It’s hard to think of a show whose tone and subject matter are as deliberately at odds as The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s. The show’s irrepressible heroine, played by Ellie Kemper, favors bold patterns and eye-searing primary colors (especially yellow), and that’s how she sees the world, too—as a bright and simple place whose inhabitants are basically good, except for the few who are irredeemably bad. Imprisoned in an underground bunker for 15 years by a self-styled “reverend,” Kimmy has been through hell, and she now lives in the slightly more purgatorial surroundings of a downscale New York neighborhood called East Dogmouth, but she soldiers on regardless, not only unbreakable but unstoppable. Females are strong as hell.
In the third season, Kimmy goes to college—or to put it in the unflaggingly enthusiastic manner of the show’s episode titles, Kimmy Goes to College! When Crazy Ex-Girlfriend borrowed the device of framing every episode with an exclamation mark, it signified that the show’s protagonist was off on a manic tear, but for Kimmy, every day is an emphatic day. That’s true even when it involves a prison phone call from her former captor, the Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm), who re-enters Kimmy’s life asking for a divorce so that he can marry his jailhouse sweetheart, played by Laura Dern.
Dern’s Wendy enters the squalid basement apartment shared by Kimmy and her roommate, Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) in an immaculate burgundy overcoat, and she’s so self-possessed and put-together they assume she’s merely secured some well-heeled lawyer there to execute his divorce. When she hears Kimmy is planning to use her share of Richard’s divided assets to pay for college, Wendy coos, “That’s wonderful. I myself have two graduate degrees.” An awed Kimmy, whose ingenuousness makes her a master of unconscious shade, responds, “Wow, they must love you at the frame store.”
Naturally, Wendy turns out to be a lunatic: an accomplished middle-aged woman who is nonetheless determined to marry a serial abductor and, it’s strongly implied, habitual rapist. (There’s a bunker scene in the new season where Kimmy offers herself as Richard’s bride to prevent him from marrying another kidnapped woman, in a warped echo of an older sibling taking a beating or worse from an abusive parent in order to protect a younger child.) But in Kimmy Schmidt’s world, there are no sane people, only the people who are obviously cracked and those whose imbalances take longer to suss out. In the show’s most outrageous, and controversial, twist, we found out in Season 1 that Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline, who’s introduced as the model of an Upper East Side society wife, is actually Jackie Lynn, a Lakota who fled her life on a reservation and buried all trace of her racial heritage. (The surname she was born with, naturally, is White.)
In a more conventional sitcom, that revelation would be a throwaway gag, but as they did on 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock tend to lean into absurdities rather than toss them off. On 30 Rock, they dropped persistent hints that the guileless, preternaturally youthful NBC page Kenneth was actually an immortal; in Kimmy Schmidt’s third season, Titus is strangely insistent on denying that the passengers on the musical cruise he worked between seasons at any point resorted to cannibalism, despite the fact that no one ever actually makes that accusation. Perhaps my favorite gag in the six Season 3 episodes Netflix sent out in advance is when Wendy needs to print a fresh copy of the divorce papers and all that’s available in Kimmy and Titus’ apartment is an ancient dot-matrix printer that lets out a tiny burst of activity at random intervals throughout the rest of the episode. It’s a small, dumb joke made glorious by repetition, punctuating the awkward silences as Titus (barely) feigns interest in the crazy white lady occupying his living room.
The one exception to Kimmy Schmidt’s everyone-is-nuts rule is a new character played by Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs, a fellow mid-30s student who shows her around community college and then transfers, at the same time as she does, to Columbia. (It’s a long, ridiculous, story.) If Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the closest a live-action sitcom has come to The Simpsons, then Diggs is its Frank Grimes, the sputtering straight arrow who was driven into an early grave by Homer’s inexplicable accomplishments. But Diggs’ character only raises an eyebrow, not his heart rate, and he’s in sync with Kimmy’s inability to understand the modern world even if he didn’t spent 15 years living underground. The world of the modern university is a strange place for them, a minefield of gender-neutral pronouns and boys who call their mothers in tears when the girls they’re sweet on won’t sign their consent contracts. But while the episode feels at first like it’s going to be a glib anti-PC satire along the lines of the previous season’s “Kimmy Goes to a Play!”—itself a reaction to criticism of Krakowski’s casting as a Native American—Kimmy this time comes to a more reasonable conclusion: “They’re just kids.”
Good New Yorkers that they are, Kimmy Schmidt’s characters love to think of themselves as worldly sophisticates, but they’re always brought up short. Titus eases a construction worker who’s just coming to terms with his sexuality into his first gay relationship, but once they’ve settled in as boyfriends, it’s Titus who starts to freak out, letting jealousy get the better of him and going on a Lemonade-style rampage with a baseball bat. (Instead of “Hot Sauce,” his reads “Mayonnaise.”)
Left destitute in her divorce, Jacqueline’s only currency is the appearance of wealth—her apartment is furnished with empty cardboard boxes bearing labels like “Fabergé Eggs”—but her devotion to the superficial is tested when she marries a lawyer (David Cross) whose family owns Washington’s NFL team. She is, naturally, horrified on behalf of her Native American forbears, but revealing that would mean giving up the privileges of whiteness, and she can’t bring herself to do that. Instead, she winds up trying to seduce his brother, an upper-crust bully played by Josh Charles, whose arrogance is matched only by his stupidity. (He’s the best at sex, he brags, because “I always finish first.”) Titus and Kimmy’s landlord, Lillian (Carol Kane), is an East Dogmouth old-timer who’s become an anti-gentrification activist, but she can’t tell the difference between street-gang graffiti and the markings left by crews installing high-speed internet. Oh, and also she’s dating Robert Durst.
Like its second season, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 3 feels as if it’s going to be backloaded with plot. The reappearance of Kimmy’s captor, for instance, is only a low-level running gag for most of the season’s first half, but it seems as if there are bigger plans in store, the way the repeated references to Kimmy’s mother in Season 2 laid the groundwork for a surprisingly poignant—and yet still appropriately absurd—reunion. But unlike many Netflix shows, the Kimmy Schmidt episodes that don’t move the plot forward don’t just feel like they’re grinding gears or taking up space. The show is so dense with verbal, visual, and structural jokes, in fact, that it resists binge-watching; after an episode or two, you stop laughing and start just murmuring “funny” like a road-weary comedian. Its glossy surface and ingratiating performances make the show go down easy, but the best parts are the ones that stick in your craw.