Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. The Reverend

Originally written June 6, 2020…

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt began during a more hopeful era. It tells a story that is outrageous but ultimately optimistic. Created by Tina Fey, the series follows Kimmy Schmidt, who was recently found after being held captive in a doomsday bunker. Lacking the knowledge that comes with growing up and experiencing the outside world, Kimmy experiences a series of misadventures as she tries to figure out adulthood in New York. Although the series ended with some loose ends, in the end, Kimmy became an independent adult both capable of supporting herself and happy. The show made pointed commentary on a number of aspects of society, including the role women occupy in society– thanks in part to her friend, Jacqueline, who starts as an upper east side trophy wife. In this “choose your journey” follow up, released about a year after the series ended, Kimmy is preparing to get married when she learns that there might be another bunker. Daniel Radcliffe is delightful as her fiancé, Frederick Windsor, twelfth in line for the British throne.

I only just watched this special today, but since the original series ended I have watched 30 Rock, which was not only created by Tina Fey, but starred her. This has provided me with a better sense of Tina Fey’s style as a creator, and enabled me to catch the references to the previous series. The “choose your path” style is well done, and considerably lighter than Netflix’s previous highly publicized attempt, Bandersnatch. For one, in this episode, you don’t have to watch on a computer to make the choices. For another, because Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is considerably lighter than Black Mirror, the episode does its best to help the audience meet the correct ending. Some choices will reverberate through the episode, while others will end with a member of the cast pointing out that the ending is the wrong one. Some choices provide additional scenes or change the jokes. Overall, it’s a lot of fun. *coaxes toward a happy ending

Although I enjoyed it, it feels very out of place right now. This is a time of fear not only in the United States, but globally. Kimmy’s adventures take her not only out of New York, but into an Indiana State Penitentiary and the middle-of-nowhere West Virginia. Some of the jokes– the worst-case scenarios– feel all too real (so far I’ve encountered an anti-metoo movement and a robot apocalypse) in 2020. So, on the one hand, I appreciate Kimmy’s hopeful nature and how she ties up the remaining loose ends with a happy ending, but on the other it feels like content from another time (which makes sense, since I’m sure it was made last year). After watching shows like Rupaul’s Drag Race, Saturday Night Live, and The Masked Singer include socially distant quarantined episodes, it feels very strange to watch something that was released less than a month ago depict a world that is not only kinder and more hopeful, but alive and active.

Last fall I began my Master’s Program, in which I study television. I’ve learned a lot of things about the industry and content– the increasing number of streaming platforms (Disney+, Peacock, HBOMax) has been particularly interesting and provided fascinating discussion. In our last few weeks of the spring semester, however, our speculation turned towards what COVID means for TV/film production. So, I couldn’t help but imagine how dark and sad Kimmy’s world would be if it were anything like this one. We already knew that Kimmy’s world was a brighter one, but never has it been clearer. Content production is starting up again; what will storylines look like? What do I/we/audiences WANT them to look like? While it has long been in my nature to try to avoid terrible news and do my best to forget about it, the remote episodes have been strangely comforting. It is a reminder of the fact that COVID, at least, is a global pandemic, something connecting all of humanity right now. More and more often when I look outside I see beautiful summer weather and it feels weird to be inside (even though that is generally most of my summers because heat and sun), but the reminders of our shared experience make staying inside feel less like a personal fault. Are these reminders important/needed/wanted?

It leads me to my larger question: what responsibility do content creators have, if any? Should content be in production right now? This fall what will we want to see? Last semester I began researching binge-watching and re-watching (and binge re-watching). There are probably millions of hours of content that already exist. Netflix and Friends are a perfect example. Would legacy TV (not streaming/On Demand) benefit from re-airing old content, or would that be a step closer towards the end of legacy? I have many questions about the implications of industry choices. This is my way of coping (also crochet dolls, which I WILL be posting pictures of eventually), I suppose. It is not the biggest issue right now by any means, but it is relevant. Things will never be the way they were before this year. Currently, first amendment rights are being threatened, which may have a large impact on what content gets made and what messages are spread about this year. COVID and the production issues surrounding it have almost taken a backseat to the many protests, riots, and calls for action/change. Many episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit have been advertised as ripped from the headlines; before this year, I would have expected our current situation to be covered, but now I’m not sure even how you would do that, let alone if it will be possible.

This turned very depressing very quickly. My general point is that with all the post apocalyptic media produced (original Twilight Zone and Hunger Games come to mind), you would think that efforts would be made to fight back and try to create a world that doesn’t look like a terrifying dictatorship created thanks to a zombie virus (so many post-apocalyptic zombies viruses…). So, do programs like this Kimmy Schmidt special help or hurt? The special is satirical but is ultimately optimistic. These fictional worlds were something to strive for (Friends depicts a waitress living with only two roommates in Manhattan), but these protests are a huge reminder that these worlds were not so optimistic for everyone. Going back to how things were isn’t a good thing and growth only comes through pain. So, while I appreciate this light hearted special and the choices it makes, I am still left feeling uncomfortable. I can imagine, however, that I would’ve enjoyed it more had I watched it right when it was released.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Finale

Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt recently released its final episodes, the second half of season 4. Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the show follows Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), a woman who was kidnapped as a teenager and has spent the last 15 years living in an underground bunker, under the impression that the world had ended. Now free, Kimmy decides to move to New York City where she finds a cheap apartment with a quirky roommate and and even quirkier landlady (Tituss Burgess and Carol Cane) and employment as an assistant to a wealthy upper east side woman with too much time and money on her hands (Jane Krakowski). Jon Hamm makes recurring appearances as her charismatic kidnapper.

New York is very different from her small town in Indiana and Kimmy’s naiveté is demonstrated not only as a small town girl in the big city, but as an adult woman who missed growing up– her last experience in the outside world was as a teenager in the midwest. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt uses outrageous and surreal situations and characters to make its point. There are references and parodies throughout to other works, such as The Nanny Diaries (2007), Mary Tyler Moore, Sliding Doors (1998), and others. While it approaches being a millennial realistically (ie no money and poor job prospects), the show does not hesitate to create outrageous and seemingly impossible situations (ie sentient robots in the workplace). Still, Kimmy remains ever the optimist even as she learns more and more about the world she missed.

When I rewatched the snow in preparation for this post, I realized that I was half expecting it all to be a dream. While it doesn’t end that way, surrealism seems to win out in the end, giving everyone a happily ever after. Some plot threads are left unresolved, while others are tied up too quickly, but it’s not an entirely unsatisfying way to end the story. 

At its core, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a story about social politics. While it often employs hyperbole and surrealism to get its point across, some of the situations are unfortunately not that far from reality. In another show, The Good Place, there’s a line in season 1 where a male character claims to have slept with a female, who denies it. His response: “Yeah, but who are they going to believe. Me or a woman?” This show similarly isn’t afraid to go there. Kimmy’s kidnapper almost goes free during trial because he is a charismatic white man.

Over and over, the show examines the effect race, gender, and sexuality have on your life. Jokes are constantly made about all three, with throwaway lines that treat horrible behavior like it’s normal, referring to behaviors or treatment that is accepted as fact based on stereotypes. There are also impossible situations presented as normal to make a point. For example, in the first season,  Kimmy’s roommate, Titus, finds himself treated better as a werewolf than he did as a black man. Later, Kimmy’s employer– and later friend– Jacqueline is revealed to secretly be a Native American, rather than a white woman. As a wealthy white woman she is still shucked aside for a younger model by her husband, but as a Native American woman she is used later used for PR for her boyfriend’s family, the owners of the Washington Redskins. 

The overall message has to do with Kimmy not wanting to accept things for how they are. Having missed 15 years of societal evolution, and lacking the cynicism of an adult, she brings to light things that everyone else takes for granted. Ever the optimist, Kimmy just wants to help people and change the world, eventually realizing that she can’t change the adults, but she can have an impact on the adults children will become. Much like the show does, Kimmy creates a fictional work (a novel) designed to hold up a mirror to society. 

Interestingly, while Titus and Jacqueline find satisfying romantic relationships as the series close, Kimmy does not. (Nor does landlady Lilian, an older woman who continues to defy and meet expectation.) While she has a few romances through the series, for Kimmy, a happily ever after isn’t about finding a man. I actually found this jarring, which is disappointing that this is what we’ve come to expect instinctually. Meanwhile, gay serial dater Titus ends the series with a husband and children. There’s a message about happiness not necessarily being what you expect, but in the end I think each character met a satisfying end to their arc.