Having recapped Kimmy Schmidt since its beginning, I’m now emotionally prepared for the, uh, joys of That One Episode a Season Where Tina Fey and Robert Carlock Take on Race. This is that episode, and I’ll say this: It’s way less bad than the reveal of Jacqueline’s Native American heritage or Titus’s Asian blackface routine. In fact, parts of it are even okay! But if you’ve been watching Kimmy Schmidt expecting a nuanced take on race and political correctness, you probably flew the coop a long time ago, and I honestly can’t blame you.
The story kicks off with Kimmy realizing that with no bunker and no Jacqueline, she can take a weekend off for the first time. (Even after joining Giztoob, she’d spent her Saturdays building file-cabinet forts and restocking the Rice Krispies Treats supply.) Discovering that a broke Jacqueline is living in the Giztoob office and subletting her condo for extra cash, Kimmy invites her over for a sleepover. Armed with a Roku plucked from the trash by C.H.E.R.Y./L., Kimmy, Jacqueline and Titus embark on Kimmy’s first binge-watch, marathoning a Sex and the City–esque show (“written by a rich, mean gay man!”) and developing a fascination with the characters’ lifestyles of shopping, spas, and brunch. Kimmy quickly resolves to “do weekends to the max” like they do, and Titus is willing to join as long as she’s buying.
After a whirlwind day of mimosas and sex talk with C.H.E.R.Y./L.and shopping at the Salvation Coast Guard, Kimmy treats Titus to a mani-pedi at a salon. But while Titus quickly becomes yet another member of the demanding clientele (“My left foot, like her namesake Mr. Day-Lewis, is a bit eccentric, but demands the star treatment!”), Kimmy is creeped out. The salon’s owner, who’s verbally abusive to his all-female, identically dressed staff, is giving her “bunker vibes.” So, in the grand tradition of many guilty white ladies before her, she resolves to be as nice as she can to the staff: “learn names, talk to them, maybe pick up a little Korean while I’m at it. Because all lives matter!” (Titus: “I’ll allow it … context.”)
Kimmy’s nail technician “Kelly” (actually Ji-Yeon, but forced to wear a rotating selection of fake name tags that also include “Vanessa” and “Lashonda”) isn’t having it. She’s essentially an indentured servant paying off a $10,000 fee for being smuggled to the U.S., and her shitty boss is stealing her tips. (Sadly, this part of the story is all too real.) Ji-Yeon thinks Kimmy is a rich white lady who’s sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong; Kimmy, who certainly knows from privation, manipulation, and abuse, is undeterred from trying to help.
Mediating this conflict is Titus, who gives Kimmy a short object lesson in white privilege that’s succinct and funny enough to be used in classrooms anytime someone makes the whole “but I’m white and I didn’t grow up with any privilege” argument. When Kimmy tries on a fur coat in a store, she’s encouraged to take it outside for a stroll and bring it back; Titus merely thinks about trying it on, and is sassed by a salesperson who tells him the bathroom is for customers only.
The plotline is echoed on Jacqueline’s side, when she tries to move back into her apartment by encouraging the subletter — Trip, a dumb-as-toast rich kid — to pursue an acting career, in the hopes he’ll split and go to L.A. She quickly learns that booking a gig for a rich white client is a thousand times easier compared to booking one for Titus; as a studio exec explains, “It makes it so much easier to find financing, and they’re so confident and tall, which is all acting is.” (Cue the “Is Cate Blanchett good or is she just tall?” callbacks.) This is another all-too-real moment, as Jacqueline points to the careers of the Mara sisters, Dakota Johnson, and Armie Hammer. “That’s why I became white in the first place!”
Taking a cue from Jacqueline, Kimmy decides to use her own white privilege (and the fur coat) to try to help Ji-Yeon out, pretending to be an entitled socialite who needs to know the real names of the staff in order to lodge Yelp complaints about them. (“They change names every day, like so many Puffs Daddy!”) The salon owner quickly acquiesces, and while Kimmy acknowledges that it’s not a “big whoop,” she’s still proud to have helped. Ji-Yeon could care less, accusing Kimmy of manipulating her life in order to feel good about herself. It all ends with Kimmy snapping back at her, “I know it’s not a tragedy contest, but if it were, I would fudging win.”
It’s hard to know what to make of this. On the one hand, Kimmy’s shitty life circumstances probably trump Ji-Yeon’s, even if Ji-Yeon did have to emigrate in the trunk of a Kia Sorrento. On the other, the show has just made it clear that day-to-day life as a white person is simply easier, no matter how much Kimmy has been through. Are we meant to empathize with Kimmy? Or, given that she essentially declared herself innocent of sexual harassment charges in the last episode and moved on, are we meant to think that she’s actually not that great a person?
It’s hard to tell what the show’s intentions are here, but I will note a small thing I noticed in the credits: even though her real name is mentioned in the show, Ji-Yeon’s character is listed as “Kelly,” and the other salon worker Kimmy sees wearing the “Kelly” nametag as “New Kelly.” To echo Kimmy: I know it’s not a political correctness contest, but if it were, this show would definitely fudging lose.
• I didn’t have space to get into this episode’s riffs on Netflix/bingeing culture, but they’re great and hilarious, from Titus explaining the “Al Gore-rithm” (how have we not heard this joke already??) to his take on true crime as “white lady porn”: “Their lives are safe and predictable, so every once in a while, they need to see Tim Daly push a woman down a staircase.”
• This show does great work with little details — like Broderick Knob’s fake Wikipedia page.
• I will also be stealing these Titus exchanges for my own use:
“Neither of us is going to get paid until you deliver a script.”
“Titus Andromedon does not deliver, he DiGiornos.”
“Titus, time to get up!”
“You know I do not get up at times.”
• For all the expense and effort that reference to Get Out’s Sunken Place likely took, I’d have liked to see the show do more with it, especially in such a race-centric episode.
• It is, however, always on point with mocking rich people. The poster for Megan Ellison’s special screening of Sofia Coppola’s Documentary About Jason Schwartzman had me screaming with laughter.