Thursday, March 12, 2015

'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' Tries So Hard, Gosh Dang It!

Here's the thing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: it is a sitcom based on a woman recovering from the most traumatic thing that pretty much could happen to her. And as such the humor in it is strange, sometimes dark as hell, and deals with really intense subject matter. But it's also really chipper and upbeat and fun. So if that doesn't sound like the kind of thing you would enjoy watching, I'm gonna suggest that you might not enjoy the show. It's not everyone's cup of tea.

However, if that is something you might enjoy watching, then I would heartily suggest that you binge-watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt sometime in the very near future because this show is positively delightful, and while it does have some really weird snags, for the most part it's a pleasantly feminist, genuinely hilarious, and wholly original sitcom, the likes of which you have definitely never seen before.

The show was created and produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (who did 30 Rock) for NBC has actually ended up on Netflix after NBC actually watched it and realized that they couldn't get away with showing this on network television. And, to be fair, the show does work better a binge-watch anyway. The premise is high concept as hell: Four women are rescued from an underground bunker where they've been held against their will by an insane cult leader for fifteen years. After a quick round of interviews on cable television, the women are sent back home to Indiana, but one of them decides to stay in New York and make a fresh start.

That's it. That's the show.

Our heroine, Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), is the fourth "mole woman" as they come to be known, except she's in deep denial and likes to pretend that nothing weird ever happened to her. She certainly wasn't kidnapped at age fourteen and then spent the next fifteen years eating baked beans out of a Marlin's hat!

Kimmy has an unquenchable love for life, which makes sense, given the whole "trapped in a bunker for a decade and a half" thing, but she really doesn't have any actual life skills. She has a middle school education, thirteen thousand dollars in cash, and one set of clothes. Then she loses the money.

But here's the thing that makes the show work: you're never really that worried for Kimmy because as she herself puts it, the worst thing that could possibly happen to her already has. What the heck else can life even throw at her? And that's why the show ultimately works so well - Kimmy Schmidt is unbreakable, not because she's never been tested, but because someone tried very hard to break her for many years, and failed. Sort of like how it was stupid to call the Titanic unsinkable when no one had ever tried to sink it, a show like this wouldn't make sense unless Kimmy really had gone through a genuine trauma. Since she has, all the other stuff in her life becomes funny and frivolous, because, seriously, what's the worst that could happen?

So she finds a roommate and a place to live and even gets herself a job. Her roommate, Titus (Tituss Burgess), is the only one in the city who knows about Kimmy's past, and they encourage each other to pursue their dreams. In Kimmy's case, that dream is to finish middle school, and in Titus' it's to become a famous actor. But still. Titus is deeply skeptical of Kimmy at first, because she's super cheerful and weird and dresses like a child, but eventually he opens up and helps her figure out how to navigate the world. They develop a friendship which is both refreshingly healthy, and also hilarious. Plus it's nice that the show actually gives Titus his own storylines pretty regularly.

Kimmy's job is also entertaining, but in a very different sense. She gets hired to work as a nanny for an incredibly wealthy Manhattan family. The Voorhees family is every terrible stereotype about rich New Yorkers mushed together: they're wasteful, rude, oblivious to modern life, and it's only because Kimmy is literally unbreakable that she can survive her job. 

Fortunately, it's not all bad. Kimmy's boss, Mrs. Voorhees (Jane Krakowski), is a genuinely good person, albeit a deeply out of touch and weird one. She's a kind woman who is trapped by her own insecurities in a marriage that's making her miserable, and you really feel for her. Sometimes.

And of course there are storylines running through the show about how Kimmy relates to the other "mole women". What's interesting here, though, is that these plots are really about how each woman processes the trauma in her past. We see very clearly that Kimmy's choice is to pretend it never happened, and I really appreciate that the show paints that as unhealthy and bad. The other women, however, are just as screwed up. Cyndee (Sara Chase) uses her status as a mole woman to get free stuff, fulfilling her childhood dreams because people feel sorry for her. She is shameless about the whole thing, even managing to get a boyfriend out of the deal.

Meanwhile, Donna Maria (Sol Miranda) uses her fame as the one mole woman who didn't speak English to market a line of mole sauces and become a restaurant tycoon. Also, it's eventually revealed that Donna Maria, who is by far the least insane of the women, actually knew English by the second year of captivity, but pretended she didn't as a defense mechanism. It's played as a joke, but, you know, it really makes sense.

And there's Gretchen (Lauren Adams), the only woman who joined the cult willingly, who remains brainwashed and keeps trying to get them all to go back into the bunker. In a very real sense, Gretchen is the one you feel the worst for, because Gretchen never really got out. She's still there in her mind. "I like being brainwashed," she yells at one point, "I have a clean brain! You could eat off my brain!"

Which brings us to the real overarching theme of the show: bunkers. Or, really, being trapped. Because all of the characters on the show are in some way trapped in their own fears, insecurities, and the expectations of others. 

Mrs. Voorhees is trapped by her need for the approval of white male authority figures. Titus is trapped by his own insecurities and belief that he is a failure of an actor. Kimmy's love interest later in the season, Dong Nguyen (Ki Hong Lee), is trapped by his fears of being deported and his low income. Everyone is trapped by something, the show seems to say. The key is to figure out how to escape that bunker.

The show is worth watching as just a very funny sitcom - because trust me, it's hysterical - but personally, I really like it as an exploration of how to move on from trauma. Kimmy might be a magical fairy princess of a character, a virtual unicorn of cheer and good humor, but she's also a deeply traumatized young woman frozen at the age when she was hurt. The show makes it clear that Kimmy was emotionally and mentally abused, and hints that she might have been sexually abused as well. And while it does blow past those issues for the most part, it still brings them up.

Kimmy's determination to leave her old life entirely behind is shown as harmful because she has nightmares and strange phobias and clearly bad coping mechanisms. When she feels she's screwed up she calls herself "garbage". She has flashbacks. A plastic surgeon even comments that she has "scream lines". And Kimmy herself recognizes that her life has been irrevocably changed.

I like that. I like the idea of a sitcom underlaid with a woman healing herself.

There is some stuff that's less awesome in the show. Their representations of race, for example, are at best weird and at worst tone deaf and borderline offensive. Specifically, there are two storylines that everyone feels weird about: the revelation that Mrs. Voorhees is secretly Native American, and the whole situation surrounding Dong Nguyen.

The Mrs. Voorhees revelation comes early on in the show when Jacqueline Voorhees, upon being asked about her background for one of her son's reports, flashes back to her past as "Jackie Lynn", a rebellious Native American teenager who decided to get blue contacts and dye her hair blonde in order to assimilate to the larger culture. 

There are a couple of things strange about this. First, Jane Krakowski, though a gifted actress, is not particularly convincing as a Native American woman. Though I suppose that is the point. The scenes are really funny, but there's an amount of dissonance involved in seeing the all white Krakowski pretend to be a Native American trying to "pass" as white.

But, ultimately, I think these scenes do work because the burden of humor is on "Jackie Lynn". Her parents (played by Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster) are not the butt of the joke, she is. And the joke is about how exposure to pop culture has twisted Jackie Lynn's brain around. Her parents are shown to be reasonable, loving human beings, and Jackie Lynn is the ungrateful weirdo.

The Dong Nguyen storyline, however, doesn't work because Dong himself is frequently the joke. In addition to hiring a Korean actor who is doing what can only be described as a "vaguely Asian" accent, the story uses Dong as the butt of the joke a little too often for comfort. There are endless jokes about how his name means "penis", how he has different names for common television shows because they were translated into Vietnamese, and how he's all sheltered and shy and uncomfortable with women.

Now, granted, some of these are tempered by jokes about Kimmy. Her name also means penis in Vietnamese! She accidentally keeps making obscene hand gestures! She too has no real understanding of popular culture! But the show never really makes us feel that Kimmy is the butt of the joke in the way that Dong is. It's not show-endingly bad, but it's not great.

For the most part, however, the show really does work. Kimmy's endless enthusiasm and optimism are a compelling antidote and reasonable reaction to her circumstances, and there's something really cool about watching a show where the main character already knows the worst case scenario and is confident in her abilities to handle it. She's not insecure, she's just weird.

So, for me at least, this show comes out to a net positive. I really really enjoyed it. I watched it all in two days. And while I don't love how race is handled, I do appreciate that the show tried to go there. It tried to handle race in the same irreverent tone as the rest of the material, and even though it fails, I appreciate the effort. Which I think is the general consensus on this show: it might not always get the tone right or make the point it was aiming for, but it tries really hard, gosh dang it! It tries, and actually, that does count for a lot.

It's worth watching. And it's worth renewing, because I have a sneaking suspicion that all of this weirdness and occasional inconsistency could be fixed by having another season to spend with these lovable weirdos. I mean, maybe not, but I'm willing to give them another try.

Also the potshots at the media are great.