[Review] - Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 2

In which we discover that, much like LOST, life after the bunker is more complex than expected.

I was beginning to worry that Netflix has in ingrained sophomore slump. It seemed as though their second season stumbled where their first seasons excelled. This makes little sense, considering that they don’t share creative teams at all, but there is a minor correlation. The best that I can make sense of it, the second season have been reaction to the first, and a creative desire to try something new, or as a reaction to audience reception. On a conventionally broadcast show, this happens all the time, but you notice it less because (at least on network) the writing is happening as the show airs, and course corrections are folded into the seasonal direction. This isn’t possible on a show that is full produced before a single episode airs, and becomes all the more apparent when every episode is release simultaneously. And so, in comparison to their inaugural seasons, the second seasons of House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Daredevil and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt look like they take a hit. But from an even wider vantage point, they are just the writers and producers taking the shows in new directions. It’s whether those new directions are successful or not that becomes the issue.

This season felt like two entirely different stories being told: one, continuing the show that we all fell in love with last year, and the other a bold, more mature version of a dramedy series, rather than a live action cartoon. Perhaps smartly, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock eased us into that latter version, as it would have been a culture shock to be suddenly thrown into a world of alcoholism, post-traumatic stress and emotional revelation, when our last benchmark was Don Draper singing “Flying Purple People Eater” in a witness bench. But it still means that the front half and the back half of this season feel just as divorced from one another. The shift happens over the course of the season, but the schism is obvious from the start and only gets more evident as it goes. And it goes, with spoilers.

The premiere wears a lot of different hats, and on first watch, I didn’t really enjoy it. It felt tacked on, wrapping up the various cliffhangers that the previous season left to sweep up. Dong had married someone else, Titus was revealed to have a wife, and Jaqueline had started listing towards home, set to find herself. Which they all wrapped up inside the first nearly thirty minute episodes (each got an extended runtime this season, having completely cast off the memory of their network origins). And then, rather frustratingly, never mentioned again. Kimmy’s job at the Christmas store is only again referenced when she gets fired, Titus’ wife is forgotten after their dance scene ends in favour of giving him an active romantic storyline, which does work. And OK, Jaqueline’s search for an identity is pretty much her entire arc this season, but the vision quest she undertakes suggests that she’s come to a larger personal awakening, while the end result is that she hasn’t changed that much. Nor does she have that much focus. She spends most of the season planning a “benefit” and when that goes by, she shifts focus to seducing David Cross. Certainly no grand spiritual awakening like the premiere suggests.

By the end of the season though you realize that the premiere was really a warm up for the direction the back half of the season would take. Where things get more emotional, and less Looney. But to get there, the top half of the season hunkers down in the comfort zone of the living cartoon. This season relied (almost over relied) on original music, you enjoyment of which is likely very subjective. Personally, I can’t stand when characters break into song (which is why I despise most musical theatre), so episodes like Kimmy Gives Up! are next to unbearable for me (I would also nominate Kimmy Gives Up! as the weakest of the season, for non-musical reasons). Episodes like Kimmy Goes To A Play! and Kimmy Kidnaps Gretchen! lean hard on the cartoonish aspects of the Kimmy-verse, but it’s also something of a last gasp of the model, because things start to get real, fast, from here on out. Episodes 7 and 8 almost seem like they should be switched in order, as episode 8 brings an end to the Dong storyline (as well as uniting the flash-forward tease in the premier, and episode 7 highlights for the first time the seriousness of what Kimmy is struggling with. It’s the final five episodes thought that move this show into an entirely new territory. This isn’t a comedy anymore, it is a deeply introspective human drama, with highly comedic overtones.

Perhaps it is a sign of the evolution of Fey and Carlock’s sensibilities. As Whiskey Tango Foxtrot earlier this spring showed, after a decade doing the comedy thing, these creative partners are interested in exploring more serious material, even if they choose to do so in a humourous way. 30 Rock didn’t have a lot of character development, and about the most serious issue they broached in seven seasons was that prescient Cosby joke in 2009. Lemon and Jack and Tracey grew by inches on that show, but now (and without network interference) Fey’s characters can grow by feet. And so, this season took the rose coloured glasses off, and stopped treating things like a cartoon. I feel like this was always the intent of Fey, calling back to the series premiere last year, where Titus and Kimmy stand in Time Square, singing, while being drowned out by the hard, indifferent world around them. This isn’t a cartoon world, it’s a world where these very screwed up characters are oblivious to the reality around them. Like Kimmy’s happy place, they think everything is Disney perfect, until someone points out how none of that makes sense. The title of the show seems now to be purposefully ironic, as this is the season that Kimmy broke.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t go off as planned, as all it really does is highlight how utterly unlikable most of these characters are. Titus is practically unbearable when Mikey isn’t around this year, but Jaqueline comes off the worst. Last year, when she was a shallow House Wife Of… parody, a commentary on the 1%, she was an anti-hero. This season, stripped of her commentary and any narrative connection to Kimmy, she’s just a shrill, desperate sad character whose new quest for an identity is nearly impossible to sympathize with, because it exists in a vacuum. Without Kimmy around her to compare/contrast, she shares nothing with the rest of the characters. Even Titus lacks the motivation to ascend that high in the cultural ranks. She’s also probably the most mentally stable of the bunch, further separating her from the group. As much as Jane Krakowski excels in her performance, Jaqueline’s relevance drove off in a stolen cop car at the end of season one.

Kimmy’s trauma is the deepest though, as it is her show. The best addition to the series was Fey as her therapist Andrea, and I feel like the Andrea character should have replaced Jaqueline outright as the older female who helps Kimmy on her journey, and have each season find Kimmy in the company of the person she needs to help her become normal again. Andrea is just as damaged as Kimmy, but unlike Kimmy, she freely admits her damage, practically revels in it, while Kimmy is in complete denial. Through Andrea’s sessions, the show touches on some dark stuff, and the more you think about Kimmy’s past, the darker it becomes. The central premise for the show makes light of a situation that, in real life, never has a laughy ending. Kimmy’s life isn’t The Room, but it isn’t far off. And as much as the bunker flashbacks continue to be the best thing about the show, when you realize that Kimmy likely didn’t lose her virginity to Dong in the back of that cop car in episode 8, the more you realize that if it weren’t for the laughter, there would be a lot of screaming going on. Episode 11, which is otherwise used as a great showcase for Jeff Goldblum’s comedic talents as a Dr. Phil quick fixer stand-in, ends in honest and disturbing growth, as Kimmy breaks down and cries for the first time ever. It was startling, and more than a little uncomfortable, but also made me happier than I have in a while about the progression of a character.

The final episode has Kimmy suddenly and quickly find her Mom, which is less narratively satisfying than last season’s three part trial of the Reverend, but much more fulfilling for the character. Most shows don’t like honest conversations. Shows on networks actively avoid honest conversations, because it means that they can’t backtrack from whatever is honestly discussed. The scene between Kimmy and Lisa Kudrow (great casting choice, from a series as nineties obsessed as this) on the roller coaster, as they scream in terror, then scream out their feelings, would never have happened on network (even if Kimmy’s trip to Universal Studios did feel a little “ABC was bought by Disney so TGIF is going on a field trip”). If last season was Kimmy rediscovering the life she had stolen from her, this season was Kimmy discovering that life is much more complex than just “grow up, be normal.” Mothers sometimes love as much as they can, but still fall short; friends turn out to be poisonous; and the past is never really in the past. This is still a show I adore for the sheer quantity of jokes they throw at the viewer, though the ratio of those jokes being nineties specific pop culture is beginning to wear a little thing. But now it’s a show I can honestly respect for doing something irreparable and mature to their title character. It’s a bold direction to go in, and proof that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt isn’t just tall, it’s good.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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