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.

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Let’s Give This Thing A Chance: New Girl S02 E21

5 April 2013

new girl S02 E21

This post is long overdue by quite a few months. It’s loosely about last night’s episode of New Girl, but more about the entire second season.

I didn’t like the first six or so episodes of New Girl. I thought the storylines were contrived and the characters felt flat. My biggest concern was the overwhelming quirkiness of Jess: each male roommate acted as a straight man to her goofy, adorkable (gag me) protagonist.

Last October, I was planning my schedule for the following semester, my last at USC. I decided to dangle my toes in the shark-infested waters of writing comedy for television and sign up for a comedy spec class. In anticipation of this class, I tried to acquaint myself with more of the current, non-Two and a Half Men-type comedies on the air (what can I say? 2.5 Assholes will always have a special place in my heart as my litmus test for true television mediocrity.). In this spirit of open-mindedness, and on the recommendation of several writer friends, I gave New Girl a second chance. I caught up with the remainder of the first season, and started paying attention to the second.

And you know what? I was really delighted to discover the ways in which this show has changed. As Season 1 progresses, all the male roommates develop their own idiosyncrasies, quickly becoming as quirky as Jess. Meanwhile, Jess’s particular brand of crazy is toned down significantly. The characters become fully-realized, and when they do engage in oddball pursuits, we can see how their behavior is motivated by who they are as people. I do think Winston continues to take on the role of straight man for most of the Season 1 episodes, but that’s been changing quite a bit in Season 2, and to great comedic effect.

So let’s talk about Season 2 and what New Girl is doing right. The humor on this show has become quite surreal. It’s not exactly 30 Rock, but New Girl has found a way to extract humor from bizarre scenarios, while maintaining genuine relationships between characters. On a recent episode, the roommates attend the funeral of Nick’s father. At the end, there is an emotionally-charged scene between Nick and Jess, but our route to that brief moment is circuitous: at one point, Jess replaces a local drunk as the Elvis impersonator at the funeral since naturally Nick’s dad was a huge fan of The King. This episode exemplifies how a comedy can depict authentic, meaningful connections between its characters. Nothing is more fulfilling than when the humorous parts of a sitcom episode culminate in an display of honest emotion. Sure, the characters say and do funny things, but only so that they, and we, can arrive at some deeper understanding of our relationships with other people, and sometimes with ourselves.

Speaking of relationships, how about Nick and Jess? Or as I’ve been informed in my spec class, the “Sam and Diane” of our time. (I have a funny Hollywood story about that–ask me in meatspace.) I can’t say that New Girl is my favorite sitcom while I’m writing a Parks & Recreation spec, but I LOVE how the writers are building romantic tension between Nick and Jess. So far, in a moment that has been widely GIF’ed by rabid teenage girls everywhere, Nick and Jess have shared a passionate kiss and makeout sesh. Then, in last night’s episode, Nick awkwardly groped Jess’s chest, claiming to be an “upper boob” man. In reality, he was pretty far from her tits, but viewers got the message. (Holy shit, confidential to the writers: way to get it past Standards. Seriously. Good job, guys.).

So why am I into dimly-lit hallway kisses and fumbling upper boob grasps? There’s something about Nick and Jess’s relationship that feels very much in line with my generation’s approach to relationships (and, in all fairness, probably every generation ever, but since we’re young and hot, we’re the ones you see on TV. I give us another ten years.). I hesitate to call it the couple of a generation since I think Hannah and Adam have that weird shit covered, but Nick and Jess feels right. Not in a destined-to-be-together sense, but in a wider zeitgeist-y sense.

We know Nick and Jess are gonna end up together. There are absolutely no surprises coming there. But the way in which we’re watching them deal with this early stage of their relationship feels very true to the young adult experience. The way they talk around their desires and try to avoid getting overly invested in each other is often hilariously real. Then when we do have moments of emotional pay-off, usually at the end of the episode, we can see how these flickers of honesty have emerged out of the awkwardness and natural humor of navigating a new romantic relationship. The longer New Girl holds off on the boyfriend-girlfriend labels that will surely arise in Season 3, the closer it captures the tenderness and confusion of an evolving relationship that has not yet been categorized.

I also have lots to say about New Girl‘s explicit use of Los Angeles as the world of its story, especially in relation to Modern Family‘s bland suburban denial of its clear Los Angeles location, but that’s another post. 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!


Reviving The Office S07 E20

15 April 2011

Current Dunder Mifflin manager Michael Scott and his replacement, DeAngelo Vickers

How does a dying television show, especially one whose real star power is leaving after seven seasons, recapture the zany momentum of its early episodes? Last night, as the cast and crew of The Office prepare for the imminent departure of Steve Carell, viewers were introduced to tentative new manager DeAngelo Vickers, played by a mostly straight-laced Will Ferrell.

It’s still unknown whether DeAngelo will remain a pivotal character in Season 8, but the introduction of this character and Ferrell’s interpretation of him point to some of the apparent strategies that are being used to keep The Office afloat (and presumably solvent):

  1. When in doubt, cast a star: Ferrell has been a household name since his stint on Saturday Night Live. He’s written and starred in a few modest hits (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, assorted phallocentric comedy that does boffo box office among the 18-34 demo). Loyal fans of The Office will undoubtedly tune in for Ferrell’s performance, but inconsistent viewers may also be swayed by the promise of some classic Ferrell humor. It’s unlikely that Ferrell’s four episode appearance will draw any new viewers, but at this point, surely The Office is more concerned with retention of an existing audience than the creation of a new one.
  2. Give him a silly name and some quirky hobbies: Here’s a snapshot of the Google image search page for the name “DeAngelo”:

HA HA. See it’s funny because “DeAngelo” is a black man’s name and Will Ferrell is white. So very, awkwardly white. Oh man, LOL guys, this is humor.

DeAngelo Vickers is also a huge fan of the American Southwest. I mean, that’s cool and all, but people don’t usually go around talking about their favorite regions as a get-to-know-you device. It’s funny because people don’t do this, but conceivably they could, and this character does. It’s like the ol’ girl farting gag–women don’t usually fart, but maybe they could in theory! So if we actually show a woman farting on television, it’s hilarious! Yet another excellent example of humor.

3. Add some physical humor: Begin with some standard slapstick from the ever eager to please Andy Bernard, and seal the deal with a strange back hug between Michael Scott and DeAngelo Vickers. Men laughing at other men? Too funny. But men hugging other men? This is the holy grail of sitcom humor. Any physical contact between two presumably straight men is always the second-most comedic thing on television.

The first is obviously when a dude gets slammed in the balls on America’s Funniest Home Videos. Duh.

Stay tuned!


Situational Comedy on Modern Family S02 E15

17 February 2011

 

Mitchell and Cam at Lily's princess party

 

Mitchell: Stop eyeing the princess, you’re gonna freak her out.

Cam: I don’t know, I think the whole idea of needing a prince to come along
and make you happy sends the wrong message, Mitchell. I really do.

Mitchell: Really? And a grown-man pulling boxer shorts out of his mouth doesn’t?

As I begin the second week of my newly attentive television watching habits, I realize that I watch mostly melodramas and situational comedies. After writing about Hellcats yesterday, I began to think about Community since I wrote on the expression of sincerity in each show. As I watched Modern Family shortly thereafter, I thought about its comedic structure in relation to Community.

Both shows would be considered sitcoms, but the way in which they elicit humor is somewhat different. Community relies on a cast of eccentric characters to render an improbable situation hilarious. This is why some episodes of Community can take place entirely within the study room, an innocuous space with a large table, chairs, a couch, and not much else. The humor here derives from the interactions of the characters and their slapstick use of a space, but not from the physical space itself. In Community, characters do not generally encounter the comedic situation; characters create it (although an episode that took place inside a fake, KFC-branded space shuttle was a notable exception).

In comparison, the characters of Modern Family are fairly unremarkable. Of course they’re zany and unpredictable together, but their mundanity emerges when they’re alone. Comedy occurs when these mostly stock characters (the bumbling father, the high-strung mother, the hyper-intelligent middle child, etc) are placed into unexpected situations. On this episode of Modern Family, Mitchell and Claire’s mother brings her new younger lover, who also happens to be Claire’s high school boyfriend, to Lily’s princess-themed birthday party. This example is notable for two reasons: the awkwardness of the characters attending the party (the situation) drives the humor, but the scene is also dependent on the presence of a character from outside the immediate family (the ex-boyfriend) in order to fuel tension and conflict.

Protagonists don’t explicitly create comedic events on Modern Family; they are average characters who become entangled in difficult or funny situations. When other characters, who usually appear only once, create humor through their actions, they are often depicted as being off-balance or erratic, much like all the protagonists on Community. Humor is usually character-driven on Community because it’s a show that consists solely of high school ex-boyfriends, possibly gay golf buddies, and chocolate milk-drinking little girls who want to steal your sons away (Why yes, I have seen every episode of Modern Family).

Will Modern Family stay the traditional sitcom course or will it experiment with new types of humor? Will the author become a chocolate milk-drinking hussy with a thing for mama’s boys? Stay tuned!


Characters We Love (to Hate): How I Met Your Mother S06 E16

15 February 2011

 

"...February 13. A magical night when a 10 has the self-esteem of a 4 and the depraved enthusiasm of a 2."

 

I have a complicated relationship with Barney Stinson, the infinitely quotable womanizer from How I Met Your Mother. Barney is a notorious philanderer whose advances are aggressive and whose insecurity is limitless. Barney pesters women with juvenile quips, complete with Tex Avery sound effects, in the perpetual hope that his conversation partners will spread their legs.

Despite Barney’s constant uniform of an expensive Italian suit, his wooing strategy is decidedly verbal. He slays his conquests with slick talk, and then brags, in equally descriptive and affected language, to his semi-disinterested friends. Barney’s friends roll their eyes and laugh off his lewd descriptions with a “boys will be boys” wink to the viewers, but occasionally Robin will interrupt his inflated stories to dispute the veracity of a certain fact. But that’s about it. Characters rarely question his statements about women to a degree that would incite conflict because this is a comedy after all, and Barney will be Barney.

We can’t really call Barney a misogynist because he loves women. His lascivious comments aren’t borne out of hatred, but rather out of an intense desire to fuck anything with two legs and two breasts. Barney is obsessed with women, and as Robin dryly notes in this episode, he is “a high-functioning sociopath and my ex.”  If Barney is so enamored of women, then why does he talk about them as if they’re animals or children? And how do these comments translate into humor?

My guess is that we experience a disconnect between the actor playing Barney, Neil Patrick Harris, and the character himself. Harris, openly gay nearly since the show’s inception (and surely a known fact to his co-stars), plays this Lothario character with a sort of dual purpose. There is Barney, the seducer of women, and then there’s Harris-as-Barney, the gay man playing the womanizer.

Harris has always been a fairly public figure since his first major role as the young Dr. Doogie Howser. The audience for How I Met Your Mother is familiar with his background and his career, and Harris knows this. When he plays the lecherous Barney Stinson, he is dramatizing a character with whom he has very little personal connection. Were Vince Vaughn to play this same role, we almost certainly wouldn’t laugh as hard. That’s because an actor like Vaughn has created a public persona where the deprecating comments about women just might feel a little too real.

Will Barney ever find true love? Have I exhausted my vocabulary for comic sexual predators? Stay tuned!


New TV, Good TV: Episodes S01 E06

14 February 2011

Beverly, Carol, and Sean on the set of "Pucks," a hockey comedy that was once an erudite Britcom

Beverly: You had pre-rolled joints in your bag.

Carol: Yeah, well, I also have tampons in my bag, but I only use them once a month.

Episodes is a new mid-season comedy on Showtime where television writers write about television writers writing. As a sort of Los Angeles counterpoint to New York-based 30 Rock, Episodes follows British writers Beverly and Sean as their successful show about a boys’ private school is converted into typical Hollywood mediocrity. Sean enjoys everything about LA, but Beverly is far more reluctant to embrace the sunny SoCal lifestyle. Matt LeBlanc also plays himself, as the horrifically miscast actor who recreates the headmaster’s role on the butchered American version of the show.

If Episodes is hilarious, it’s likely because most of the LA characters are deeply insecure people who, with faux sincerity and flashy Chiclet-grins, ironically reassure our writers about the security of their show. We engage with the world of Hollywood pilot production from two conflicting perspectives: Sean thinks Hollywood is a real laugh and that sometimes fake can be fun, just like “Pucks” actress Morning Randolph’s breasts, but Beverly thinks the falsity and inconsistency of Hollywood is completely infuriating. As viewers, sometimes we’re on Sean’s side and sometimes we’re on Bev’s, but the Hollywood types that we encounter are always ridiculous.

My favorite character so far is the under-appreciated and intellectually-underestimated network producer Carol. Beverly finds an unexpected friend in Carol, especially after they both smoke some adult substances together on the twin beds of the boys’ dormitory set. Carol is mildly more self-aware than Morning or executive producer Merc, which may explain why Beverly feels she can talk to her.

Beverly and Sean are almost too self-aware to function in Hollywood. Sean manages to slough off his stiff upper lip, but Beverly is constantly analyzing her behavior and the actions of everyone around her. Although there have only been six episodes of Episodes so far, what I’m enjoying most is the interaction between someone who can’t shake herself and characters who are filled with too much silicone and sunshine to have any sense of self at all. Will Bev conquer her loathing of LA? In next week’s episode, do she and Matt LeBlanc really californicate? Stay tuned!