Everything Sunny All The Time Always: the Smiley-Face Revolution of “Kimmy Schmidt”
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The twenty-first episode of 30 Rock’s fifth season is titled “Everything Sunny All the Time Always,” taken from a line of dialogue spoken during the episode. # The episode’s writers, Kay Cannon and Matt Hubbard, aren’t on staff for Netflix’s new hit comedy The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but it feels an awful lot like that phrase has been jangling around in Kimmy Schmidt showrunners Robert Carlock and Tina Fey’s craniums ever since it was first floated in their 30 Rock writers room. It works as a mantra for not only the titular character, but the show itself; it’s a guiding principle that has dictated everything from the program’s visual palette to its assembled cast of characters to its general attitude towards the world. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a work of radical optimism that knows the darkness life can dish out, and argues for relentless cheeriness as the only salvation from a world brimming with bad breaks.
Though Kimmy’s relentless optimism will undoubtedly earn her comparisons to Parks and Recreation’s similarly upbeat Leslie Knope, her closest forebear is Kenneth Ellen Parcell, another of Carlock and Fey’s loopy creations. They’re both apple-cheeked beams of sunlight, country-bred yokels with dangerously romanticized notions of life in the big city. Their pure-heartedness extends to cartoonish extremes; at one point, Kimmy responds to a construction-site catcaller with a guileless compliment about his yellow hat. But the critical difference here is the genesis of their permanent state of wonderment at, well, damn near everything. 30 Rock supposes that Kenneth’s hometown of Stone Mountain, Georgia was provincial enough to make even the slightest amenities of New York — plates, bottled water, public transportation — exotic and amazing by comparison. # Kimmy’s backstory packs a wallop far more poignant. When we join our hero, she’s just come off of a fifteen-year stint in an underground bunker with a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher who had successfully hammered into her and her fellow “mole women” that the world above had been consumed by the Rapture. After she surfaces, her first words are powerful and illustrative: “It’s all still here.”
For a woman who’s come to terms with the ruination of everything she’s ever loved, the revelation that it’s all right where she left it turns every day into a gift. After letting go of everything, she gains the ability to truly appreciate anything. It’s practically a superpower, and on more than one occasion it’s the only thing stopping the city from grinding her up and spitting her out.
Though New York certainly gives Kimmy its best shot. Even when its main character may seem like rainbow and unicorns, the show around her is not. The writers never gloss over the trauma left by Kimmy’s kidnapping and years of captivity. Sometimes the residual effects are played for laughs, such as Kimmy’s pathological fear of velcro and somnambulant stranglings, but the shadow of the bunker hangs over Kimmy’s life in heavier ways as well, whether in the form of the substitute cult of spin class towards which she naturally gravitates or the sadly sweet eagerness with which she embraces a garbled declaration of love after a single date with a colleague. She’s not broken, just slightly bruised.
Ultimately though, Kimmy turns the traumatic events of her kidnapping into her main source of strength. After overcoming an existence stripped of every material comfort, everything else must seem like a walk in the park by comparison. In Kimmy’s world, there’s no problem that can’t be overcome with emotional support, a winning attitude, and counting to 10 (sometimes on repeat). Her relentless feel-goodery has a way of steamrolling every obstacle in her path. A chronically apathetic educator is no match for Kimmy’s overpowering good vibes, as she rouses her classmates with an inspirational speech based on, of all things, Charlie Sheen vehicle of yesteryear Major League. She triumphs over nefarious spin instructors and tyrannical teens, barely-human plastic surgeons and [spoiler alert, except not really] the man who originally stole fifteen years of her life from her. Kimmy’s chosen method of coping is to live all of the experiences she missed out while underground, to embrace everything that her new life has to offer. The totality of her naïveté and puppy-dog enthusiasm goes both ways — a stranger in a van helps her find a bra that fits, cue shudder, and her visiting stepdad gets hooked on heroin within his first hour in New York — but it mostly works like light. It fills whatever space it’s in.
Even the show itself adopts this battered optimism and extends it towards the components that fill its off-kilter universe. Kimmy Schmidt often dictates the formal makeup of Kimmy Schmidt; the show’s bright primary colors and zippy theme music gel nicely with its main character’s blindingly sunny outlook. Let me let Vox show what I mean:
Greater still is the show’s wellspring of sympathy for Kimmy and her pals. The characters’ identities are integrated so seamlessly and unobtrusively that it’s easy to overlook the fact that Kimmy Schmidt boasts a doggedly inclusive dramatis personae. Ellie Kemper plays the indefatigable Kimmy and two of the other main roles go to women as well, with Jane Krakowski stepping in as Kimmy’s employer and Broadway’s grande dame Carol Kane playing Kimmy’s hardscrabble landlord. Kimmy’s main love interest is a Vietnamese immigrant, and her best friend is a gay man of color. # As is the case in the real world, the few present white men are generally villains, between Jon Hamm’s silver-tongued reverend and Julian, Jacqueline’s philandering husband.
But beyond that, the program’s writers reflect Kimmy’s warm, generous sensibility by investing honest attention and care into the development of tertiary characters. In the pilot, the supporting faces in Kimmy’s life seem somewhat stock (the sassy best friend, the weirdo landlord, the vainglorious socialite), but Carlock and Fey give them room to expose their miniature tragedies and triumphs, confident that audiences will see the complexity and decency that Kimmy immediately recognizes. As an impoverished black man who also happens to be queer, Titus faces discrimination from street toughs and casting directors alike. # Carlock and Fey even delve into Jacqueline’s background, locating a core of strength and pride beneath the materialism and vacuousness. The show pushes against the against the discriminatory ugliness of the world in a fashion that would get Kimmy’s stamp of approval; with understanding, patience and generosity.
Kimmy Schmidt didn’t invent positivity, or even the notion of an irrepressibly bubbly female protagonist intent on befriending all who cross her path (again, Carlock and Fey can thank Leslie Knope for blazing that path). It’s Kimmy Schmidt’s context that makes it special; oftentimes, Kimmy’s toothy, shit-eating grin is the only thing between her and a total emotional breakdown. Hers is a saga of healing, of rebuilding, and beautifying.
With every step, Kimmy Schmidt leaves a stronger, loving world behind her.
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