Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Subtext and Fragility

6 April 2015

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

For the last two weeks, I’ve been trying to find time for a second viewing of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I blazed through the episodes when they were first released in March 2015, planning all along to re-watch the first season of the series for nuances and missed jokes. But I haven’t been able to make time for Unbreakable, and it’s not because my schedule is packed.

I did enjoy Unbreakable the first time I watched it, provided I didn’t think too hard about the premise. Often I love dark comedies that probe into the things that make us squirm, but when I think about the construction of narrative in Unbreakable, I’m starting to think the stakes are lower on the shows I usually watch.

I used to watch this amusing but not particularly insightful British comedy for awhile, Bad Education (Not to be confused with the awful American show with a similar title and ethos). In Bad Education, comedian Jack Whitehall plays a bad teacher — not “bad” out of any malicious intent, but more a badness borne out of inexperience and a sincere desire to connect with his students.

In this show, many of the classroom jokes depend on one of teacher Alfie’s more precocious female students, Chantelle, flirting with him in an aggressive, highly sexualized manner. Her comments and come-ons to Alfie are so exaggerated that their interactions become total farce.

These jokes work because they are taking a very common scenario and inverting the power dynamic. How many times per week or month will we read horrific news stories about predatory teachers (both male and female) engaging in sexual encounters with their students? It happens all the time, and each story is novel in its details, mundane in its overarching sameness.

The jokes between Alfie and Chantelle rarely provide incisive social commentary. They are, however, pretty funny. Generally in a teacher-student classroom relationship, the teacher wields more power than the student. That’s the reason, we hypothesize, that some teachers are able to take advantage of their students sexually and in other ways. In Alfie and Chantelle’s classroom relationship, Chantelle’s grasp of sexual power (accessible through her beauty, youth, and wit) becomes a means for her to disarm Alfie. He doesn’t become a helpless pool of male jelly in her presence, but he does spend a good deal of classroom time fending off her advances through a pointed look or one-liner. Thus his purported goal, to teach the students, becomes scrambled by Chantelle’s behavior.

I know that in dissecting the comedy of these scenes, I’ve made this whole show sound hopelessly unfunny. But this critical cruelty comes in service of another point: Unlike Bad Education¬† (which I did indeed enjoy), I suspect that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is not content with being “pretty funny.”

Fey and Carlock want their comedy to do more — they want the incisive social commentary and the funny jokes. This is a Sisyphean task. There’s a reason¬†Unbreakable was booted from network to Netflix. In network shows, much to the chagrin of many talented writers I know, social commentary occupies the thin margin of subtext beneath the broad jokes, goofy characters, or laugh track.

A few network shows I watch have slid in some social commentary on recent episodes, but it generally amounts to nothing. A Black-ish episode (last week’s?) featured a single woman in an advertising agency board room facing extremely clueless and intentionally sexist behavior from her male colleagues, but that went nowhere. Even when the woman’s advice to the protagonist proved to be correct by show’s end, we never met her character again.

I would even argue that a very funny, consistently entertaining cable show like Broad City has no internal subtext within the world of its characters. And this isn’t even remotely a criticism.¬†Broad City is so successful and well-liked precisely because it has no subtext. The issues that are referenced opaquely and clandestinely on a show like New Girl are presented as worthy of ‘A-story’ status on Broad City: anal penetration (of a man, by a woman), the ways in which women get out of trouble with the police, unabashed love for something as trivial as home decor.

If a show like New Girl addressed that last topic (and I’m sorry for picking on you, New Girl! You’re just the example that’s come to mind today), it would probably be in the guise of Jess redecorating the loft somehow, and then the male roommates hassling her for her obsession with good taste and decorative objects. In Broad City, Abbi’s Bed Bath & Beyond obsession isn’t presented as a problem or something to be changed: it’s just the way things are. Other characters may note the strangeness of her love for BB&B, but it’s okay, because Abbi is a beautiful, phenomenal queen, the light of Ilana’s life, YAAAASS QUEEN YAAAASSS and then we move on. Literally everything of importance or note in Abbi and Ilana’s lives is presented openly and, quite literally, broadly.

But the problem with subtext comes when the disconnect between what is said openly and what is implied is too broad. If your show doesn’t have any subtext whatsoever, like Broad City, then this will never be a problem. However, when a show like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is entirely dependent on what is not said and what intelligent viewers should already know about the world of the characters, a stylized version of their own world, it becomes very easy for jokes to miss the mark.

At its core, what is Unbreakable about? This question is intentionally reductive. It’s meant to strip Unbreakable of its quirky characters, amusing storylines, catchy theme song, and hilarious viral song about the overlap between pinot noir and peeno noir.

Unbreakable is the story of what happens next: what happens after we have read the gruesome headlines about women (and yes, it’s almost always women) who have been trapped in basements and bunkers, women who have been forced to perform “weird sex stuff,” as Kimmy puts it. Unbreakable is about what happens after the media loses interest, the book deals are done, life goes on.

If we consider this confinement of women as the defining life experience that comprises the thematic core of Unbreakable, then the pilot is a fantastic piece of work. All of Kimmy’s new experiences are reflected through the horror of her past. The light-up sneakers, the automated water faucet, the thrill of exploring any space bigger than an underground prison cell. This content and this humor is great: everything comes together brilliantly in the first episode.

Issues arise in the subsequent episodes, when humor comes out of situations and idiosyncrasies of character, as it generally should in a television comedy. None of this is a problem. The problem, for me as a viewer, arises from episodes and scenarios that forget the enormity of Kimmy’s background.

Unbreakable is a dark comedy. There’s really no other comedic option given its source material and inspiration. Women have been held in dungeons and raped by their fathers and borne children in darkness. If you’re going to find a way to make this funny, it’s not a reboot of Three’s Company.

And I think in later episodes, Unbreakable has a tendency to lose sight of the real women whose absolutely miserable fates provide the emotional spine of the show. Wouldn’t Kimmy’s comedic encounters be more realistic and sincerely, gratefully funny if the specter of her imprisonment was always a part of some thin, dark subtext underlying the entire show?

Unbreakable fails when it becomes an average fish-out-of-water, country-mouse-in-the-big-city situational comedy. Unbreakable fails when it dehumanizes Kimmy and forgets where she’s been in its optimistic attempt to focus on where she’s going. Unbreakable fails when it disregards the people, in all capacities, that have been the impetus of its humor.

This morning I read this article (and all its attendant theories and remarks) on Gawker. It is a stark reminder that comedy cannot exist in a vacuum. Comedy comes from our stories, stories that are so horrific all you can do is laugh or real people who are so absurd you feel compelled to satirize them. And if the story is not yours — meaning, if you personally have not spent years of your life in an underground bunker or if you personally have not altered your face in an extraordinary way by testing new plastic surgery procedures on yourself, talk to the people who have. In my experience, people fucking love to talk about themselves. Even when the topics are difficult or dark.

Maybe Martin Short’s performance could have instead been a cameo from the actual Dr. Brandt. Perhaps he was a person who didn’t mind laughing at himself, provided he was the one inciting the laughter. But because mediocre comedy can be short-sighted and mean, now we’ll never know.

Come on, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. You’ve got it in you to be great. You know where you come from and you know where you’re going. Re-watch your own pilot a half-dozen times. Get the whole writers’ room to read a couple books on trauma. Reach out to people who have suffered and ask them about the parts of their experiences that were so absurd they became perversely hilarious. Leave the safety of your writers’ bunker, venture into the sunshine, and keep going from there, remembering the bright world of humor and comedy you came from as you probe into stories of darkness and horror. Stay tuned.


Reality Television: Up All Night S01 E01

17 September 2011

It’s that time of the year–a certain crispness in the air (unless you live in LA), crinkling leaves littering the ground (unless you live in LA), and the mingling sense of desperation and excitement that announces the arrival of pilot season (only if you live in LA).

I want to like Up All Night. Arrested Development ended five years ago and Will Arnett needs a hit. I love the incredibly talented Maya Rudolph, and Christina Applegate is a perfectly acceptable blond everywoman. She’s not especially quirky, but that’s okay, since she’s playing the generic mommy-executive type.

The premise is unfortunately simple: Mommy (Applegate) returns to work after having Baby, Daddy (Arnett) used to work (apparently he played hockey and worked in a law firm, definitively establishing Arnett’s Canadian heritage) but now he’s Mr. Mom, and Mommy’s boss is a real wackadoo (Rudolph). How will Mommy balance career and family? Will Daddy get resentful as Baby’s primary caregiver? And how will Crazy Boss provide hilarious comic relief? Pretty standard stuff.

Up All Night is completely watchable, but I’m having some real difficulty pinpointing exactly what is so boring about this show. At times the dialogue is pretty snappy, but then there are some clunky expository lines that hopefully will disappear once the show gets underway. There’s a certain leniency required to critique a pilot episode because its demands are so wholly different from an episode that comes halfway through an established series. So I’m willing to forgive the leaden repartee between Arnett’s character and Applegate’s in this early episode, but that doesn’t change the fact that Up All Night is just plain tedious.

If Emily Spivey, the creator, is sincerely trying to create a series that provokes the same feelings of ennui and malaise (god bless the French) in her audience that the Mommy and Daddy characters feel, then job well done. A rousing success.

The problem is that this strategy is too successful. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a mewling brat clinging to my neck as I puree real food into baby slops, but this show is tedious. I’m inclined to think that even if I could relate to the PARENTING EXPERIENCE (emphasis mine), I’d still find Up All Night dull and uninspired.

Yeah, babies change your life. It’s really tough at first, but then you get used to it. Almost 7 billion people have had or will have this revelation. Does this really mean we need a sitcom about it? And who’s the target audience for a show about the difficulties of being young(ish), white, middle-class, and raising a kid? Do other youngish, white, middle-class people really want to watch a show about the struggles of their peers? If I’ve been at work all day dealing with an infantile boss, or I’ve been home dealing with an actual infant, do I really want to come home and watch more of the same?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: good television is an escape from the mundane; great television is an escape, but it also makes you think. Mildly watchable, but mostly uninteresting, television is home movies with higher production values. And no one wants to see another YouTube video of your adorable baby. Just like homemade sex videos, keep that shit to yourself.

Incidentally, if anyone wants to see an awesome show that’s superficially about parenting, I would recommend Raising Hope. I caught up on the first season of Raising Hope a few months ago and it’s easily one of the best sitcoms on television right now. Up All Night is about raising a baby, but Raising Hope is about the people raising a baby.

This may seem like a negligible discrepancy, but it makes all the difference. Applegate and Arnett’s characters are bland, suburban parents, while Rudolph’s character is the insane outlier that redeems the show from the domain of the purely mediocre. Raising Hope inverts this formula: the Mommy and Daddy characters are cut from the same cloth as Rudolph’s Up all Night character, as are many of the supporting roles, and only the Baby-Daddy’s character is bland–but necessarily so, as a foil to the trash-talking, chain-smoking Mommy and the oblivious, but well-meaning, Daddy. If you’re looking for diversion over parenting tips, laughs over commiseration, skip Up All Night and check out Raising Hope instead. The second season premieres next week on FOX, so you’ve still got a week to catch up. Stay tuned!

Character Tropes: Off the Map S01 E07

24 February 2011


Dr. Fuller and Charlie have a manly heart-to-heart


Dr. Fuller: Look, little man, when I was a kid I had this pet hamster…and then one day I came home from school and he was gone. I guess I left his cage unlatched. And eventually I found his body underneath my bed.

Charlie: I’m not gonna die under your bed.

I’ve already discussed my love of ridiculous medical melodramas ad nauseam, so today I feel obliged to bring up a less thrilling aspect of Off the Map. In the scene depicted above, Dr. Fuller attempts to repair his relationship with Charlie, the local boy who helps out at the clinic. Dr. Fuller is initially annoyed by Charlie’s constant presence and questions, but eventually he realizes that he can help Charlie become a doctor, and Charlie can help him become a better person.

So here’s the rub: in all these shows where first world meets third world, or East meets West, or rich meets poor, why is the relationship between two characters of different backgrounds always set up this way? The privileged character offers some sort of material goods or skills to the less privileged character, but the latter always encourages some sort of spiritual improvement in the former.

In Off the Map, and other television shows like Outsourced or even Gossip Girl, people who come from advantageous backgrounds are soulless and empty. Dr. Fuller becomes less close-minded and disrespectful through his interactions with Charlie and other South Americans; Charlie on Outsourced becomes less xenophobic after his Indian culture study sessions with Gupta, and Blair Waldorf sprouts a seedling of a soul after her encounters with Dan (because yes, to be from Brooklyn in a world of Upper East Siders naturally means you’re poor as dirt).

In return for their mystic wisdom into the nature of human behavior, these supposedly disadvantaged characters are often given material means of improving their lives. Their privileged benefactors can’t offer advice gleaned from a lifetime spent on the streets, but they can offer medical training and higher social status (it remains to be seen what Charlie owes Gupta on Outsourced).

If this trope were reversed, we’d undoubtedly decry the privileged for their condescending attitudes to the less privileged. I also can’t think of many elite television characters who would want to learn the tangible skills of the poor. Blair Waldorf, a struggling writer? Never! She’s fine with being an editor like Jackie O, but writing is for the common people.

I wonder if this relationship only appears on a certain type of melodrama. I’ve yet to see it occur on a comedy, but I’m inclined to think that may be because most comedies lack the innate self-righteousness of the socially dichotomous melodrama. I’m hard-pressed to think of a comedy with the same definite boundaries between two distinct classes of people. Will Community erupt into class warfare? Can Leslie Knope impress some feminism on Ron Swanson in exchange for hunting lessons? Stay tuned!

Simulated Chemistry: Modern Family S02 E16

24 February 2011

"No, no woman is okay with this. We don't forget, we wait, and then when you least expect it, we make you pay."

Every time I watch Modern Family, I look for any indication that this show depicts a family. I keep hoping to see some vague sign of intimacy between Mitchell or Cameron, or to understand why a high-strung woman like Claire stays married to a bumbling loser like Phil. I guess the lack of chemistry between characters doesn’t bother most viewers since Modern Family has already picked up a handful of awards since its debut, but it’s a notable and critical absence for me.

Watching chemistry play out on television is almost undefinable, and I don’t think its absence is necessarily the result of a poor casting decision. With the exception of Cameron, all of the other actors on Modern Family are decently matched to their characters. Their lack of chemistry emerges in their interactions with each other. Each actor plays a particular type of character with great enthusiasm, but when these types (the obsessive gay guy, his needy partner, the anxious mother, the inept father, etc) encounter each other, it’s as if they don’t know how to interact.

Modern Family is so consumed with depicting a blended family made up of many distinct, and perhaps unexpected, character types, that it tends to lose sight of the fact that characters will engage with other characters. Every time I see a scene like the one between Gloria and Phil as she cuts his hair, I wonder how such awkward people can exist. If at least they managed to co-exist, then fine, it would be another Arrested Development, but these characters are focused on playing themselves at the expense of communicating with their family members. Gloria and Phil circle each other linguistically, but they know nothing about each other. I don’t believe that they’re part of the same family.

I know it may seem like character chemistry is a superficial aspect to examine in an otherwise respectable television show, but the distinction between characters who have it and characters who don’t is pretty clear to me. On Modern Family, I buy into the reality of two relationships: parent and child Phil and Luke, and siblings Claire and Mitchell. Phil and Luke’s relationship makes perfect sense since Luke is essentially a dumber version of Phil. One can only hope that the kid grows into his looks so he’s got something going for him.

In comparison to the many forced or contrived relationships on the show, Claire and Mitchell’s relationship just feels natural. This is the basic crux of the chemistry dilemma: does it feel natural? I realize that certain relationships may seem natural to other viewers of Modern Family, but for me, only Claire and Mitchell capture the essence of the sibling relationship. When I see them interact with their families–Claire, the restless housewife, and Mitchell, the whiny overachiever–and then I see them converse with each other, I can tell that their relationship works on a different, deeper level. Claire and Mitchell’s shared perfectionism emerges in their discussions of their families, but they also speak to each other in an ironic yet caring manner that emphasizes their familial bond.

In comparison to the Claire and Mitchell dynamic, the other relationships on the show seem tepid. Maybe the actors have no chemistry in reality, but it’s part of their job descriptions to fake it. If you’ve created an entire character from a three-line description in a script, and you embody this character on multiple episodes of a show, you should be able to assess your character’s relationship with other characters. Get into your character, go outside your character-self, and feel what it’s really like to be part of this television family. Stay tuned!