Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), a 29 year old Midwestern gal who moves to New York to start a new life. So far, so Coyote Ugly / Midnight Cowboy / Babe, Pig in the City, but add in the writers and creators of 30 Rock, as well as the small fact that Kimmy spent the last 15 years imprisoned in an underground bunker by a doomsday cult leader, and things begin to deviate from your typical “country bumpkin in the big city” schtick.

Since its release, the show has received over eleven Primetime Emmy Nominations and bested fan-favourites such as House of Cards in Netflix viewing figures,[1] with much of this popularity owed to the pedigree of writers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. The duo have not only ensured that the show stays in a similar parallel universe to that which gave 30 Rock its charm (think New York, but through the looking-glass) but also filled each episode with a reportedly unsurpassed number of jokes landing per minute.[2] On top of the fast dialogue, almost every genre of comedy is explored throughout the three series: from musical (“Peenot Noir”: Kimmy’s roommate Titus Andromedon’s tribute to vogue-ing culture and “ode to black penis”), to polarising slapstick (Kimmy’s hapless stepdad, his gun named “Oopsie”) to good old-fashioned wordplay (“‘I’m stronger than Houdini!’ ‘Who?’ ‘-dini!’”)
Of course, such a smorgasbord of comedy stylings could not work without strong characters deliver it, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does not do subtle in this respect. Kimmy’s new roommate, Titus Andromedon (Titus Burgess) is best described through the rather succinct character breakdown that was sent to potential auditionees: “Broadway wannabe. Broke. Lives in a basement apartment in Harlem”.[3] As the first name similarity might suggest, Fey and Carlock wrote the part of Andromedon with Burgess in mind,[4] and this casting choice has somehow ensured that a character who utters the immortal line, “I envy you. I’ve never been able to meet me” doesn’t become two-dimensional. No mean feat, as Titus’s dialogue consistently treads the line between sassy and merely irritating: when it finally seems like his career is on the up, his first words to Kimmy are, “Oh sweet Jesus I’m a star! You’re all dead to me.” But, even though Andromedon possesses levels of narcissism would make Patrick Bateman get business card levels of envious, he’s also a rather empathetic figure. We’ve all had those soul sucking days when we too want to “decide to live as a bed from now on”, or buy a new wardrobe so that we too can say that all our clothes double as pyjamas, and Titus isn’t afraid to do it.

Also delivering her own personal brand of the bizarre is the duo’s landlady Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane). A long-time resident of the fictional East Dogmouth (aka Harlem), Kaushtupper has a murky past (is the body of her first husband kept in the crawlspace? Did she really sand off her fingerprints?) and an uncertain future that looks likely to be defined by fighting against the gentrification of her beloved neighbourhood. Kane basks in this part, and Kaushtupper’s unspecified affinity with the Banana Boys means that this role, after her scene-stealing appearances in Gotham, could be seen as her second outing as a nefariously eccentric mother of a future crime lord: long may these roles continue.

This motley crew is completed by Fey-favourite Jane Krakowski in the role of Jacqueline Voorhees (née White): a self-obsessed and self-confessed gold-digger, who hires Kimmy as a nanny. The cartoonish privilege of Voorhees and the similarity of the character to that of Jenna Maroney from 30 Rock means that she is another character that could have potential to grate. However, with the addition of a controversial back-story (discussed later in this piece) and a journey of self-discovery and redemption throughout the three seasons mean that the character and writing stay just the right side of self-indulgent. On a personal note, I will never forgive the writers for the “waterbottle” scene in the show’s pilot: after Krakowsi’s impeccable comic timing, I couldn’t bring myself to hate her character, despite her myriad flaws.

These three characters make up the team that surround the eponymous Kimmy, who of course needs her own introduction. Ellie Kemper plays the part with an innocence and cheeriness that serves as a perfect foil for the harshness of the other members of the cast, with plenty of not-so wisecracks and block colour outfits. However naive and saccharine Kimmy is, you are rooting for her to find normality and closure in a strange city, whilst also trying to understand the endless changes of style and media that have occurred in the last 15 years. For someone who will admit to watching the Bravo Network’s finest without needing to be pushed, the inclusion of so much pop culture in The Unbelievable Kimmy Schmidt is an absolute goldmine; a sort of bingo for a fan who is one Kardashians Kwiz away from buying a fedora with a big shiny E! on it.

Some worry that this aspect means that the show will prematurely age, but perhaps that is the point: Kimmy has lost 15 years of her life due to her imprisonment in the bunker and her points of reference are thus firmly stuck in the late-nineties. Nevertheless, the quality of the references mean that they hold fast for the moment, with the The Babysitters Club, Seinfeld and post-ironic riffs on the DMV (“I’d rather open a bag of peanuts on an airline!”) forming part of media lore that has staying power, whether we like it or not. Not only do these references feature in the script’s copy, but also in the form of characters – as seen with Fey’s first cameo alongside Jerry Minor as Kimmy’s PDA-happy lawyers at the end of Season 1. This affably useless pair show that no one is safe from Fey’s razor-sharp satire: the pair are based on Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, the unsuccessful prosecution team in the OJ trial, who were also very clearly “more than friends”. Just in case you doubt that connection, the characters are called Marcia and Chris: defamation be damned.

Fey and Carlock take an even bigger chance on their target audience by offering up pivotal sequences in the show to the altar of pop culture throughout the series. The latest, and possibly greatest, example of this being seen in Series 3’s homage to Beyoncé’s concept album Lemonade. Their exceptional pastiche of “Hold Up” includes a video that is almost shot-for-shot identical to the original of Beyoncé wielding her baseball bat, with a twist: Titus takes Beyoncé’s role, suspecting his boyfriend Michael to be cheating on him (a sample of the underwater intro: “I tried to change. To be… sweeter. Prettier. Less… gassy”).

A shoutout to pop culture that is arguably less comfortable is the show’s title sequence, which is an adapted version of the viral “Bed Intruder” song. For those without access to the Internet circa 2010 until now, this song was created using Autotune and an interview with Alabama-native Antoine Dodson, who was describing an attempted home invasion. Some would argue that it was his flamboyance and turn of phrase that created an international sensation, however there seemed to be a universal feeling of “laughing at” rather than “laughing with” the subject of the interview. This, combined with the popularity of other “eccentrics” from TV (who all happened to be African-American) such as Sweet Brown (“Bronchitis… Ain’t nobody go time for that!”) and Charles Ramsey (who further inspired The Unbelievable Kimmy Schmidt, as he himself rescued three girls held captive) points towards something more insidious.

Fey and Carlock would perhaps argue that they are satirising pop culture and not participating in what has been called “a modern day minstrel show”.[5] Nevertheless, the stellar writing aside, this is not the only criticism made towards how The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt approaches race within its comedy,[6] something that critics of 30 Rock also focused on during its original run.[7] The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has been lauded for its diverse cast and bucking television trends, for example in casting a Vietnamese love interest for Kimmy (Dong, played by Ki Hong Lee) and including Native Americans as part of the main cast of characters (sobering fact time: Native Americans make up 1.7 percent of the US population,[8] and yet comprise only 0.2 per cent of primetime roles[9]).

However these same decisions, as well as many others, have also come under fire: why was Jane Krakowski cast as a Native American when she has no Native American blood? And why did Vietnamese Dong have to be exceptional at Maths? And why did Latina bunker captive Maria have to be a maid, adding to already well-established racial stereotypes?

Those who come to the defence of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt point to some of the moves the show has taken to highlight the massive racial inequalities in the USA and subvert them. In the episode “Kimmy is Bad at Math!”, when dressed as a werewolf for a new job, Titus comes to the damning realisation that he is treated better and regarded with less fear as a supernatural creature than as a black man. Separately, it later it turns out that Maria learned English during her 15 year captivity and blasts the other women for not having learned any Spanish in that time whilst living in such close quarters.

Whether you believe the show relies on tired racial stereotypes for cheap laughs or conversely deliberately plays on those same stereotypes to emphasise how ridiculous they are, it is fair to say that The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is almost uniquely unafraid of combining race and humour. However, it is certain that the show has not always been successful at doing this without exacerbating existing prejudices, and sometimes does not appear to be engaged in as meaningful discussion as the subject necessitates.

One thing that The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt did seem more reticent talk about openly was the implications of Kimmy being in the bunker: for 15 years she was deprived of her liberty and “married” to an ageing cult leader (portrayed by an at-first unrecognisable Jon Hamm). However, it has taken until the third episode of the latest season for Kimmy to use the word “rape” to describe what happened in the bunker. Writer Carlock has acknowledged that this is the first time the word has been used, citing the fact that the “there is a line to walk”[10] and also that it wasn’t the right time in the character’s journey for her to use it. However, speaking clearly about the event was long overdue: since the first season, it is clear that Kimmy has suffered greatly from the trauma of that period of her life. Her flashbacks and outbursts of anger and violence when faced with intimacy are explored in the earlier seasons, as well as really quite heartbreaking trivia (such as the fact that she has a fear of Velcro, which is likely to stem from her fixing her Velcro shoes minutes before she was abducted by the Reverend). Having decided to seek help in Season 2, Season 3 was right to show yet another example of how Kimmy is as “strong as hell” (as the intro music states is true of all females) and show her progress in her journey to acceptance of the horrific ordeals of her past.

Of course, in true Schmidt-style, what prompted this admission was selfless: it was a last-ditch attempt to stop another woman falling victim to the Reverend. It is this aspect that stopped me writing off The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt completely: it is clear that it is not a perfect show, but the character of Kimmy is inherently good, in a time where there is little of this in both in fiction and reality. Although Mr T no longer runs the “I pity the school” educational improvement programme, and Club Bombay from Moesha closed its doors in 2001, in the words of Kimmy: “I still believe the world is good. That bunnies are nice and snakes are mean. That one day Sandra Bullock will find someone who deserves her.” One day, maybe our resolve can be as unbreakable as hers.

 

[1] Nick Levine, “First Netflix ‘viewing figures’ confirm popularity of ‘Daredevil’, ‘House Of Cards’”, NME 29th April 2015.

http://www.nme.com/news/tv/first-netflix-viewing-figures-confirm-popularity-o-872497

[2] 7.4 according to a very scientific survey by The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/11/jokes-per-minute-sitcom-ratings-link/382734/

[3] “Tituss Burgess: You’re Rocking This Thing”, NPR 12th March 2015.

http://www.npr.org/2015/03/12/392318488/tituss-burgess-youre-rocking-this-thing

[4] Jenna Marotta, “Thanks to ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,’ Tituss Burgess Is Breaking Through”, Vice 18th May 2016. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/drinking-pinot-and-talking-politics-with-tituss-burgess

[5] Fidel Martinez, “Are “hilarious black neighbor” videos a modern minstrel show?”, The Daily Dot 9th May 2013. https://www.dailydot.com/via/hilarious-black-neighbor-modern-minstrel/

[6] Alison Herman, “Why Tina Fey’s Racial Humor Is So Controversial”, Flavorwire 13th March 2013.

http://flavorwire.com/509289/why-tina-feys-racial-humor-is-so-controversial

[7] Wesley Morris, “30 Rock Landed on Us: Identity politics and NBC’s most subversive show”, Grantland 31st January 2013. http://grantland.com/features/30-rock-race-identity-politics/

[8] https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-10.pdf

[9] http://www.tc.umn.edu/~rbeach/teachingmedia/module5/8_e.htm

[10] Kathryn Lindsay, “Why Did It Take Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt 3 Seasons To Talk About Sexual Assault?”, Refinery29 22nd May 2017. http://www.refinery29.uk/2017/05/155962/unbreakable-kimmy-schmidt-season-3-sexual-assault