Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Last December, Tina Fey made headlines when she complained in an interview about the backlash to Jacqueline Voorhees’s secret Native American heritage. As she put it: “The internet was in a whirlwind, calling it ‘racist,’ but my new goal is not to explain jokes. I feel like we put so much effort into writing and crafting everything, they need to speak for themselves. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”
“Kimmy Goes to a Play!” takes on that apology culture, and though it has some funny lines (I won’t soon forget Titus’s trenchant observation that the internet speaks in the voice of Chandler from Friends), Fey and Robert Carlock dig themselves into an even deeper hole by acknowledging the haters without truly engaging their critiques.
The trouble starts when Titus, freshly flush with cash after years of getting paid under the table (“People drop some really cool stuff under there!”), decides to mount another one-man show. Rather than go the clichéd route of “small-town boy moves to the big city to come out of the closet and become a star” — or try his luck with The Lion King again — Titus decides to dig into his cache of former lives (which include a French nobleman who almost invented raisins, an openly gay slave, and, though he denies it to Kimmy, a pug named Argos) and write a show about Murasaki, his past Japanese geisha self. Of course, that involves pancake makeup, inappropriately drawn-on eyes, and a husky-sized kimono, so it isn’t long before Titus’s show gets targeted by an Asian-American message board, which quickly labels him one of their top five Hitlers of all time. (“Real Hitler wasn’t even on the list!” he complains.)
After Kimmy, inexperienced in all things internet, encourages the group to come to the show, Titus is heartbroken — after all, he says, he was Murasaki. Using a “vivid” memory of a past life as an excuse for cultural appropriation is a bizarre logical contortion in and of itself, but since it’s part and parcel of UKS’s absurdist approach to the world, I’m willing to accept it.
But once the protesters arrive to Titus’s show, the episode’s takedown of its critics reveals itself to be knee-jerk and lazy, and smacks more than a little of a “get off my lawn” attitude. “I don’t want to hear the end of anything anyone has to say,” one of the protesters says, before a Hindu guy starts a fight over the group’s dismissal of the concept of reincarnation, only to be accused of being insensitive by a “transracial” white dude (which, as anyone who saw the Rachel Dolezal blow-up can attest, is actually not a thing, though it drew tenfold more outrage than anything Fey’s done). At episode’s end, one protester gets raptured into a heavenly ray of light after offending herself by saying, “I can’t breathe.” Not laughing? Yeah, me neither. I’m all for incisive comedy that pokes fun at dearly held principles, but the only message here seems to be “People who have opinions different than mine are annoying.”
It’s clear that Fey and Carlock are annoyed. Being publicly shamed is stressful — and Fey has been a beloved household name for over a decade without seriously being put on blast. There’s definitely an argument to be made that public shaming doesn’t address racism so much as drive it underground, creating a taboo where a conversation could exist. And, for what it’s worth, UKS clearly intends to address Hollywood’s deficits — there’s no other show on TV whose primary cast is three women (two of them over 45), two men of color (one of them gay, the other an immigrant), and zero white dudes. Some of the show’s best jokes have targeted racism, from the now-famous “White Women Found” news chyron to one of last season’s best subplots, when Titus received better treatment as a werewolf than as a black man.
But if Fey and Carlock really believe that the internet, as Titus puts it, “is just anonymous hosers criticizing geniuses,” then why give those anonymous hosers the time of day? It’s especially ironic given that the episode has Titus winning over his haters by being true to himself and going on with his show. (The moral of the story: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”) At the end of the day, UKS is still a critical success — and while the Krakowski subplot wasn’t a great choice, this is still a great show. The lingering matter is whether Fey and Carlock recognize that the media landscape is now different — and has changed rapidly in the years since 30 Rock ended. Watching this episode, I could practically hear the clacking of keys as hot takes were pitched across the land.
The mishandled racism plot line is especially glaring because UKS is so good at taking on other social issues — for example, Lillian’s one-woman war against gentrification, which starts when she realizes a nearby abandoned building is being turned into a performance space. (“They painted over the neighborhood mural of Biggie. Now how are we supposed to remember he’s dead?”) Delighted to see the building tagged by a gang called F105 (or, in her parlance, the “F-ten-cincos”), she chases some coffee-clutching yuppies out of the neighborhood, only to discover that the spray paint is actually “FIOS,” shorthand for the installation of fiber-optic internet at a soon-to-open development. Lillian’s resolve to fight — “They’re gonna make this neighborhood nicer over my dead body, or at least, a body that sure looks a lot like me, but is burned beyond recognition” — should provide for some fun, meaty plot lines. It’s also a sign that UKS can actually engage with the big social shifts that are rarely acknowledged on TV, much less on comedies.
Jacqueline, meanwhile, is living in one of the new developments Lillian despises, using fake plastic sheeting to conceal the fact that her high-rise apartment isn’t actually a 5,000-square-foot palace that’s still under construction. All she has to her name are a nice rug, that Mondrian she bought, and a set of Philippe Starck ghost chairs (which, in a great running gag, are actually invisible). With an invitation to an incestuous wedding in hand, she sets out to find a date, only to learn that all the ancient rich men won’t touch her, due to a fear of losing out on business with her ex. (“We’re partners in a business to frack in Central Park,” one says.)
Kimmy is adamant that she not blow her potential by becoming someone else’s trophy wife, so Jacqueline decides to try a new tactic: Getting a trophy man of her own. Enter Doug, a dumb-as-rocks dog masseuse and aspiring musician who goes by the name DJ Fingerblast. But after Jacqueline realizes that she’s treating Doug the same way she was treated (quite literally, like a dog), she decides to set him free to pursue his dreams. (He’s touched: “The dopest beat … [gestures to heart] is in here.” Jacqueline: “Get out of my home.”) Instead, she goes to the wedding solo, only to have Kimmy arrive to congratulate her on breaking the trophy-person chain of oppression — and get mistaken for her girlfriend. (“She’s a model for L.L. Bean’s performance fleeces,” Jacqueline coos.) And so, Jacqueline’s fascinating and unintentional bisexuality ends up being her ticket back into the kind of polite society where people scoff by actually saying “Scoff.” This definitely won’t go well.
- Great to see Amy Sedaris returning as Jacqueline’s fellow desperate divorcée Mimi Knassis, who’s more than just a lyric in “Unbelievable.” My favorite line was when she first sees Kimmy: “I thought you were a Jeff Koons sculpture of Ronald McDonald!”
- It wouldn’t be a Fey–Carlock joint without at least one byzantine Titus joke per episode. Here’s my pick from this one: “My show is on the internet, where Beyoncé and the president live! That poster at the poster store was right — nothing’s more effective than a poster.”
- Kimmy raises some seriously troubling questions about childhood games. “Whose ghosts are they? Why are they haunting Pac-Man? What did he do to them? … We didn’t even get to talk about why the guy in Operation is awake. His eyes are open, and he’s having, like, nine surgeries.”
- I love this show’s insistence that rich people are really into blimps. One of the first season’s best lines is Logan’s confession that he’d “never even seen the inside of a public blimp,” so it shouldn’t be too surprising that Jacqueline’s choice of reading in her ghost chair is Blimp Aficionado.
- Another great recurring UKS trope: Hating on Entourage. After Jacqueline recruits Mimi to be her wingwoman, she exclaims, “Yes! Turtle gets his.” And the previous episode includes a brief shot of the thrift store owner sorting through a pile of DVDs that mocked Jeremy Piven.
- Lillian: “Sesame Street was based on this neighborhood, because there’s a guy who lives in a garbage can! Also, there’s a giant furry monster who only I can see.” (After she finds out the truth about FIOS from the installation guy, she asks the air, “Why didn’t you eat him?”)