“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” has to be one of the strangest shows I’ve come across in recent times.
Kimmy Schmidt is a survivor. She was abducted some time when she was in the eighth grade by an insane preacher, and forced to live in a bunker with three other women (two of whom were also teenagers at the time of abduction, and the third a Hispanic woman). “The Reverend”, as he makes them call him, tells them their stupidity destroyed the world on 06/06/06, and he has saved these chosen few. Fifteen years on, they are all rescued, and that is how the show starts. It is impossible to miss the bright cheery tone of the show, as though the cast of Glee tried to tackle a sordid issue. From the first episode, we follow Kimmy as she tries to make her way in a crazy new world. She gets a job helping a wealthy trophy wife, Jacqueline (formerly Jackie Lynn and Native American, now blonde with blue eyes and numerous implants). She finds a gay, black and bald (by choice) room mate, the remarkable Titus Andromedon (formerly Ronald Wilkerson, married to a…woman), and a landlady Lillian (whose past is a puzzle but presumably involves numerous escapades from the law). Kimmy is always lost. She can’t tell if a person is holding a camera or a phone. “Phones have maps of Ohio now?” She wears clothes that no teenager in the present (or as she calls it, “the future”) would be caught wearing, she eats an entire bag of candy (because she can). She has read two books in the last fifteen years and she probably forgot a bit of the grammar she learnt in school (“tooken”). Every day is an adventure for her. People know something is off about Kimmy, though they do not know what exactly. An exuberant thirty year old with the vocabulary of a fifteen year old confuses them.
I recently discovered that admitting to someone about watching Game of Thrones might make them look at you like you are a sex fiend, as though you watched five seasons and sat through gruesome murders just to take detailed notes on the different things you could try to rejuvenate your sex life. Kimmy Schmidt could have gone that way too, showing us the depravity humans can be capable of, and confusing many people about whether they are supposed to be horrified or titillated. But it doesn’t take that route. “Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker,” Kimmy mentions, we just don’t see any of it. The show is instead a never ending dose of optimism. Kimmy wants to work hard at having a normal life, from getting her high school diploma to having a boyfriend. The episodes are named this way too: “Kimmy goes to a party!”, “Kimmy is bad at math!”, and so on, complete with exclamation points that match the chirpiness of the protagonist. This isn’t to mean the show treats its premise flippantly.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt also pokes fun of our obsessions through its other characters. Like Jacqueline’s quest for the perfect body, and how much of her self-esteem is tied to this. When Jacqueline takes Kimmy along to a plastic surgeon (Dr. Franff, pronounced that way because he cannot pronounce Grant, owing to all those surgeries), he is fascinated by Kimmy’s appearance. He marvels at how little sun damage has occurred, but is intrigued by how stressed her skin appears. And the scream lines. He wants to know what she has been doing – maybe she was a coal miner or a submarine captain? While this scene plays for laughs on a physical level too, we cannot ignore the story line that informs this show, it’s always there if you scratch the surface.
In the last two episodes, we finally get to meet The Reverend (played by Jon Hamm). He is his own lawyer, and the courtroom scenes observe how the public can warm up to criminals if they are attractive. We find Titus mulling over what a dangerous man The Reverend is, but he is “a very watchable man.” Which brings me to Titus. He is a fabulous character, getting the most outrageous and fun lines. He makes a music video about a black penis. Lyrics, he says, are the least important part of any music video. Attitude is what matters. And attitude is what Titus brings. When Kimmy tells him about a “Spirit Cycle” class she joins – in which the instructor makes women cycle so hard they can’t think, and imparts spiritual mumbo jumbo in the garb of life lessons – Titus calls it “white nonsense”.
The episodes are not all funny. Some of it feels like ideas that didn’t land as well as they could have – the subplots involving Jacqueline being jealous of a robot, or Kimmy’s rich American boyfriend who speaks only British, or even Kimmy’s family. I wonder how this show will progress. Now that The Reverend has been proven guilty, and we know Kimmy is trying her best to adjust, I’m not sure what remains to be seen. The show also loses a little of its novelty over the course of its episodes, what felt surreal earlier begins to feel a lot like farce towards the end. (Though we can always count on Titus to liven up the proceedings.)