At the core of Netflix’s comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, now in its third season, is a rather dark reality. The irrepressible Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) is in direct opposition to the horrors she endured for 15 years, trapped in a bunker with several other kidnapped women by The Reverend (Jon Hamm). The show tends to refer to Kimmy’s time in the bunker has having been a member of a cult, but that infers choice. Kimmy never had a choice. She lost her childhood, and was never “comforted” by buying into the brainwashing of the Reverend like some of her fellow bunker-mates. But once she was released, which starts the series, Kimmy reclaims that childlike glee. The show rests a lot of its humor on Kimmy not understanding the ways of the modern world, seeing everything with both a true innocence and a wary, mistrustful eye. She is easily duped, but what elevates the show out of darkness is that (much like the forever-optimist at the center of Andy Daly’s Review), she never loses her sunny disposition — even though there is a sense at times that she is holding back immense darkness.
The show has dealt with Kimmy’s past in different ways over its now three seasons. At first it was about moving on and finding her way as a free woman, and in Season 2, it became more about relationships (and the drama of the significant others that Titus and Jacqueline had). Kimmy, meanwhile, got her GED, has had a few chaste romantic encounters, and in Season 3 wants to go to college. Despite her stunted development and naiveté, Kimmy is very responsible. She often ends up taking care of her friends, and continues to come to the aid of the women who were in the bunker with her, where Kimmy — this erstwhile child — as the mother figure. Her inherent goodness is at odds with the incredibly self-centered people around her (though hilariously so), but she has a very tough side to her as well. She knows that she wants more in her life, she just doesn’t know what exactly the means or how to get there.
As for her friends, Season 3 sees Titus (Tituss Burgess) returning from his cruise with a dark secret of his own, and he quickly has to confront Mikey about the future of their relationship. Titus is as fantastic as always, especially in a few Lemonade homages early in the season. But he’s also representative of the show’s wackier stylistic sensibilities, something it has leaned into much more as it goes along. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels over-written, but regardless, Burgess always sells it (he’s particularly amazing in the sixth episode, where he plays a straight love interest of Jacqueline’s).
Speaking of Jacqueline, like Burgess, Jane Krakowski absolutely steals every scene she’s in. This year, her true devotion to her bizarre beau (David Cross) also opened up a new side to her character, and gives her more to work with than just being a vapid socialite (one who is actually a friend to Kimmy this year). Jacqueline may really be the most comedically stable character on the series, and the one who allows for a deeper satire about the 1%, whereas Titus and Lilian are usually more focused on a nightmarish version of New York where the water is toxic sludge, there are only bars and adult clubs instead of stores, and the duo mistake rat babies for fruit growing on a tree. To this end, the show tries to give Lilian a chance to enter into local politics, but it’s a weak storyline whose scenes tend to drag (Carol Kane does her best with it, but the material is thin). It speaks to a larger problem with the first half of the season (which is what was available to critics): the show is extremely clever, but not particularly funny.
Though these characters all provide a crazy comic tapestry, where the show has always set itself apart was with Kimmy’s past, and balancing that trauma with a more current humor. Season 2 saw Kimmy confronting her mother in a very sincere set of scenes about how she could have let Kimmy be taken. It’s a startling, dark callback to the loss of Kimmy’s innocence, but it also helps anchor the series in a way that shows Kimmy’s story as one of triumph. And yet, the show has made some mistakes with it, like casting Hamm in a comedic as the Reverend (or really, casting anyone at all). It’s much better, and more effective, to imagine what this horrible person might have been like from Kimmy’s stories rather than to see a very comedically overwrought, joke “cult leader,” which undermines Kimmy’s experience.
In Season 3, the Reverend is back and acting like a petulant child, calling Kimmy from jail and demanding a divorce. Jacqueline encourages Kimmy to “make him crazy” by not signing the divorce papers, thereby taking away his power. But instead, the two just end up talking on the phone and trading mild-mannered, childish insults at one another for days and days. It’s an uncomfortably dynamic that borders on flirtation, and the Reverend telling Kimmy she’s “still in love with him,” etc, just makes her scrunch up her face and roll her eyes when really, it should make her sick.
I get the argument that this is a comedy, and therefore we can’t take the Reverend too seriously or it gets too dark. My counter is: then why have been back in the fold at all? And it’s clear, a few episodes in, that the show is trying to have it both ways when Kimmy has a conversation with the Reverend’s girlfriend who wants to marry him. Kimmy is beside herself, wanting to save this woman (played expertly by Laura Dern) from his traps. She finally says in an outburst “he is a rapist.” It’s a dark confirmation, yet it’s also noteworthy that the show is very careful to take sexuality out of the equation when it later introduces a female leader in a compound of teenage boy husbands. A flashback to Kimmy’s time in the bunker shows her trying to protect Donna Maria (Sol Miranda) from the Reverend, and presumably from being raped: “she doesn’t know how to distract him like we do by making him rank Kid Rock songs,” Kimmy says. It’s a funny line that holds a brutal truth. So instead, Kimmy offers to marry him as a self-sacrifice.
The series has danced around these ideas for several seasons now, and the more we see of the Reverend and the more that is called back (outside of Kimmy’s occasional outbursts), the less successful it is for the show. The series isn’t equipped to really deal with this kind of emotional trauma in the way it seems to want to. Kimmy’s life now is a testament to her success and overcoming what happened to her. Season 3 has her finding a job and learning all about colleges and what she wants as a career, and she’s a little adrift from the other characters. That’s absolutely ok — the best episode of the first six is that final one, where Kimmy comes to realize her unique position in returning to college (though expands the unfortunate Xan storyline). The college kids are kids, and the adults are adults; she’s somewhere in between. And then, in the end, she gets a startling reminder of her time in captivity, which activates her fight and flight. It’s funny, unexpectedly, because of the misunderstanding, but it also is just the right amount of a reminder of how hard she has worked to move forward, and must continue to do so. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt needs to remember that, and do the same.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Like Kimmy, proceed with cautious optimism
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 3 debuts Friday, May 19th on Netflix.