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Thank you victims!" says a Today Show employee as he ushers the hero of Netflix's latest comedy, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and her fellow "Indiana Mole Women," outside into a van. "Thank you victims!" he says again, firmly, handing them gift bags. His tone doesn't so much express gratitude as the end to a transaction: Matt Lauer got his interview. The Mole Women got to be on TV. One even got a makeover! What more could they want?
The scene lays out how we expect to consume the stories of those who've survived awful crimes, and it isn't pretty: We expect to watch a segment (or viral video) and move on. As Kimmy's roommate (played by Tituss Burgess, D'Fwan on 30 Rock) puts it, "People love hearing terrible details of news stories. One, it's titillating like a horror movie. Two, it makes them feel like a good person because they care about a stranger. Three, it makes people feel safe that it didn't happen to them." Once you feel better and thank the victims, what else is there to say?
There are few narratives and (fewer comedies) about the aftermath of victimhood—even on Lifetime, where tales of victimization thrive. This isn't exactly surprising: it goes against every storytelling instinct to look at a crime story and decide the most interesting part is what happens after. Entire franchises (like Kimmy's favorite, "Law Squiggle Order") are dedicated to the commission and detection of crime, but virtually none deal with the long weird afterlife of trauma. Can the story of survival be interesting? Can it even be...funny?
Kimmy's affect is a mix of Pollyanna's sunniness and Mary Poppins' moral rectitude—so deeply conventional it becomes weird again, like normcore.
Yes, said Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, co-creators of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The setup is complicated. Our hero, Kimmy, was kidnapped when she was thirteen, forced into a cult, and kept prisoner in an underground bunker for fifteen years. We meet Kimmy as she emerges into a world she thought was destroyed in the apocalypse. Kimmy's affect is a mix of Pollyanna's sunniness and Mary Poppins' moral rectitude—so deeply conventional it becomes weird again, like normcore. She's also, after all, an accidental time traveler ("Have the rules of baseball changed?" she asks brightly) and tabloid phenom. The star of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt isn't your typical girl. But typical—normal—is all she wants to be.
In fact, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is, like its heroine, a form of TV normcore. On paper, the show sounds like a worryingly sincere defense of pluck. And it is, in a way—given what she's survived, Kimmy Schmidt is "unbreakable," and her resilience is part of what makes her compelling. But she's both sustained and crippled by a set of sunny coping mechanisms that scan (especially once Kimmy moves to New York) as clueless and uncool and which—more importantly—aren't serving her well in her new life. The slow surprise of this show is how it theorizes the links between Kimmy's suffering and her other qualities. Her kindness, ambition, honesty, persistence and sincerity are all warped by the fact that she's had to learn to endure her life in ten-second increments.
Tina Fey and Robert Carlock wrote the show especially for Ellie Kemper, who has made a comedic virtue of desperate brightness and optimism rooted so deeply in grief that it scans as naïve or dim. As Erin in The Office, her character's compulsion to please stemmed from her experiences growing up in an orphanage. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt takes that sensibility of Kemper's as its comedic premise and—by moving the character from margin to center—insists that people-pleasers be read intelligently. It also sneaks in a critique of New York snobbery in the process.
One of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's early lessons is that the optimism "New Yorkers" like Kimmy's roommate Titus deride as inexperience or ignorance can actually be a byproduct of too much experience. When Titus tells Kimmy she can't handle New York and should return to Indiana, she says, "The worst thing that has ever happened to me happened in my own front yard."
That Kimmy does okay, and seems okay, is what makes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt more than the sum of its parts.
Kemper's delivery of that line is terrifically nuanced: without putting Titus down, or making comparisons between her experience being kidnapped, brainwashed, and trapped in a bunker for fifteen years and his experience getting rejected at auditions, she calls out a perspective that all too easily confuses enthusiasm with being "basic."
Of course, in another sense, Kimmy is kind of basic. Her preparation for the real world has consisted of reading the same two Babysitters' Club books for fifteen years. I'll be honest: I expected a show with a backstory this risky and elaborate to lean hard on visual gags. What happens, for instance, when a 28-year-old who was kidnapped when she was thirteen tries to do her face for a date?
I prepared myself to witness a sequence of Kemper in various forms of garish clownface, and I was wrong: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt shows impressive restraint (Kimmy's makeup game turns out to be almost disturbingly competent). There are no montages! We get a few sight gags here and there—Kimmy's first purchase as a free woman is a pair of fancy light-up sneakers, for instance—but all things considered, Kimmy actually does okay. She's resourceful and determined and quick on her feet; she started off calling an iPhone a Gameboy, but by the second episode she's having fights with Siri, who she's decided is a jerk.
That Kimmy does okay, and seems okay, is what makes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt more than the sum of its parts. If Tina Fey's new show is partly about the fun of watching a bumpkin in New York, it's also about calling out New York's fantasy about itself as the real jungle where people sink or swim.
That's not new—Fey has always poked fun at New York parochialism. In 30 Rock, Kenneth the Page was far more interesting than anyone he worked with. Kimmy, likewise, is more clear-sighted than the whiny but more worldly New Yorkers with whom she deals—almost none of whom turn out to actually be New Yorkers.
The show gently lampoons the fantasy that New York offers people who "escape" there the chance to finally be "themselves" by making the characters who present as most aggressively New Yorky, Titus and Upper East Side mom Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), outsiders working just as hard as Kimmy to disappear into their versions of normal. The selves they present to the world aren't remotely authentic. They're problematic constructions of what they imagine real New Yorkers to be. (The one exception is Kimmy's landlady Lilian, played by the delightful Carol Kane, whose total lack of interest in performing her New York cred shows she has it.)
Okay, but is it funny? Yes. The show's zany fun comes from watching Kimmy, who's been trapped for over a decade, accidentally call out New Yorkers on the ways they trap themselves. "Hey red," a construction worker yells, "You're making me wish I was those jeans."
"Well, I wish I was your yellow hat!" Kimmy cheerfully yells back. "It's my favorite color!"
The show's zany fun comes from watching Kimmy, who's been trapped for over a decade, accidentally call out New Yorkers on the ways they trap themselves.
Feeling rebuked, the construction worker asks himself some tough questions, and realizes he's gay. "Why do I talk to women like that? What are we doing here, guys?" he asks his crew. "I mean, big picture: does the world need another bank?"
When Kimmy and Jacqueline first meet, Jacqueline says she can't go outside because she's had a face peel. Kimmy sees a portrait of her husband behind her. "Is that your reverend?" she whispers, getting closer. "Did he peel your face? DO YOU NEED HELP?"
"Yes!" Jacqueline sobs, and hires for her $17/hr "under the tables," as Kimmy puts it, to plan her son's birthday party.
But Jacqueline does need help. Kimmy picked up on something real the moment they met. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is about how trauma distorts the distance between appearance and reality, and how coping—Kimmy's method is jumping and yelling "I'm not really here! I'm not really here!"—can morph into dangerous repression. The show teases out the difference between productive kinds of self-reinvention and destructive forms of self-masking. (Kimmy eventually names the latter practice "Buhbreezing," after a product that conceals smells without cleaning them.)
What's most rewarding about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, though, is how this epiphany about insides and outsides repeats and develops over the course of the season. However great Kimmy is at masking her pain to others, it doesn't help her cope with her own interiority. But that cuts both ways: it also means that, no matter how much was done to her on the outside, on the inside, she's unchanged, unbreakable. That's Kimmy's epiphany, a realization so profound it makes her shout "Urethra!" This is still a sitcom, after all.