Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Tina Fey’s Netflix sitcom, reviewed.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Is Short on Nuance but Dense With Great Jokes

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Is Short on Nuance but Dense With Great Jokes

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April 15 2016 10:34 AM

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Tina Fey’s sitcom is short on nuance but dense with great jokes. 

Still of Jeff Goldblum and Ellie Kemper in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
In Season 2, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt settles in for a long run. Above, a still from the show of Jeff Goldblum and Ellie Kemper.

Netflix

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which returns for its second season today on Netflix, is still the fastest show on television. The Tina Fey and Robert Carlock creation races by in a blur of relentlessly quotable lines. Jokes that would be the funniest in almost any other series are tossed off as an aside or stepped on by the next high-speed crack. Punch lines build on punch lines, until the whole thing reaches vertiginously silly heights.

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

Like the characters on Fey and Carlock’s 30 Rock, the characters on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are funny because they are semi-deluded savants whose point of view is specific and strange. Everything they say is earnest and absurd. “You think you know everything because you got bitten by a cockroach that crawled out of a book!” the irrepressible Titus (Tituss Burgess) tells his roommate Kimmy (Ellie Kemper). He’s not kidding. Having spent her formative years being held prisoner in an underground bunker, Kimmy thinks lots of odd things. The only explanation for Titus is that he’s Titus.

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The new season has the feel of a show settling in for a long run. In a break from Netflix’s house style, the new episodes are self-contained, give or take a recurring joke about Robert Durst. Kimmy’s traumatic past, which provided the first season with a throughline, settles into the background. Kimmy may be sheltered enough to think that MILF stands for “my interesting lady friend,” but she has become the show’s straight man, relatively speaking. Titus and former Upper East Side trophy wife Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) are the wackadoos who drive the plot. In particular Burgess, who stole so many scenes in the first season, has become a real co-lead, complete with a sweet love story. (He begins to date someone newly out of the closet, but not before quizzing him, “Which era of Madonna do you identify with? There are wrong answers.”)

As with 30 Rock, some of the new installments take on hot topics. Fey and Carlock have previously approached controversial subjects by pointing out the absurdities on all sides, rather than picking one. See, for example, the great 30 Rock episode “TGS Hates Women,” in which Liz Lemon hires a female writer named Abby Flynn, after Liz’s show is accused of misogyny by a feminist blog. Abby presents as an extreme bimbo, all baby voice, short skirts, and thumb-sucking. Acting on her feminist principles, Liz becomes obsessed with outing Abby’s ditzy behavior as a put-on. No woman should have to behave that way, Liz tells Abby, plus, behaving that way reflects badly on all women. Liz ultimately digs up an old YouTube clip that reveals Abby Flynn to be Abby Grossman, a brunette stand-up comic with a normal voice—inadvertantly exposing Abby to the dangerous ex-husband she had been hiding out from by pretending to be a floozy. Liz’s reservations about Abby Flynn are reasonable, and yet they lead her straight to lady-judging and lady-endangering. The episode simultaneously champions and skewers a certain kind of feminism.

The third episode of Kimmy Schmidt takes on outrage culture but with no such duality. (The show was criticized last season for its “problematic” portrayal of Jackie’s Native American ancestry. At the beginning of this season, Jackie’s still on the reservation, unable to see because she’s stopped wearing her blue contacts, bumping into things and making a horrible nuisance of herself.) Titus comes into a bit of money and uses it to stage a one-man show about one of his past lives, in which he was a Japanese geisha. The piece, called “Kimono She Didn’t,” comes to the attention of the Forum to Advocate Respectful Asian Portrayals in Entertainment, whose commenters deem Titus one of the Top 5 Hitlers (a list that does not include Hitler). A group of outraged protesters appear at the performance booing and waving picket signs—until Titus, in a kimono and white Kabuki makeup, begins to sing and his artistry sweeps them away. “What do we do now that we can’t be offended?” a former protester asks, before she is blinked away in a beam of light.

This segment is filled with great jokes. In other past lives Titus was Cyrus, the first openly gay slave; Alphonse, who nearly invented the raisin; and Napoleon, a very sick parrot. Kimmy questions the wisdom of Titus playing an Asian woman but concludes, “Well, if Aisha Tyler can play a white woman on Friends, I guess its okay.” But the episode lacks the many twists of “TGS Hates Women,” which lampooned both Liz Lemon’s feminist good intentions and her target. Kimmy Schmidt makes the reasonable point that art shouldn’t be hated sight unseen but does itself too big a favor by making Titus’ play a work of art. (And in having Titus play an Asian character, the show is only the latest to assume Asians are the minority it’s OK to offend.) The writers’ opinions about political correctness are not all that nuanced: They think there’s too much of it. A plotline about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder drugs for kids is similarly opinionated—they kill children’s capacity for joy.

The lack of nuance is a bit of a letdown, especially after the bravura episode from last season in which Titus realized it was easier to be a werewolf in New York City than a black man. But if Kimmy Schmidt could do better, most shows would do worse. Its willingness to go there—to the place where a beloved black gay character is dressed up as a geisha or where a Hindu protester is outraged by the lack of respect for the very concept of past lives—gives it its wonderfully unhinged luster. It doesn’t nail every moment, but there is an abundance of glorious, goofy hilarity: a dance routine to Paula Abdul’s “Forever Your Girl,” a Scientology spoof, some promising tech-teasing with cameos by Airbnb and Uber, and too many crackerjack lines to count. Each episode of Kimmy Schmidt is so dense it’s like a binge-watch unto itself. Watch one and be full.