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.