Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the zany series about an optimistic Midwestern woman navigating life in New York after escaping a doomsday cult, released its third season on Netflix this past Friday.
The latest installment follows Kimmy as she heads off to college on a surprise rowing scholarship. While college may be a fairly standard trope for deeper self-discovery, Kimmy Schmidt takes full advantage of Kimmy's new backdrop to delve—however lightheartedly—into more serious topics than the incessantly bubbly tone might make you expect. Show creator Tina Fey uses the setting of a hypersensitive Ivy League-type university to craft commentary on Millennials, politics, and class. But beneath the lighthearted jokes, the show attempts to grapple with real character struggles, particularly Kimmy’s traumatic past.
In past seasons, we’ve seen the show deal with Kimmy’s post–traumatic stress disorder in a way that is authentic, albeit with a heavy dose of humor—Kimmy strangling her roommate in her sleep or having an inexplicably violent reaction to Velcro. We’ve seen how it affected her dating life, and this theme continues as the Reverend, played by Jon Hamm, reenters Kimmy’s life demanding a divorce so he can take an unsuspecting new wife.
This setup exposes the tension as Kimmy wants to simultaneously leave her past behind forever and shield this new woman from being taken advantage of by the Reverend. The confrontation between Kimmy and her former kidnapper plays out via a manner of childish insults and phone calls as Kimmy attempts to stymie the Reverend’s new marital conquest by sheer stubbornness. But the jokes fall a bit flat here, as the seriousness of the subject matter—confronting a rapist—doesn’t align with the bubbly tone. Some reviewers have critiqued this approach, as Julia Selinger for Slant remarks: “Its airy, absurdist jokes fall short of truly exploring and critiquing the weightier topics introduced throughout the season.”
However, as the series unfolds, I came to view the Reverend confrontation as the start of a journey in which Kimmy struggles with the gray areas of what it means to help people at a real cost to yourself. Kimmy is a caretaker; we’ve seen how she fiercely defends her friends and comes to the aid of anyone without a second thought to her own needs. We saw her unbounded impulse to help others when she married the Reverend to save Donna Maria, a fellow captive, from the Reverend’s abuse and when she allows a cardboard truck to run her over to save pedestrians in a crossing guard examination.
Which is why it is refreshing to see Kimmy beginning to explore the merits of this approach. In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Ellie Kemper remarks on her character’s growth: “The solution that she finds is to protect herself in addition to helping other people so that she doesn’t have to be a martyr. . . . I think that’s important for her because that’s important for any person to know that you do have to take care of yourself, to a degree, before you can help other people. That’s her whole journey so far in the show.”
The season isn't all deep commentary, though. In season three Kimmy discovers the internet, goes to her first college party, and explores new job options ranging from professional horse brusher to crossing guard. The usual cast of characters is back as well—Lillian is running for city council, and Titus is thrown off a boat again after a music gig goes awry. Jacqueline (or Jackie Lynn) continues in her quest of love, fame, and money (though not particularly in that order). But in my view, these background noise jokes are less satisfying than the immediate main character arcs. The jokes about the navel gazing of Instagramming a sloppy joe (four likes!), the oversensitive classes on feminism—“Women of Contemporary Yogurt Commercials”—bunker trigger warnings, and sexual consent checklists at parties feel exhausting after a while.
This may, in fact, be Fey’s point: a culture hyper-sensitized to political correctness grows tiresome. In an interview with Net-a-Porter, Fey expressed frustration with what she termed the “real culture of demanding apologies” and wants to opt out of the internet criticism. While there is undoubtedly some truth to her quip “avoid the internet, and you’ll live forever,” at some point the jokes that seem always at the expense of someone else, while they receive full marks for cleverness, just aren’t that funny.
In one scene, Fey critiques conflicting messages in feminism, showing a group of meme-jargon-speaking college girls getting ready for a party. Kimmy is confused about her tight, impractical boots, until a girl offers this explanation: “Those are to make your butt look good—for you.” Kimmy’s gall at her tight-fitting outfit (“I look like a hooker”) is quickly rebutted with, “They’re called sex workers, and they’re heroes.” At the end of the party, Kimmy is taking care of everyone again, taking everyone home on the bus. For a show whose auto-tuned mantra is “females are strong as hell,” the mockery and at times infantilism of women is confusing.
But at the end of the day, I don’t watch Kimmy Schmidt to escape the news or the general maelstrom of cultural confusion. I watch it for its larger message that is ever applicable to me and many modern women today. I watch it because in a world of black-and-white internet comments, it’s nice to know that in the Netflix universe, the colorful Kimmy can maintain her optimism as she comes to grips with shades of gray.
Photo Source: Netflix