Second season of ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ bests first season

The first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was all about how Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) gets acquainted with a world that has changed during her 15 years living in a bunker with a maniacal cult leader and her fellow victims. Because she’s so strong and resilient, Kimmy was able to carve out a life of some normalcy – she got a job, made new friends, even started to date. Most people take these kinds of life markers for granted, but Kimmy was entering a new adolescence at 30.

The second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt looks at the damage Kimmy suffered in that bunker. Though she’s smart, perky, and extremely competent, Kimmy is also bruised. The writers barely hinted at the dark trauma, and for the most part, even the worst parts of Kimmy’s imprisonment were played for laughs. But in the second season, Tina Fey and company are willing to push the character into new emotional depths. She still maintains her rigorous positive outlook on life, but throughout the second season we also see cracks in her upbeat facade.

The first season ended with Kimmy successfully sending the Reverend Gary (Jon Hamm) to jail. Meanwhile her best friend Tituss (Titus Burgess) finds out he’s married. And Kimmy’s socialite boss/friend Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) reconnects with her Lakota roots. And landlady Lillian (Carol Kane), who was rather under served last  season gets her own plot in which she futilely battles against the oncoming gentrification of her neighborhood.

Kimmy’s journey to fulfillment is riddled with obstacles. Though she finds a job at a Christmas store, her dogged commitment to her friends causes her to lose it; her love for Dong (Ki Hong Lee) causes her much heartache, and though the two try to reconcile and pick up their attraction, it ends disastrously; but the most important thing going in Kimmy’s life is her disintegrating self-control.

Because Kimmy was defined by her strength, it was easy for her to fall back on it, rather than deal with what kinds of wrong the bunker did to her. But in the second season, she’s starting to exhibit some symptoms of PTSD that were merely hinted at in the first season: she’s triggered by certain stimuli, she has unresolved issues with Velcro, and whenever she mentions the bunker, she retches uncontrollably and belches foully. To this end, we get a wonderful recurring character, Andrea Bayden (Tina Fey), a horrible shit show of a person who’s a superb analyst and psychologist, but also a hopeless drunk. What makes the episodes with Andrea work so well is that though her character’s alcoholism is funny (in the way that Fey plays it), it’s also very sad, highlighting yet another damaged character. It won’t be a surprise to many viewers to see that as much as Kimmy needs Andrea’s help, she also wants to save her doctor, too. There’s a wonderful moment of epiphany for Kimmy at the end of the Andrea story arc that fully explains why Kimmy is so hellbent on helping people, even at the expense of her own mental health. It’s a profound realization that isn’t pat nor easy – and the story line ends rather bleakly for Kimmy.

Along with Tina Fey, we also get Lisa Kudrow guesting as Kimmy’s mother Lori-Ann, a disaster of a parent who spends her life riding roller coasters. Like Fey, Kudrow is perfectly cast as the fey, somewhat distant and scattered mother, but the writers are careful to imbue Lori-Ann with poignancy. Like Kimmy, Lori-Ann’s life largely became defined by the kidnapping: she was either a figure of pity or a figure of derision. She’s not off the hook for her neglectful parenting, but she isn’t necessarily pillared by it, either. Like every other character on the show, she’s flawed and very human.

Part of Kimmy’s life involves her work. She’s industrious and good at her job. The problem is her job left when Jacqueline left for her parents’ reservation. Jacqueline’s Native American heritage is tricky to play (and the backlash was spoofed in one of the episodes), but the writers just managed to push the story along by adding great comedy and sentiment. Since Jacqueline’s divorce and exile from Manhattan high society, she’s become a transitional figure: she doesn’t belong in her old world, but she doesn’t belong with her parents, either. They not-so-gently kick her out, and Jacqueline decides to return to Manhattan, humbled and poorer (though not poor), and vows to use her wealth and frayed society connections to help Native American causes. Making Jacqueline altruistic is an interesting choice, given that she’s often a monster of selfishness.

Like Kimmy, Jacqueline is looking for a mate, but this isn’t about love. She believes that her worth lies mainly in her beauty. And if she wants to raise any money for her cause, she needs to bag herself a rich man. She gets a sidekick in her endeavors, Mimi Kanasis (Amy Sedaris), a fellow trophy wife who has been thrown aside. And though Kimmy is willing to be on hand to be Jacqueline’s accomplice, their relationship changes as they are no longer employer/employee, but friends. But because Jacqueline is so far up her own ass, she often doesn’t recognize just how entitled and awful she can be, which causes a deep strain between the two. Again, the writers gift Krakowski and Kemper with some great and hilarious scenes together as they try to figure out their new relationship, which is missing what defined their former relationship: their lopsided power dynamic.

For Tituss, the second season is all about self-discovery. His career as a singer-actor is going no where, and though he’s very talented, he’s struggling to make any kind of progress. But thankfully the writers give Tituss a love interest, Mikey (Mike Carlson), the construction worker from season one, who sexually harassed Kimmy on the street (to no avail, due to her naive nature), and who later came out. Carlson is an excellent addition to the cast because he brings such warmth and stability in Titus’ life – and he and Burgess have great chemistry and the relationship grounds what can be a rather cartoony character.

Speaking of cartoony characters, the only mildly sour note of the first season – Lillian – was fixed when the writers decided to make the character more than just a wacky neighbor. Carol Kane is a great actress with crack comic timing, but her large, saucer eyes always seem on the verge of tears, which works out great for her story line: her neighborhood is starting to gentrify as hipsters start to infiltrate, swapping pawn shops and greasy spoons with cafes and trendy sneaker stores. Lillian isn’t railing against this onslaught because she’s old and recalcitrant; instead, she sees this move as a way of erasing not only her past but her presence, as well. Where will she fit in, if her neighborhood suddenly becomes a haven for trendy millenials? The general apathy of her friends and neighbors also has her spooked, as this is her family, and she feels that she must fight his war solo. And though there are the requisite hipster jokes (they’re so quirky!), the story line packs a strong emotional wallop when you see just Lillian’s world threatened.

If my review makes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt sound sad, well, it’s because the show is sad. It’s very sad. In fact, if it wasn’t for the gags, the show could work as a drama. The cliche of comedy being tragedy plus timing is never more true than with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, especially in its second season, in which the writers aren’t scared to deliver a one-two punch of sad/funny. And the biggest thing going for the show is Ellie Kemper, who proves with the show that she’s the greatest tragicomic comedienne working today. She’s an expressive actress, and her takes, even if she’s in the background are a wonder. But what works best is when she has to portray the anger or despair behind the smile. In one particularly affecting scene, Kimmy has to confront the fact that she may lose a close friend, someone whom she protected in the bunker. The thought drives her into panic mode and she starts to cry – something we’ve never seen Kimmy do. And it’s alarming and unnerving to see her break down. It’s this kind of blend of loopy humor and heartbreaking sadness that makes me wonder how Kemper hasn’t been festooned with awards for her work.

And though Kemper is easily the best of the bunch, Burgess, Karkowski, and Kane all do great, sometimes incredible work. Krakowski in particular is given some wonderful scenes, and though Burgess is an easy stand-out, she should be given the MVP title for this season’s show. Recurring guest star Tina Fey also is superb – she’s not the most versatile or natural of actresses, but she gives probably her best onscreen performance as the wildly inebriated Andrea. Lisa Kudrow, the master of combining light and dark, also does personable work. Other guest stars include David Cross, Fred Armisen, Ice-T, Judy Gold, Jeff Goldblum, Josh Charles, Joshua Jackson, Zosia Mamet, and Kenan Thompson. It’s a testament to the writing, directing, and acting, that none of these feel like stunt casting (Martin Short’s cameo last season as Dr. Grant felt a little spotlighted), and the actors manage to blend into the crazy world of the show.

The tagline of the second season is “making the world a Kimmier place.” In one of the adverts, Kimmy is walking blindly through the streets, making everything pretty and cute while mayhem ensues in her wake. I don’t think the ad is a good representation of the show because Kimmy is not blind or oblivious to what’s happening around her. And while Kemper’s smiling visage would imply that making the world a “Kimmier” place would mean making it light, airy, and fun – the truth is Kimmy’s no Pollyanna. And though Pollyanna played the Glad Game with shot got tough, Kimmy’s 10-second rule (if she’s going through something, she counts to 10, reasoning that one can stand anything for 10 seconds) is no Glad Game because it’s a way of coping with something that is terrible. It’s a credit to the writers that they refuse to soft peddle what Kimmie went through – it was awful. But the genius of the show is that it portrays something so terrible, but does it with so much humor and funny.

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Filed under Comedy, Nonfiction, Sitcom, Television, TV, Writing

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