Netflix’s dark comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, was released on Netflix March 6th—the entire 13 episode season in all its binge-worthy glory. Talk about a guaranteed weekend of light-hearted laughs, right?
Well, not exactly. The good news, for fans of Fey and of intelligent women in comedy, is that Kimmy Schmidt is much, much more than that.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is about a 29-year-old woman who is rescued from an underground doomsday cult along with three other women and resolves to make it on her own in New York City. While this premise for a dark comedy could go wrong in so many painful ways, Fey's brainchild is equally funny and provoking as it tackles trauma, victimhood, questionable media tactics, and idle curiosity.
The show blows through its prologue of the main character’s harrowing past within four minutes. The story arc of the first episode makes clear that the macabre details of the heroine’s life as the kidnapped victim of a post-apocalyptic cult leader are not the focus. If anything, the brief mentions of Kimmy’s traumatic past, as darkly funny as they are disturbing, will make you feel exploitive and voyeuristic if you are hungry for more details. Kimmy’s yearning for normalcy as she starts fresh in New York City—“Oh, I’m very normal. I’ve had everything normal happen to me”—will make viewers defensive of her privacy and right to seek recovery on her own terms. The story is about Kimmy, the woman who was not broken during 15 years living in a bunker and will certainly not be broken in her post-trauma life by a state of victimhood and morbid media attention. As the show’s auto-tuned news interview theme music triumphantly reminds us, “females are strong as hell.”
The show’s criticism of victim-labelling is not subtle. That four-minute introduction includes a Today Show interview, in which the women are dubbed “The Indiana Mole Women” (to Kimmy’s chagrin) and wraps up with a smarmy network employee showing them out while chirping, “Thank you, Victims, thank you! Good luck! Thank you, Victims.” As she realizes the repercussions of permanent victimhood, Kimmy decides to stay in New York City to preserve her anonymity.
Kimmy is played by Ellie Kemper who portrayed the charmingly dim-witted secretary Erin in The Office. Though Kimmy’s ignorance through missing the last 15 years of pop culture is similar to Kemper’s career-making Office ingénue, we see Kemper's notable acting range come out in Kimmy’s resilience after trauma, thanks in great part, as well, to the nuanced writing. The seconds of flinty anger we see when Kimmy reacts to perceived threats like a cornered animal gives the character gravitas even while Kemper’s fantastic comedic timing keeps the story light. The struggle between Kimmy’s unquenched hope and the psychological damage from her past is where the show really shines.
For instance, anyone who has defiantly thrown off a victim label can empathize with Kimmy’s fierce refusal to be defined by her notorious past. In an uncharacteristic display of anger at her roommate Titus’s pity and morbid curiosity, Kimmy rejects the notion of getting help because she despises feeling like a freak. Titus succinctly breaks down an outsider’s point-of-view, and summarizes the show’s commentary of public curiosity:
It’s not my fault. People love hearing terrible details of news tragedies. One, it’s titillating like a horror movie. Two, it makes them feel like a good person because they care about a stranger. Three, it makes people feel safe that it did not happen to them.
That the show doesn't fall into this trap reveals a unique sensitivity to victims. It tells us that idle curiosity risks making recovery all the more difficult for people who do not want to continue feeling like a victim long after the victimizing event. And that labels risk reducing individuals from complex creatures who evolve through their choices into static caricatures defined by a single event or attribute. In a culture in love with labels, it's refreshing to see Kimmy fight to retain her autonomy and the ability to write her own future while coaching her friends also limited by labels.
When it comes to overcoming a tough past, it can be sweet to imagine a chipper, sunny attitude will conquer it all. However, that's not true in reality, and Kimmy's storyline reflects this. By the end of the first season (thank you, Netflix, for the ability to binge my way through all 13 episodes), viewers see Kimmy face a conflict between denying her past and recovering from it. Without giving away any spoilers, I can tell you the lesson is one of great character growth. When she denies her past, her past retains fearsome power over her; when she faces it, Kimmy begins to get through it—and to learn that her terrible past has helped make her the strong, joyous, effervescent woman she is today. A subtle distinction, but an essential one—it's the difference between fake and real, between covering up one's past and growing from it.
This, I would submit, is what makes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt not just enjoyable but really worthwhile. The show walks a tightrope. It manages to be both earnest and genuinely funny while bringing up incisive points about victimhood and recovery and without becoming judgmental of various coping mechanisms. The light touch with a dark subject that is Fey's trademark is evident throughout Kimmy’s development. As the show reveals the natural fallout from trauma it continues to explore how Kimmy’s determination to write her own destiny is what redefines her as a triumph, not a victim. And strong as hell.