In Season Two, Kimmy Schmidt enthusiastically embraces the morally gray
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Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s second season knows you’ll be mad at it.
Why? Well, you’re reading this, aren’t you? That means you’re statistically likely to be a part of the vast, mostly young, and educated online audience flexing their political ideologies on culture. And through the vehicle of the innocuous Kimmy Schmidt – too excitable to be stale and too benign to be cloying – and the New York Borats who revolve around her clueless white center, season two of Netflix’s smiley-face revolution has made a point to bring out a confrontational controversy in its clownishness.
From sharp Native American jokes to self-referential goofs on blackface (yellowface by a black man), the show puts its provocative humor beyond reproach by making its espousers cartoonishly parodic. Still, Kimmy Schmidt’s true wit is displayed in how it uses these characters – all socially socially inept cretins with various degrees of Seinfeldian sociopathy ballooned to cartoonish levels – as a learning experience, both for the viewer and Kimmy.
That’s a lot to take in from a season that steals a semen joke from Kingpin#, but some of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s smartest jokes are about its worst creations. Moral relativism comes in fast and early in the show’s second season, popping up more explicitly than on something like the previously mentioned Show About Nothing# and more intelligently (thus less forgivably) than on something like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia#.
Krakowski’s chemistry with her parents, that of a bratty rebellious teenager who’s grown up and realizes what they’ve missed, is as sad and hilarious as you may imagine. A woman who had rejected all Native American culture – and not for nothing, is played by a white woman – constantly messes up or applies stereotypes to her own family.
The identity politics at work are at once hilariously goofy and damning – especially once she’s forced to confront something so offensive…
…that even her attempt to shoot nightmares out of dreamcatchers balks in comparison.
In something like 30 Rock, where Krakowski’s airheaded actress donned blackface to piss off her co-star Tracy Jordan, this would be a jab at an industry of absurd self-importance; of course this self-obsessed blonde wouldn’t think twice about appropriation to rile up her rival. But in Kimmy Schmidt, we’re asked to believe a much more interesting scenario: A woman rebelled against her culture and assimilated into another out of what basically amounts to teen angst. She also, to some extent, regrets it now that she’s grown. There’re complexities at play here that knowingly instigate trouble through a character who, everyone pretty freely admits in the show, is a bad person.
Regardless, the show demands us to take her seriously, dislike her, and respect her cultural identity, while recognizing how her character (its very existence and its actions) often craps all over it…
Tina Fey and Robert Carlock excel at making worlds where foggy ethics let characters (though outlandish) use their foibles and faux pas as megaphones and mirrors. Tracy Jordan was utilized by the 30 Rock staff to tackle touchy issues like rape, racism#, and drug abuse#, while Margot Robbie’s sexually carnivorous Tanya Vanderpoel evades any semblance of slut-shaming thanks to the socially lax world sketched in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s “Kabubble”. By creating a world of people with the same, everyday damages – people that aren’t malicious, but aren’t perfect either – and by letting them breathe, Fey and Carlock have established characters whose actions are no longer the immediately punished or rewarded sitcom disruptors and restabilizors we see in every show. We get consequences that fulfill the same function as other shows’ moralizing.
Populating a world full of morally gray cartoons also means that not only do our judgments carry less weight, but the characters within can grow with some semblance of heightened realism. And Kimmy is the baseline of all of this. She’s a child raised by this world. She has no preconcieved notions, not really, so she makes for the season’s perfect rube that the other characters can teach their New Yorker lessons to by putting their own needs first.
And, centered on a young New York, that’s not always a bad thing.
One of the biggest and best new additions to the show this season was Kimmy’s alcoholic therapist (Tina Fey). She’s a terrible, exploitative drunk masquerading behind a personality divide (partying Night Andrea and Day Andrea, who runs marathons) but despite – or maybe because of – her selfish unprofessionalism, she manages to make therapy entertaining for a TV audience by showing Kimmy her therapeutic lesson. Telling a character that she wants to take care and fix people because she missed out on that in her own life is one thing, but it’s another for an audience to cringe and squirm as Kimmy goes to ridiculous lengths to help those that frankly don’t deserve her.
Nevertheless, we don’t ever really see Andrea as a bad person (though definitely not a good person), but rather as the character equivalent of tough love. Whether Kimmy fails or succeeds in stopping or enabling an alcoholic, that’s not really the point. And the morals of the show have been established as murky enough that it’s acceptable.
What really matters is that the lessons Kimmy takes away are small and – this season – focused inward. She grows despite becoming morally gray, embracing it with as much optimism and enthusiasm as she did everything in Season One, like sunshine through clouds.
The rest of the diverse cast gets better each episode, as well, each ending like a shrugging after-school special; the characters figure it out, or fail to such a large degree that their very flailing ineptitude serves as the satirical lesson we need – the truest world an idealist can make:
Through it all, you can feel the writers excited for the aftermath. Whose thinkpiece will publish first? How far can we push them before pointing out that the joke’s on them? I think Sacha Baron Cohen has gone through similar thought processes as he toured as Ali G or interviewed people as Borat. The anger directed at his buffoons only strengthened his points, and in Kimmy Schmidt, the same anticipatory atmosphere lies in wait.
We can either learn to laugh at clowns being clowns, even when the topics are serious, or attempt to enforce an unknowable and ever-evolving set of social standards on our comedians, writers, and actors. Or maybe both, to some extent.
Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t get it all right this season, but it’s making strides and busting guts in the process.
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