Thursday, April 21, 2016

Alien Conspiracy: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Season Two

Ellie Kemper in Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Dear Reader,

By the time you are reading this, I will have finished the recently released second season of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I may also have won the lottery, or gotten dressed perhaps even both. Whatever the case, it’s important to note that, at the time of my writing, I have only seen ten out of this season’s thirteen episodes that follow on the success of the 2015 Netflix exclusive series written by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (30 Rock, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot). At this juncture, season two’s stage appears to be set and its various storylines are careening toward a conclusion. While I’m open to the unlikely possibility that the next three episodes could upend everything I thought I knew about Kimmy Schmidt, the recurring themes evident in this season have led me to a bold and all-encompassing conclusion: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, at its core, is a story about aliens.

For anyone who, like Kimmy, has spent the last fifteen years in a bunker, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s first season appeared it its entirety on Netflix on March 6th 2015 to generally positive feedback. Mitigating its peppy, upbeat humour with the dark backstory of Kimmy’s abduction and subsequent confinement in a bunker for fifteen years at the hands of a false prophet (hilariously played by Mad Men’s Jon Hamm), the comedy featuring Ellie Kemper (The Office), Titus Burgess, Jane Krakowski (30 Rock), and Carol Kane was an absurdist, pop culture success. The series’ first season opened with Kimmy’s rescue, along with her three braided and be-frocked bunker mates, and dealt not only with her decision to embrace life by moving to The Big Apple but also the aftermath of her abduction including the circus of a trial that put her captor behind bars. Season one’s story arc appeared to be neatly summed up with the Reverend’s incarceration, leading audiences to wonder where the show could possibly go from here. The answer is that, with the bunker ordeal (mostly) behind Kimmy, the show has overcome a necessary hurdle and can finally become what it was always meant to be: a fish out of water story that forces us to examine modern, urban life through the lens of someone without the requisite cultural knowledge for making sense of it.

This seems like an obvious statement. Kimmy spent her formative years underground, chewing her own haircuts and taking a man made out of tin cans to an imaginary prom. Of course she lacks the tools necessary for navigating a dense cultural hotbed like New York. Leaning on an age-old comedic trope, Kimmy is an alien figure, as clueless as the alien expedition at the heart of NBC’s 90s sitcom, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and just as eager to understand normal human life. The bulk of Kimmy Schmidt’s jokes stem from Kimmy’s cultural obliviousness: her shameless love for backpacks, her surprise that a slider restaurant has no slides, her enthusiasm over a bug-ridden apartment with a closet for a bedroom. The shtick works –  although some of the magic is lost when one examines it critically. Like your seven-year-old nephew who tells the same joke over and over again because it garners laughs, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt goes for broke on this whole “alien” thing. Upon closer inspection, almost all of Kimmy’s second season is based on this kind of alien humour, this reliance on “othering” both groups and individuals.

At the risk of ruining the show forever, the subplots revolving around supporting characters Mikey (Mike Carlsen) and Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) are diluted versions of Kimmy’s struggle to naturalize herself within a community. Carlsen, who plays the construction worker who comes out to Titus in season one, joins the regular cast this season as Titus’ boyfriend. Like a gay Alice in Wonderland, Mikey emerges into the gay scene with Titus as his sole guide and struggles to reconcile his conventionally heterosexual personality (as a sports-loving construction worker with no fashion sense) with his newly-embraced sexual orientation. Just as Kimmy arrives in New York clueless and awkward, so Mikey appears in the world of urban gay culture. Jacqueline, the former Mrs. Voorhees and Kimmy’s former employer, has a similar journey this season. After the end of season one revealed Jacqueline’s Sioux roots, Jacqueline returns home to her community in Indianapolis and her parents Virgil and Fern (Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster). Here, “Jackie-Lynn” (as she’s known to her family) attempts to reintegrate into country life and Sioux culture, a world away from the wealthy and “waspy” Manhattan social scene she left behind when she divorced philandering husband Julian. Jacqueline becomes the alien at home, uncomprehending of the Sioux culture from whence she allegedly came, notorious among her community for “trying to help” and inadvertently destroying everything she touches because she somehow knows absolutely nothing about being Sioux. After her parents lovingly encourage her to go back to the Manhattan “tribe” she belongs to now, Jacqueline focusses her efforts on leveraging her social status in order to raise money for her parents’ community.

The gist of the second season appears to be a moral about being oneself, as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s strange and fascinating characters each embrace a kind of synthesis of their authentic selves and the cultures within which they hope to exist. While “othering” –  especially when it’s based on the uniform “strangeness” of ethnic or LGBT communities is inescapably problematic, the comedic angle softens the blow. Is this satire? Are the assumptions about these communities implicit in this show even accurate? If so, can we embrace our differences rather than seek to erase them? As Kimmy Schmidt’s season two “aliens” embark on their respective journeys, they force us to examine the beliefs we hold about specific communities and assess their validity, in the largely positive way that only comedy can encourage.

Titus Burgess and Ellie Kemper in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Not to say that the show’s second season is without the kind of problems of cultural insensitivity that critics often lob at Tina Fey’s work. A discussion of aliens wouldn’t be complete without addressing recurring character Dong Nguyen (Ki Hong Lee), Kimmy’s love interest in season one. Critics rightly pointed out that the only Asian character in the show’s first season happened to be an illegal immigrant, an “alien,” so to speak, a point Fey and Carlock seem to directly address in season two’s third episode, “Kimmy Goes to a Play!” While Dong spends most of this season wrapped up in his new green card marriage to a crazy lady (Suzan Perry), episode three introduces an Asian group called “Respectful Asian Portrayals in Entertainment” (that acronym is not cool of you, Tina) who protest Titus’ one-man show about his past life as a Geisha. The members of RAPE (I can’t even), appear as silly, overly-sensitive caricatures that seem to only exist in order to dismiss the show’s critics as being butt-hurt losers on the internet. The episode wasn’t a total wash Titus’ genuine belief in his past lives was endearing and the music was beautiful but it was certainly tone-deaf and in poor taste.

All critical issues aside, season two’s performances are unanimously excellent. Ellie Kemper continues to be just annoying enough in the title role, demonstrating a dark sense of humour by infusing Kimmy’s overly-optimistic defense mechanisms and survival tactics with the right amount of obnoxious pep. Kimmy is upbeat because she’s overwhelmingly messed up and that comes across to the audience perfectly. Titus Burgess as Titus Andromedon finally gets to show off his Broadway chops by singing messed up show tunes so often that Kimmy Schmidt could almost be reclassified as a musical. Dylan Gelula as Julian’s moody daughter, Xanthippe Voorhees is mercifully absent; the rebellious teen daughter character was probably my least favourite aspect of the first season. While Jon Hamm will forever be missed as Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, new additions to the cast almost make up for his loss. Mike Carlsen as Mikey is a welcome counterpoint to Titus’ unchecked fabulousness, and Tina Fey is featured on screen in the later episodes as Kimmy’s alcoholic Jekyll-and-Hyde therapist Andrea, who encourages her to deal with her repressed issues. Carol Kane also sees a lot more screen time as crazy, aging landlady Lillian and is always pleasure, whether she’s on a rollerskating date with dementia-addled former flame Bobby (Fred Armisen, in one of several cameos) or protesting the gentrification of her slum neighbourhood by waging war on hipsters.

If you can shelve the occasionally nagging concerns over the ethical questions the show raises and lean into its masterful comedy, Fey and Carlock have outdone themselves in season two. Wrapping up the story of Kimmy and her bunker-mates seeking justice for their imprisonment was the best thing to ever happen to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, allowing it free reign to engage with whatever subjects it pleases. Through its new found freedom, Kimmy Schmidt verges on being “The Show About Nothing 2.0,” assessing aspects of New York life through a critical lens the way that Seinfeld did for the very different New York of 20+ years ago. While Seinfeld exposed audiences to New York life by throwing them in the deep end, forcing them to identify with already established personalities entrenched in the cultural milieu of big city life, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s second season encourages a more gradual immersion as we follow a series of alien weirdos trying to fit in. It’s a tired trope, maybe, but it works. At least, I think it works and, if you’ll excuse me, I have three episodes left till I can solidly confirm my thesis.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario. 

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