Netflix can be a fickle mistress. So often, the things it wants me to watch are awful, even if logically I can see how they might be up my alley. But man, Netflix nailed it when Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt popped up in my “you might like” menu. It probably noticed that I just finished watching 30 Rock for the third time. My algorithm loves me.
This show can be summed up really quickly: a woman got kidnapped and locked in a doomsday cult bunker for fifteen years. Upon her rescue, she moves to New York City for the sake of anonymity. She’s unabashedly and unapologetically optimistic, because the worst thing that could happen to someone has already happened to her, by non-Criminal Minds standards. Did you ever see that movie Blast From the Past? It’s awful. This is like that, only smart and actually funny and blessedly lacking Brendan Frasier making an ass of himself.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a Tina Fey show. She’s an executive producer and one of the writers, and you can feel the Fey all over this whole situation. It resembles 30 Rock quite a bit. It has a handful of actors in common, the music is familiar, the cadence of the dialogue is similar, and there are even a number of jokes that are callbacks. I’m fine with that, but some reviewers insistent on sucking all the joy out of the world have used it as a criticism, saying that Fey’s comedy has become one-note. I say to those folks: give it a damn minute. Kimmy Schmidt’s only had thirteen sitcom-length episodes. That’s less than five hours we’ve spent with these characters. Just cool your agro for a second.
Furthermore, almost every review I could find had some nugget about the show being racist. Now, I will concede that there are racist jokes. However, what all those reviews fail to mention is that they always point out that the joke is racist and then make fun of the joke and/or the person telling it. The same thing happened in almost every episode of 30 Rock, and nobody lost their shit then, did they? No. (My working theory? Network money preventing bad press. But I have no way to prove that.) But again, I’m white and my sense of humor is somewhat questionable. I’d rather make fun of racist jokes because they’re fucking stupid, and use racists as comedic fodder so as to take the teeth out of any of the ignorant shit they say, than create a fake world where they don’t exist at all because that’s completely unrealistic. Honestly, I’m more concerned that neither of Fey’s shows have a single normal gay person. They’re always overblown and cartoonish and might as well have a caption every time they’re onscreen saying “Hey, look! It’s a gay!” Get on that, Tina Fey. It’s kind of fucked up.
There’s a weird time-machine feel to this show. Kimmy was locked in the bunker for fifteen years, having been put in there at age fourteen in 2000. And behold! All her jokes and references are 90s-era vintage. It’s a thing of beauty. Although, it must be said that the writers were clearly not fourteen in 2000. I was seventeen for most of that year and I don’t get a lot of those jokes. I’m thinking they were probably fourteen closer to 1990. But whatever, the ones that work work well. And I don’t understand most of what the teenage girl character says, either, so let’s just assume that I’m trapped in a bubble somewhere around 1998 forever. Comedy brings out our generation gaps.
The doomsday cult itself is pretty interesting. I’ve often wondered how cult survivors and their families react to America’s attitudes toward these groups. We’re pretty fucking flip about things that have ruined a shocking number of lives. How often do I say “drink the Kool-aid,” for example? Over nine hundred people who were simply looking for a better life (while, yes, totally brainwashed) got murder/suicided at Jonestown. It’s horrifying and now they’re just a figure of speech. I think there’s a tendency to assume that cult members are dumb or lonely or so lacking in something that they’re desperate to fill a void in their lives and that’s why they’re easily swayed by these charismatic whackadoos. I’m sure that’s untrue to some degree, but the fact remains that when I hear “cult” I think of Charles Manson or David Koresh or Marshall Applewhite, all of whom are so insane that one would almost have to be an idiot to believe their bullshit. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does a pretty good job of addressing this by making the cult leader a raving moron who is so charming that people just smile and nod and agree with whatever nonsense comes out of his mouth. One point that stuck in my craw, though, is that Kimmy says “Yes, weird sex stuff happened in the bunker,” as an answer to someone asking an unrelated question. First, that’s not funny. And second, if Reverend Crazypants was keeping a stable of fertile women captive for fifteen years and having sex with them, they would have come out of there with a gaggle of bunker babies. Obviously that would step on our single-woman-set-loose-in-New-York story, though, so I’m just going to skip on past it. Like the writers did.
I will say that it’s refreshing to see a lead character in a sitcom who is upbeat and optimistic while not being stupid. She may be a little dingy because she’s sort of lost in what is, to her, a weird future and she’s mentally still a teenager. But she’s not dumb. I don’t know if it was intentional, but I think that’s some sly social commentary. We’ve turned into some cynical assholes since the 90s, haven’t we? While Kimmy was stuck in the bunker trying to maintain the brightness and bounciness that she brought in with her, the rest of the world pretty much said, “Fuck it, this shit is bleak.” And then we invented social media so we could infect others with our bad attitudes. How exciting, this future we’ve built.
Anyway, if your relationship with Netflix isn’t such that you’ve been lured into Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s timesuck trap already, you should really go do that. You can binge watch all of it in an afternoon, and there’s a second season in the works, but no word yet on when it will be released. So once you’re hooked we can all wait together. It’ll be great. It’ll be the best torture ever.