In Which I Am A Scold About Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
WTF is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt?
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a sitcom on Netflix created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who also worked on 30 Rock together. It stars a bunch of funny female actors and this guy who also used to be on 30 Rock, I guess, but I don’t know because I never watched that show.
The premise of the series is that Kimmy was abducted into a crazy doomsday cult as a child and, after being rescued as an adult, has to build a new life for herself in New York. She moves in with the guy I don’t recognize, her landlord is Carol Kane, and she gets a job as nanny and/or personal assistant to rich, shallow Jane Krakowski.
Most of the plot lines are about Kimmy trying to experience something normal now that she’s out of the doomsday bunker – like going on a date, or having a birthday party – but having the whole thing get ruined somehow because her life is so screwed up. Toward the end of the season, there’s a longer arc where she has to testify against the reverend who kidnapped her, thereby revealing herself to her friends as one of the “mole women” from the doomsday cult.
Why wouldn’t someone like that?
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is unmoored from reality in a way that annoys me. That’s basically the substance of my criticism, after having had a few weeks to think about it.
There are a lot of things I like about the show – I like Ellie Kemper, I like the Kimmy character, I like that the show is about courage and remembering who you are when other people try to tear you down. I also think it can be really funny sometimes. But, a lot of it didn’t land for me, because it felt like it was so disconnected from anything resembling real life.
For example: The doomsday cult that Kimmy joins isn’t anything like a cult. Like, not only is it not like a real cult – it’s not even like the idea of a cult. There’s a running joke that the reverend who kidnaps Kimmy keeps teaching his victims made-up parables that don’t make any sense, but there’s no sense that anyone (except for one weird girl who joined the cult voluntarily) ever believes what he’s saying or buys into his religion. There are also only four people in the “cult,” and the “cult” is an underground bunker where they are held prisoner.
Hearing the situation described, it reminds you a lot less of a cult and whole lot more – a whole lot more – of the Ariel Castro kidnappings – that news story from a few years ago where a guy chained three women up in a rape basement and held them there for years, until a neighbour helped them escape.
In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it’s never really clear if we’re supposed to see the bunker as a wacky situation or a horrifying traumatic experience. It has an awful lot in common with things that aren’t funny at all in real life, but it scrubs all the details so that the situation that exists in the show is… not a situation that ever exists in real life. Some random dude just kidnaps four women, holds them in a bunker, and makes them turn a crank that powers his TV. And then he tells them made-up bible stories. It’s weird, and it’s not even a parody of religion, because he’s not practicing an actual religion.
Other example of something weird: It turns out part way through the show that Jane Krakowski’s character is a Lakota woman passing for white. The show seems to want us to take her character arc – in which she learns to embrace her heritage – seriously, but it doesn’t seem to be all that insightful about the subject mater. Instead, we get a lot of weird, weirdly shallow, other-oriented jokes about the situation. The strangest one is when her dad tells her he flew out to see her on the “great iron eagle,” and then goes, “I’m kidding – I know what a plane is; I was in the air force.” I’m not the first person to ask this, but, why would he say that to his daughter? That’s just strange.
It’s like the show wants us to invest in the vague idea that Native people should be proud of their heritage, without bothering to depict that in detailed or realistic way.
Other example of something vague: the reverend’s trial, at the end of the season. I guess we’re supposed to think it’s satire, but I don’t know what the satire is of. Other than a few references to the OJ Simpson trial (which – huh?), the jokes are so broad that I don’t know what we’re even laughing at. If it’s a satire of the justice system, it doesn’t specifically identify any of the actual problems with the justice system – it just communicates the general idea that the justice system is bad. Most of the time, it feels like it’s purposely being vague so that it doesn’t offend anyone.
There are successful examples of satire on the show. The best one, and the one all the reviews mention, is the bit where Kimmy’s roommate dresses up as a werewolf for the dinner theatre he works at, and discovers that New Yorkers are nicer to him when he walks down the street as a werewolf than when he walks down the street as a black man. That’s a funny, cutting, satirical observation. But a lot of the jokes are less targeted than that.
The overall impression I get is that the story is based on really vague, broad ideas – cults are bad and weird, the justice system doesn’t work, being proud of your heritage and believing in yourself is good – and it’s not anchored enough in specifics for it to feel relevant.
I wanted to like this show, because Ellie Kemper is so fun, and her wardrobe is so good, and some of the jokes are really funny, but I spent an awful lot of time confused about what I was supposed to feel. And, not in a good way, where it was challenging – in a bad way, where it was unclear who I was supposed to be laughing with, and what I was supposed to be laughing at.