Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Is As Ambitious and Zany As Ever

Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), still unbroken. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

In the first half of its fourth and reportedly final season, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt addresses a swath of issues, including the #MeToo movement, poor working conditions at New York City nail salons, toxic masculinity, and even the insidious nature of the streaming service that brought Kimmy Schmidt to life: Netflix.

But in Kimmy Schmidt’s slightly skewed version of New York, Netflix isn’t called Netflix. It’s Houseflix. The fictional streaming service works in pretty much the same binge-inducing way, especially if you believe, like Kimmy’s roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess) does, that Houseflix generates recommendations based on “the Al Gore Rhythm,” named, obviously, after internet inventor Al Gore.

That rhythm is what leads Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) to the documentary Party Monster: Scratching the Surface, about the fall from grace of a low-level disc jockey named DJ Slizzard, who also happens to be Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm), the “reverend” who kidnapped Kimmy and three other women, and then held them hostage in an underground bunker for 15 years. Like many works of true crime, Party Monster — shown in its entirety in the season’s third episode — implies that its subject might actually be innocent, a viewpoint that infuriates Kimmy and opens the door for the show to touch on America’s long cultural history of disbelieving female victims while attempting to maintain the male-centric status quo.

That may sound like heavy material for a quirky comedy like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But in its screwball way, this series, co-created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, has always been an examination of how difficult it is for an abused and brainwashed woman to reacclimate to society. It makes sense that, as the show moves toward a conclusion, Kimmy must revisit her pain now that some people have seemingly forgotten the reverend is a monster. It’s also the perfect moment for Kimmy Schmidt to raise the question of how much and how soon society is willing to forgive abusive behavior perpetrated by white men.

But don’t worry: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt also remains gleefully silly and a true master at nonstop pop-culture puns and rat-a-tat-tat wordplay. (“Kimothy Olyphant!” Titus shouts in one scene. “This is not justified!”) The series has always teeter-tottered between dealing semi-seriously with unprocessed trauma and absurdly riffing on everything from Dionne Warwick to the Washington Redskins, but this season, it walks that line with more confidence and a firmer sense of purpose. Given its focus on often self-centered, oblivious characters, and its absolute command of lickety-split humor, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt might be better at being Arrested Development at this point than Arrested Development itself.

As a woman still trying to find her place in a culture that a bad man isolated her from, Kimmy seems like a classic example of a #MeToo-style victim. Yet, in the first episode, as Kimmy begins her job at the ludicrously named start-up company Giztoob, she is accused (rightly) of harassment because her formative years spent in the bunker have destroyed her understanding of personal boundaries and how certain gestures and comments can be misconstrued.

In moments like that, as well as a speech that Kimmy delivers about the negative effects of fairy tales at the end of a middle-school production of Beauty and the Beast, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt makes an important point more effectively than a truckload of post-Weinstein essays have. That point is this: When women are mistreated and abused, in fiction and real life, the normalization of that abuse is ultimately damaging to both men and women.

The series manages to make this point and immediately do something ridiculous to make sure it’s not becoming too preachy. Immediately after Kimmy makes that speech about fairy tales, for example, she shouts, “Big finish!” and busts out her best Roger Rabbit, which is to say, a fairly mediocre Roger Rabbit. Even though Kimmy Schmidt is tackling some weighty subject matter, it hasn’t sacrificed its zaniness.

It also hasn’t lost its sense of ambition, best exemplified in the season’s third episode, the stand-alone one that presents itself as a the Houseflix documentary Party Monster. The whole half-hour — presented from the viewpoint of recurring character DJ Fingablast (Derek Klena), who has long admired DJ Slizzard without knowing his backstory — is a true-crime spoof on the level of American Vandal with a few dashes of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping added to the mix. Not every joke lands, and the episode stretches its satirical muscles a little too hard at times. But it’s still a bold and amusing diversion from the Kimmy Schmidt norm, and it serves an important purpose as a narrative turning point for the rest of the season.

The cast continues to be as game as ever, though, as per usual, the story lines that involve Kimmy’s landlord/friend Lillian (Carol Kane) are the most extraneous. (This season she’s dealing with the aftermath of the death of her lover, Artie.) Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline no longer employs Kimmy as a nanny and is way too upper-crusty to spend so much time with the likes of this crew, but she nevertheless asserts her place this season by becoming Titus’s agent, despite the fact that she has named her agency White Talent.

Titus, meanwhile, remains focused on becoming a star and trying to impress his former boyfriend Mikey (Mike Carlson), so much so that he invents a TV show, casts himself as the star, and plasters promotional posters of it all over New York. The series is called The Capist, and it’s about a guy who solves crimes while displaying his appreciation of capes. It’s an utterly ridiculous concept for a TV drama and is probably already in its third season on CBS All Access.

A lot of wink-wink jokes are made the expense of Peak TV and all of them land like explosive hand grenades. “I fell asleep against a wall the other day,” Titus confesses, “and they postered over me for something called Ray Don-a-Van.” A copy of what “TV Guide looks like now” is the equivalent of a ’roided-up phone book. The guffaw-per-minute ratio on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt remains very, very high.

And then there’s Kemper as Kimmy, who is still the same fudging, innocent optimist she’s always been, but is also exposed more blatantly for her cluelessness. When she tries to come to the aid of Korean staffers at a local nail salon, for example, one technician makes a point of noting that Kimmy is offering help so she’ll feel better about herself. In other words, Kimmy still has a lot of work to do to become a better person, even as she’s trying to make the world a place as wonderful as her childlike mind still wants it to be.

Based on the cliff-hanger at the end of episode six — the remainder of the season will stream at an unspecified date later this year — Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt seems committed to testing its protagonist until the very end. But before it says farewell, it’s also intent on getting in a few last jabs at the madness of the contemporary TV landscape. I recommend watching it, and I say that with the full authority vested in me by the Al Gore Rhythm.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Is As Ambitious and Zany As Ever