Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season Two: Pop Culture, PTSD and Persistent Positivity

First and foremost, it’s important to note that in its second season, the theme song to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt continues to be a triumph of the human spirit. And criminally catchy.

For this reason, it’s next to impossible to not go into an episode of Kimmy without a big grin on your face. Rapid-fire punchlines, glorious 90s nostalgia and the show’s irresistible sweetness are sure to keep it there.

Is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt a perfect show? No, but I’m happy to report that through its second season, it gets even closer to the mark.

unbreakable 4Given Netflix’s all-at-once release model, I binged the first season of Kimmy in two days, falling in love with the world and the show’s distinct brand of humor while overlooking a few of its flaws because it’s hard to always spot them when you’re flying through episodes at lightning speed.

It wasn’t until I started season two (which I tried to watch at a slightly healthier pace) that I began to realize the show certainly does have its problem areas. You see, Kimmy has surrounded herself with some unforgettable characters that each have hilarious quirks to explore and can deliver giggle-inducing lines with the best of them, but they also feel like cartoons. And cartoon characters can get a bit annoying after a while, especially when there’s nothing to ground them.

A few episodes into the new season, I started to realize that I really had a hard time fully enjoying the other characters when Kimmy wasn’t around. Titus probably has the largest group of defenders and there’s no denying that Titus Andromedon is a fiercely hilarious character throughout both seasons of the show, but he’s also so vapid, flamboyant and self-absorbed that he can sometimes be hard to deal with in large doses. But hey, what do I know? I was one of the few fans of the show who wasn’t particularly amused by his “Peeno Noir” song last season.

unbreakable 2I only bring up these quibbles because I do think Titus is very funny and his portrayer, Tituss Burgess, does such a tremendous job landing his lines and bringing this very memorable character to the screen. But when we’re being subjected to a storyline about Titus launching a one-man play or getting to play boss for a day at work, I’m not invested or as amused by his schtick (although I loved his co-worker’s line “The hogwash only made it worse!”).

Giving Titus a love interest turned out to be simple, yet brilliant move and the fact that it’s a guy like Mikey makes the whole thing a real winning combination. While Titus is often a little too close to a gay caricature (although one that’s a bit of a slob whose clothes all double as pajamas), Mikey is the antithesis of that without the show trying too hard. Sure, he seems like a masculine construction worker at first glance (and he is), but he’s also much sweeter and more thoughtful than Titus and he provides a nice contrast that makes the showy character’s antics a lot more bearable. Not just bearable, more enjoyable.

My gripes about Titus aren’t grounded in anything other than the fact that I think he’s really funny and the show too often didn’t know how to use him without Kimmy around. Partnering him with Mikey has put the character in a situation that amplifies his comedic potential. The episode where Mikey comes out to his family is probably the strongest example of that (and gets bonus points for the wonderfully weird gag about the grandmother with a puppet head) as Mikey’s big moment is overshadowed by Titus lamenting the fact that he didn’t have an opportunity to be dramatic. By the episode’s end, Mikey makes sure he gets a chance to give his big speech and though Titus’s behavior is technically just as childish and annoying as ever, we get to appreciate it differently as a relationally significant moment for him and Mikey.

Titus also gets bonus points for traveling to my hometown of Titusville, Florida in the season finale and calling it “the place where dreams go to die.” I was dying seeing Titusville show up on a TV show and that description? Accurate.

unbreakable 6Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline has been an even worse offender when it comes to character who simply just irritates when their storyline is not specifically in Kimmy’s orbit. Not only is she a rich, brainless socialite we’ve seen a thousand times over, the character is also Krakowski playing a slight variation of Jenna Maroney. Her vapidness and tone-deaf one-liners can be hysterical when paired with Kimmy but on her own it can become far too much, especially anything to do with her Native American heritage (the lifeless gag that just won’t quit).

Early in season two, there’s an episode where she chooses to stop medicating her son Buckley when she finally has a human moment and realizes what it’s doing to him. It marks the beginning of an arc for the character that actually works very well by the end, but even that episode was way too much Jacqueline for me (as was her tooth crisis, although I did enjoy the random Mentos commercial at the end). Still, pairing her with David Cross and allowing her to fall for a man that is unquestionably repulsive in just about every physical sense but with one of the best hearts you could imagine was a really smart move that has played out very nicely. Their interactions and her realization of her feelings have been pitch perfect and by the end of season two, I was surprised to find myself enjoying Jacqueline scenes sans Kimmy for the first time since the series began.

Alas, the same can’t be said for Lillian. I understand that if you have Carol Kane in your cast, you want to use her as more than the kooky old lady that lives upstairs who delivers a couple killer lines, but that’s where this character shines. Her vendetta against gentrification this season just felt half-baked and never amounted to any sort of real comedy. Same goes for her relationship with Robert Durst that was referenced several unbreakable 5times throughout the season and the infamous Jinx subject was even portrayed a few times by Fred Armisen. I’ve seen this gag praised in several different reviews but it honestly felt lazy to me. Durst is so bizarre he’s funny all by himself but all the jokes were easy lay-ups with nothing interesting to say.

I know, I know, I started out this piece by praising the show and yet it seems like I’ve only offered a string of backhanded compliments at this point. Essentially, the TL; DR version of all of this is that by the backend of the show’s second season, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt tightened up a few of its loose ends and found ways to make the best use of some of its characters. And even if I wouldn’t include Lillian on that list, she still serves her purpose and is hysterical several times throughout this great season.

But ultimately, this show is–unsurprisingly–all about Kimmy.

What Ellie Kemper is doing in her portrayal of this neurotic, damaged apocalypse bunker survivor is nothing short of mesmerizing. She is hopelessly appealing in a way that makes every joke pop just a little bit more and every oddity land with effortless charm. In a performance that often calls for her to behave like a hyperactive, naively optimistic child, she’s able to add layers that convey genuine hurt and anger without ever betraying the tone of the show. She’s spectacular across the board and that really can’t be emphasized enough.

It’s not secret that I’m a huge fan of You’re The Worst and that show’s messy and abrasive nature made it so that it felt right when it handled something as heavy as depression with startling rawness that shifted the series into a drama on a number of occasions through its second season. That choice has its detractors but I thought it was incredibly effective television. It wouldn’t make sense for Kimmy to take that same approach and so it doesn’t. And it’s really a sight to behold the series delve deep into the dark corners of Kimmy’s pain and fear with the same unflinching honesty that a show like Worst is capable of but still managing to maintain the show’s goofy, lighthearted nature.

unbreakable 3Kimmy’s pastel-colored, happy-go-lucky veneer makes it easy for us to forget just how tough and resilient she is. Kimmy’s childlike innocence allows her to add a positive spin to just about any situation and while her naive oversimplifications often make for good comedy, the fact is, they come from a dark place. The show addressed this in a really smart way in episodes like “Kimmy Meets A Celebrity!” where Cyndee confronts her for never having cried during their 15 years in the bunker. It’s moments like this when you realize, oh yeah it’s so cute and funny that she’s full of inexplicable joy all the time, but considering all she’s been through, it’s actually kind of disturbing…

The show sprinkles clues that Kimmy’s arc this season is going to deal more with her facing her dark past during the early episodes when her anxiety manifests in hilarious stress burps. It deals with her PTSD and the lasting effects of whatever she may have endured at the hands of Reverend more directly in “Kimmy Goes to a Hotel!” where she attempts to have sex with Dong for the first time. It’s baffling how funny and ultimately adorable much of this episode was given the terribly sinister subtext to Kimmy’s involuntary resistance to doing the deed. The show sensitively brought her trauma to the forefront while still charming us with a raccoon hotel, a Frozen nightgown, and Joshua Jackson as a wise convenience store employee giving Dawson Creek-inspired dating advice.

Anyone who appreciate good comedy knows that, at its best, it’s a genre that can find hilarity even in the most unpleasant corners of our lives, but not all who try to make funny out of tragedy are successful. And those that immediately come to mind as successful in this regard these days (You’re The Worst, Mom, Orange is the New Black) pull it off by infusing poignant dramatic moments into the script. Kimmy certainly has some serious content but it’s never handled dramatically and yet still somehow never manages to diminish what Kimmy has gone through. That would make the whole thing feel tone-deaf and kind of offensive. Instead, Kemper’s performance is so expressive and sympathetic, you’re laughing your butt off but genuinely rooting her on and experiencing a surprising range of emotions, even as the characters on screen land one outlandish punchline after another. I mean, for crying out loud, at it’s darkest, the show decides to demonstrate Kimmy’s inner turmoil via a demented Disney cartoon playing in her head. Which, of course, feels pretty much perfect for this show.

unbreakable 1The show has done a tremendous job of portraying what a girl suffering arrested development might be like if plopped down in the middle of New York City. She’s got a sort of reckless bravery that only a teenager would have, she’s hopelessly and hilariously gullible and always using pop culture as the lens with which to interpret her surroundings. Of course, her references are a bit dated which leaves her bewildered that the ninja turtles are a fad that stuck around, saddened that all the Backstreet Boys are “the old one” now and being taught by Titus that everyone on the internet talks like Chandler. Pop culture references can sometimes grow tiresome at the rate in which this show uses them but Tina Fey and Robert Carlock obviously know how to employ them effectively and the result is a series that is essentially nostalgia Mecca for any 90s kid.

Speaking of Tina Fey, she appears during the back half of this season with a role that is one of my favorite things she has ever done. As Kimmy’s alcoholic therapist, Andrea (the pronunciation depends on the time of day), is certainly not the most reliable guide, but she does help Kimmy grapple with some of her abandonment issues while Kimmy does her best to keep her from falling off the wagon. Night time Andrea’s disdain for the daytime professional is one of the greatest bits of the season and Fey plays drunk and belligerent (down to farting in an envelope for daytime Andrea to discover) with unhinged brilliance.

Squeezing laughs out of drunk people isn’t exactly reinventing the comedic wheel, but once again, there’s a real honesty to the way Andrea’s alcoholism is handled that makes the comedy hit just a bit harder.

That’s this show’s secret.

It’s so wonderfully weird and funny and has struck this golden formula (especially towards the latter half of this season) that can bring the utter humanity out of any of its characters and have us empathizing for them even as we sit there laughing at their pretty severe flaws. From cartoonish narcissism to monstrously out-of-touch snobbery to alcoholism or unbreakable 7devastating PTSD, this show is remarkably skilled at reminding us that bunker or not, we’re all broken. We’re running from our past somehow. We’re all wrestling with insecurities. We all hate ourselves sometimes for not being brave enough to be our true selves.

I know, not exactly hilarious subject matter but Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is one of those rare shows that can find true comedy in our brokenness. It can come at the darkness dead-on and still somehow end up radiating this infectious light. It is absurd and so very, very silly and never gives up that part of its DNA, even for a second, but it still somehow basically features “life’s greatest horrors” as a series regular.

I talked about some of my issues with the show up top because I’m not blind to them. But in the end, this sweet spot they’ve hit is so unique, I can’t help but just celebrate it. The entire cast had some MVP moments but Ellie Kemper carries this thing and gives such a thoroughly impressive tour-de-force performance, I’m officially beginning her Emmy campaign right now. And not just a nomination; I’m looking for a win here. She’s the not-so-secret weapon that makes this strange and ambitious show reach the incredible heights that it does.

What about you? Did you enjoy season 2 as much as I did? Are my criticisms unfair and should I just shut up and do nothing but gush? It’s certainly open for debate. Comment below!

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