Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
“‘Females are strong as hell’ according to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s theme song, but they’re mostly white.”
Title: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-3
Creators: Robert Carlock 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Tina Fey 👩🏼🇺🇸
Directors: 11 ♂ and 6 ♀ (including 3 POC)
Writers: Robert Carlock 👨🏼🇺🇸 (39 eps), Tina Fey 👩🏼🇺🇸 (39 eps), Sam Means 👨🏼🇺🇸 (9 eps), and various (8 ♂ and 8 ♀ , including 1 POC)
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
Tina Fey’s attempt at millennial comedy post-30 Rock brings us a ripped-from-the-headlines premise about a rescued Indiana mole woman named Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), who makes a fresh start in New York City. Fey enlists many familiar faces—including Jane Krakowski, Tituss Burgess, and Jon Hamm—and even pops in herself for a cameo or two. Reminiscent of her previous NBC series, Netflix’s Kimmy Schmidt is filled with quotable one-liners (“Hashbrown no filter”) and fun pop culture spoofs (Titus “Lemonade-ing”). Yet, unlike network TV, which churned out weekly episodes relatively quickly and ensured that many of the jokes remained timely and topical, the streaming service dumps an entire season’s worth of episodes all at once, meaning certain references come off as dated and passé by the time viewers are ready to binge-watch.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
While 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon helped brand Fey as a feminist icon for the Lean In generation, Kimmy serves as an idiosyncratic filter through which we can experience the quirks of urban living and the modern condition. Because of Kimmy’s past trauma, her intellectual growth is stunted, reminiscent of the “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope, in which “female characters...have the minds of children but the bodies of mature women.” Other times, she seems aged beyond her years. Perhaps the punchlines regarding her lack of understanding for technology is the direct result of an older writer trying to formulate a young person, which explains why Kimmy frequently acts like a middle-aged woman trapped in the body of millennial.
Meanwhile, Kimmy’s employer Jacqueline represents the inverse as an aging socialite clinging to her youth. The part feels like a natural continuation from Krawkoski’s role as Jenna Maroney, an aging actress on 30 Rock. The show seems to be most in its element when skewering white Upper East Side wives like Jacqueline and her Season 2 rival Deirdre Robespierre (Anna Camp). Legendary funny woman Carol Kane helps round out the cast as Lillian, Kimmy’s bohemian landlady.
The running themes of resilience and survival push the show into the vicinity of feminism, though it’s more like Feminism Lite accompanied by occasional dark humor pertaining to kidnapping and rape.
There are a lot of big swings and big misses when it comes to the representation of non-white characters. Arguably the real star, Burgess brings his big personality to the screen while dishing out all the funniest lines as the narcissistic Titus Andromedon, Kimmy’s frequently out-of-work actor roommate. As the sole black lead, Titus gets away with dropping such quips as “What white nonsense is this?” Yet because of his enormous talent, Burgess successfully bypasses playing a mere stereotype by bringing his character into the land of the absurd. The episode in which Titus discovers he’s treated better dressed as a werewolf than as himself, a black man, offers a perfect blend of wackiness and racial commentary.
The series strives for diversity, with Daveed Diggs of Hamilton fame appearing as Kimmy’s crush in Season 3; however, many other POC characters don’t fare so well. Although it was refreshing to see Kimmy’s love interest in Season 1 played by Korean American actor Ki Hong Lee, his broken-English-speaking, Vietnamese immigrant character Dong Nguyen, whose name was created solely so the writers could make a dick joke, is embarrassingly tired.
It’s also quite puzzling why the writers insisted on expanding their gag—having a blonde white woman play a character hiding her Native American heritage—into Jacqueline’s entire Season 3 plotline. At least the show uses the opportunity to critique the mascot of a certain Washington, D.C., football team and cast actual Native actors (Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster) to play Jacqueline’s parents.
But perhaps the opening song, parodying the way poor black people are often denigrated by the media only to become “meme-ified,” should have tipped us off to the clunky handling of race that permeates the series. Hands down, the most unfunny moment of the entire series occurs during “Kimmy Goes to a Play!” (Season 2, Episode 3), in which Titus dons yellowface in order to mount a one-man show about his past life as a geisha only to meet with Asian American protestors, who are not only the story’s antagonists but also the butt of the joke. The only explanation I can come up with for this subplot existing at all is that Fey and/or her writers felt the need to respond to public criticism regarding the show’s racism. Congruent with the rest of Fey’s body of work, the series centers on whiteness, and would be nearly unwatchable if it wasn’t for Titus.
Again, Titus’ flamboyance straddles the line between a caricature and celebration of queerness. He manages to move beyond playing a gay sidekick to carrying an independent storyline that features finding and losing love. While the exploration isn’t particularly deep, his relationship with Mikey (Mike Carlsen), a recently out-of-the-closet construction worker, does run across all three season, making it one of the more significant romances in the series.
Mediaversity Grade: B (4.06/5)
For a comedy that’s hoping to offer some form of commentary about feminism, it fails to demonstrate an understanding of intersectionality. “Females are strong as hell,” according to Kimmy Schmidt’s theme song, but they’re mostly white. If nothing else, the series functions as a vehicle to showcase Burgess’ comedic brilliance, and with each passing season I keep wishing for Titus to have a show of his own.