“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is Funny, But Has Its Flaws

ellie kemper on unbreakable kimmy schmidt

On Friday, Netflix released the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a new sitcom that’s the brainchild of Tina Fey and 30 Rock showrunner Robert Carlock. The show follows Ellie Kemper as the titular Kimmy Schmidt, a woman who spent 15 years locked in an underground bunker as part of a doomsday cult and is now trying to make a life for herself in New York.

The pilot is by far the weakest episode of the series, but it was good enough to draw me in for at least another two episodes. By then, I was hooked.

After Kimmy and the other “mole women” in the cult are told that, actually, the apocalypse hasn’t arrived and they’re free to leave the bunker, Kimmy makes a New York-based media appearance to talk about her 15-year ordeal. She realizes that she doesn’t have anything to return home to, and so she decides to start a new life in New York. After finding a roommate named Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) and meeting his landlord Lillian (Carol Kane), Kimmy picks up a job as a nanny for the two stepchildren of Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski).

In many ways, Unbreakable could be viewed as an extension of the 30 Rock universe. Krakowski’s character seems to be an amalgam of Jenna Maroney and Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy. She’s rich, narcissistic, and completely out of touch with anyone in a lower economic class. Additionally, there are times where Burgess’ character is used as a stand-in for Tracy Morgan’s Tracy Jordan. While working as a waiter/performer at a theme restaurant, Titus realizes that the world treats him better in costume (as a werewolf) than as himself, a black man. What does he do? Naturally, he opts to stay in costume at all times. Consider it “Black Like Me” for the Twilight fan.

tituss on unbreakable kimmy schmidt

Tituss Burgess plays Titus, Kimmy’s brand-new roommate.

To Kimmy Schmidt, everything is new and wonderful, while at the same time awful. That is, the world around her seems determined to crush her, but her wild optimism overcomes this time and again. This is what makes her “unbreakable.” In that way, she’s somewhat the antithesis of 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon. For every “blurg” offered by Lemon, Schmidt counters every problem with the mindset that anything can be overcome if you just take things 10 seconds at a time. She’s the eternal optimist.

The “small town girl moves to the big city” prompt has been used by dozens of sitcoms and movies, and if not for Kemper’s peppy delivery, Unbreakable could easily feel unoriginal. Adding in the fact that Schmidt has been cut off from the world for years, one could even draw comparisons to a film like 13 Going on 30 or just about any story that employs the concept of someone being pushed into the future not entirely equipped to handle.

The show isn’t without its problems, however. Much as 30 Rock was frequently criticized for making jokes at the expense of someone’s weight, intelligence, gender identity, race, or sexual orientation, Unbreakable falls into many of these same traps. For instance, there’s a plot line involving an Asian man named Dong, a confusing foray into Jacqueline’s Native American roots, and a running joke about how Jacqueline doesn’t need to worry that her husband will be unfaithful with his secretary because she’s fat.

Actor Ki Hong Lee play’s Kimmy’s love interest—but why’d they have to make his name a joke?

Watching the show, I couldn’t help but think about the horrible real-life story of the Cleveland girls kidnapped and held for nearly 11 years by Ariel Castro. Down to the neighbor’s auto-tuned viral video reaction, the Castro kidnappings share a few similarities to the fictional story of Schmidt and the three other “mole women.” While slightly off-putting, the show managed to steer far enough away from the “ripped from the headlines” route they could have traveled down, and instead create a new, fun narrative of their own.

Unbreakable was originally developed by NBC, and was slated to run during the 2014-2015 season. Ultimately, though, the network axed it, selling it off to Netflix, who signed on for two seasons up-front. NBC’s decision might be the best thing to happen to the show. Unbreakable is the type of show you want to watch over the course of a weekend, not three months. This is the type of show that lends itself to storylines that don’t have that typical start and finish structure. This show was made to be streamed; it’s the TV equivalent of a run-on sentence, and I love it.

Related Reading: Sitcoms are the Golden Land of Feminist TV Characters.

Parker Molloy is a freelance writer. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and The Guardian, among other outlets.

 
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13 Comments Have Been Posted

I hate the storyline of

I hate the storyline of Jacqueline's past. I wonder if Native Americans find it offensive.

I watched 2 episodes and

I watched 2 episodes and couldn't take any more. The Jane Krakowski character felt warmed over from 30 Rock and the "she missed the last 15 years" theme felt like a variation on "Liz's brother is stuck in 1985".

The thing about using racism in humor is that in order for the joke to work, it has to be really, really funny. There has to be a payoff for bringing up such awful stereotypes. The jokes in UKS just don't do the trick for me. I felt the same way with Neil Patrick Harris's joke at the Oscars: "Today we honor Hollywood's best and whitest--er, brightest". Bringing up a terrible reality and merely slapping a sarcastic tone on top of it seems lazy, and it doesn't say anything new.

Some praising the show say the old racist jokes are presented with a new angle--this justifies the writers "going there." But the Long Duk Dong thing is over 30 years old now. Was it worth naming a character that? I'm ready for something new.

I thought the show was

I thought the show was alright until around episode 5 & then I couldn't stop watching! Maybe give it another go?

Please don't like this show.

I couldn't stand the show but with so many people claiming to love it I 'gave it another go' and I've been in a terrible mood since. It is nauseating to hear people say this show has merits. I just see the worst aspects of society and television played out. Some article I read was equating Kimmy to a sage because she could offer advice to New Yorkers based on her 15 years in captivity. I really just don't want to accept this show's success. It reminds me of when Bush was sworn in over Gore. Like, oh boy, the masses are drinking more of the kool aid. Just when I thought the future was looking brighter something like this suggests there may be no hope for Americans.

This show is an amazing

This show is an amazing representation of PTSD.
Years ago, I was briefly involved with a man who fancied himself a cult leader. He abducted, drugged, and raped me.
This show made me sob, and then immediately burst into laughter. Kimmy's statements about the cult hit home so hard, and then immediately flipped and became hilarious. I didn't think that I would ever laugh about anything so similar to my situation.
It is problematic, but what it gets right, is SO right.

Just wanted to point out that

Just wanted to point out that the "running joke about how Jacqueline doesn't need to worry that her husband will be unfaithful with his secretary because she's fat." was to show how shallow and terrible Jacqueline and her husband are.

Totally agree Sierra, thanks

Totally agree Sierra, thanks for reminding us!

And the "fat secretary"

And the "fat secretary" points out herself "I get mine" quite sassy. I liked that.

I thought Dong's plotline was

I thought Dong's plotline was cute and so much more than just a joke about his name meaning penis (as does Kimmy's name, right? It's one of the reasons they say they're perfect for each other). I think his role addresses immigration issues, and he is a serious love interest for Kimmy and they start as friends bij helping each other out. So he's not a completely fleshed out character? Many of the supporting characters aren't (the least ones are the white men in there, Beekerman, the reverent, the homework guy. Which is something I am not sorry about at all btw). Perhaps we see so few Asian men in these kinds of roles that when there is one, they have to be everything all at once.

Although I didn't like Jacqueline's Native American roots story line so much, for me it never feels at the expense of Native Americans. That's not to say casting a blond white lady for such a role is unfortunate, but I was always rooting for her parents ("It's everybody's MTV" made me laugh), never against them.

I'm glad you were rooting for

I'm glad you were rooting for Jacqueline's parents, but if you're hanging around this site, you probably already have some interest in cultural understanding, equality, etc. anyway. What I worry about is my Vietnamese nephews, and what it will be like to grow up with a dearth of representation for them in the media. And what it's like for their non-Asian peers to view this kind of thing, without the benefit of nuance or cultural perspective. The takeaway is that Vietnamese people can be named Dong, haha! Whether it is the show's intention or not, it perpetuates the image.

I disagree about some of

I disagree about some of these things being problematic. The fact that there is an Asian man playing the romantic league, I think, should be given some credit. A joke is made later that his name means penis in English, and hers means penis in Vietnamese. His character does play a stereotype, yes, but it and many other aspects of the show do paint a pretty true (and hilarious) picture of New York at the moment.

(Jacqueline's Native American past was kind of extremely awful though...)

I've seen a lot of people

I've seen a lot of people critique the Native American plot element, and while I would not want to tell others how to feel on the subject for me it stood out as stark cultural commentary rather than a racist swipe or a mean jab. Jacqueline is a character obsessed with other people telling her what to do to the point where she feels she can not be herself for fear of losing, something that her parents argue against and try to help her overcome. Yet her vanity and obsession with a glamorous lifestyle lead her down an unsatisfying path, and eventually she turns around and sees that it is okay to be who you are, not who MTV tells you to be. Growing up in a remote or rural culture where television tells you constantly you *need* to be one thing and not the other, her character growth felt strong and resonating, and that she was revealed to be Native American really made the arc feel different, more special and perhaps even more poignant -- especially since we saw two Native American actors (a group majorly underrepresented in media) go toe to toe with Krakowski and deliver great jokes matched with personable dialogue. I recognize that the revelation she is actually Native American can be off-putting to some, but I thought that made the message (and the casting of Krakowski as a stereotypical blonde white rich lady) all the more powerful when looking at how our culture dominated and undermined theirs; that, and the "Indian giving" joke was on point.

The weakest part of the show

The weakest part of the show is Titus. Over the top and not funny.

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