At the end of last season, I figured we’d seen the last of Tina Fey on Kimmy Schmidt. NBC may have needed Fey to write herself into season one to close the deal, but Netflix is pretty laissez-faire with its creatives, and besides, Fey has access to an army of terrific guest stars. So I was happy to see her appear in “Kimmy Meets a Drunk Lady!” because, well, she’s Tina Fey — I don’t think anyone who’s made it to the 22nd episode of a series created by Tina Fey isn’t at least a little in the tank for her. But I also think the new character she plays is a real step forward, both for the show and for Fey as an actress.
Fey could have played it safe by just being the daytime version of Andrea: A professional and wry therapist, with a few small quirks — basically Liz Lemon without the goofball instincts. Instead, she gives her character transforms every evening, Hyde-like, into a lonely alcoholic who’s not over her ex and cruises through Manhattan on the fumes of “olives, cashews, and P. Diddy vodka.” Kimmy puts on the act of being happy as a clam; Andrea knows that clams are “clenched up tight, full of grit, and if you get pried open, you’ll die.” She’s down in the mud right there with Kimmy, Titus, Jacqueline, and Lillian. I’d give any of the five-even odds of waking up on the Coney Island Cyclone in a shame fugue, even though it’s only Kimmy who ends up actually doing it. (Side note: Does rock-bottom in TV terms now equate to waking up at Coney Island with no clue as to how you got there?)
Though this episode lacks Lillian and Jacqueline, it is the funniest of the season so far, based purely on its pause-for-cackle rate. Drunk Night Andrea is kind of a dream therapist: She’s bitter, acerbic, and mean — but also right, quite a lot of the time. She’s willing to call you out for all your nonsense, but she’s funny about it. (Kimmy, defending her insomnia: “You know who doesn’t sleep a lot? Dolphins. And they’re always smiling.” Andrea: “Dolphins are rapists. Look it up.”) Kimmy’s irrepressible cheerfulness works best against the backdrop of everyone else’s depression and bad behavior, and Night Andrea is the queen of the depressed and badly behaving: breaking into houses, puking in cabs, trying to steal her ex’s dog.
Of course, it’s important that Kimmy also need something from Andrea, namely therapy with Day Andrea. It’s heartbreaking to rewatch that montage of all the incidences in which Kimmy’s reacted with unpredictable violence, from choking Titus right up to clocking Dong with a phone, and then there’s the issue of those bunker burps. Using Night Andrea’s boredom with “weak-tit Manhattan problems” to manipulate her way into Day Andrea’s office isn’t just a means to an end: Kimmy genuinely wants to help Andrea, just like she helps everyone in her life. (“I know how to get this vodka monkey off your back and into a tuxedo, the way monkeys look best.”) It’s not that Kimmy has to stop being “a helper, and a self-sacrificer,” as Night Andrea puts it. She needs to start asking for help for herself, too.
Titus, depressed after leaving his job at Professor Dracula’s Spooky Laboratory & Bar & Grill, is also in need of help. When he’s not going into a shame spiral by chugging a box of key-lime flavored wine and perming all his Barbies (“Some of them really don’t have the face for it.”), he’s crying in the bathroom while Kimmy pushes slices of pizza under the door. Even the simple task of getting a new shelf for his and Kimmy’s collection of Columbia House tapes is too challenging: When he tries to build one out of an old baby crib, all he ends up doing is destroying his “I Believe I Can Fly” cassingle.
But while Kimmy gets her salvation from the show’s go-to plot well — unlikely friendship — Titus’s redemption comes from its go-to joke well: ’90s nostalgia. He finds his sanity (a.k.a. tape shelf) only by literally digging through the layers of his past (noshing on an Arch Deluxe and mercy-killing a Furby along the way). Although I wasn’t vibing with Jeff Richmond’s earlier musical episode, the use of soundalike Now! That Sounds Like Music recordings is an inspired choice — not because UKS needed to get around paying for the rights to the songs (in fact, I’m almost certain that Netflix had to), but because it gets to borrow all the emotional heft from those tunes being used in key scenes in ’90s movies (“All By Myself” in Clueless, “Sister Christian” in Boogie Nights, “Walking on Sunshine” in basically everything) while still cracking additional jokes. It’s a clever trick, and one that could only be pulled off with Netflix’s deep pockets — who else would pay to license all these famous songs just to play fake recordings that butcher them? It had me in stitches, and really pushed this episode over the top.
- Perfect contrast between Kimmy and Andrea: Kimmy respectfully informs her Uber passengers that “Today’s dips are bean and fun. Lik-a-Stix can be found in a tear in the ceiling fabric above you.” Andrea’s reaction: “Pink cocaine and poop? OK, yeah, I’ll eat some poop if I can get pink cocaine.”
- A pause-the-show-laughing moment: When Titus says good-bye to his R. Kelly cassingle with a bizarre variation on the Sign of the Cross. “It’s trapped in the closet with angels now.”
- The altered band names are pretty great: “Cartoona and the Wigs” for Katrina and the Waves, “the Error Car Men” for Eric Carmen, “Dusk Mountie” for Night Ranger. Does anyone who can read Russian know what the name of the fake record label means?
- Great to see Billy Eichner doing his Billy on the Street thing with Kimmy, spotlighting Tina Fey’s ongoing insistence that Cate Blanchett is more tall than good. (Glad he’s with me on Team Cate: “She’s a treasure! SHE’S A TREASURE!!”)
- My favorite line reading of the episode: Tina Fey with her noise machine. “It goes sshhhhsshhh, so you can’t hear other peepses’ crying.”
- Titus shares my frustration with carpentry. “No wonder Jesus quit. This is so much harder than talking on a donkey.”