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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Four Women and A Body: Body of Proof S02 E09

30 November 2011
         Dr. Megan Hunt examines a body with her usual candor.

Male doctor: ” ‘Scuse me, dear.”

Dr. Hunt: “Actually, it’s Doctor Dear.”

Note: The recent two-month hiatus in blogging is due to my stupid decision to take five courses in my first semester at SCA. As I hope to take another five next semester, for a whopping total of 14 credits (I believe most first year students take 10?), three of which are writing courses, I can only assume an extended mid-season break is approaching. Thanks for sticking with TeleRevision in the meantime. I assure you this is only a part of my larger efforts to see women dominate the media.

That exchange above, between medical examiner Megan Hunt and a good ol’ boy doctor/Anatomy professor, happened to my mother. Baltimore, 1994. My mother was starting her first (and only, to date) position as the head of a research laboratory. A worker made the innocent mistake of calling her “Hon,” a very Bawlmer term of endearment. Naturally my mother responded, “Excuse me, but it’s Doctor Hon.”

The point I am trying to make is this: it is positively exhilarating to see strong, well-rounded female characters share our experiences. I know that’s why I turn to art, music, film, television, etc–to know that someone else has felt something of what I am feeling, even if they’ve expressed it through the daily struggles of a fictional character.

In every show I watch long-term, and even some I only peruse occasionally, there is one episode that stands out as a turning point in my relationship to the show. I tend to watch television in a state of intellectual distraction, often thinking about other ideas or work as I watch. But if I keep with a show long enough, there is always an episode, or perhaps even a moment, that engages my attention completely and causes me to realize how invested I am in these characters.

So today when I watched the most recent episode of a steadily-improving medical mystery show, I was transfixed. Female characters who experience the same kind of casual sexism most women do, and who shrug it off with a few choice words, or a biting aside to a colleague? Women of varying ethnicities, and with varying levels of career success, but who all behave assertively, even when they show vulnerability? A show with four great female characters with interesting jobs in its first season (Dr. Megan Hunt, Dr. Kate Murphy, police detective Samantha Baker, and Hunt’s mother, Judge Joan Hunt) that adds a new, equally engaging female character (Dani Alverez, a driver and body-picker-upper for the medical examiner’s office with forensic aspirations) in its second season? I’m absolutely sold.

Derivative storylines and clunky emotional arcs held back Body of Proof during its first season, but now that the writers have a firm handle on the individual stories and identities of their female characters, the show is completely engrossing. My friend and I used to watch Body of Proof  as a sort of long-running joke. We love Dana Delaney, the actress who plays Dr. Hunt, and we were enjoying the sheer absurdity of its premise: after a car accident, a gifted surgeon experiences hand tremors and is forced to take a job as a medical examiner–ya know, because you can’t kill people who are already dead. I mean how incredibly stupid does that sound?

But we stuck with it through an uneven first season, and now I am almost shocked to watch this network show and see four women speaking to each other in a non-accusatory manner about something other than a man. To be fair, in the episodes leading up to this one, Dr. Hunt and Dr. Murphy do discuss a man, namely Hunt’s ex-husband who is now dating Murphy, but the work always comes first. They bond over inert bodies, regardless of their personal lives. This is not a meaningless instance of characterization or plot development. I never thought I would say this about a show that began life as a tossed-off mid-season replacement, a sort of Grey’s Anatomy for the CSI set, but Body of Proof is progressive television.

"I've tried to teach my students respect for these bodies, but boys will be boys."

"Hm, maybe that's why it took a girl to catch what you missed."

Body of Proof depicts women who are capable of doing impressive analytical and deductive work despite their feelings about love, motherhood, and relationships. These women feel things strongly, but they are still capable of doing their jobs. In a culture where we have been taught that women’s emotions always cloud their judgment, it is progressive as hell to see women who think, feel, and act like we do getting shit done, regardless of whether they’re having bad days or good. Body of Proof reminds me to keep an open-mind toward television and other media because you never know where you’ll find the strong characters you’ve been looking for. After all, as Dr. Hunt is fond of saying, “The body is the proof.” Stay tuned!

(Also, especially stay tuned for a future post where I get all Cultural Studies about this and discuss the idea of women examining the body as a site of trauma. This is kind of a big deal.)


New Shows, New City: New Girl S01 E01

27 August 2011

Perpetual gamine Zooey Deschanel and housemates

Loyal readers (yes, all five of you), here’s the skinny:

Two weeks ago your intrepid blog-writer moved to Los Angeles, city of angels, shattered dreams, misplaced hope, etc. This move has placed me somewhat closer to the people responsible for the media I so dearly love to criticize. So my urge to eviscerate is dampened slightly by the vague threat of being black-listed. But never fear! I will remain a (self-) righteous arbiter of truth and beauty! Specifically the truth and beauty of the new FOX sitcom New Girl.

There are certain perks to be had as a member of the, ahem, film school elite, especially when one is paying the same amount in tuition that a family in Baltimore city might make in a year. (Can someone make me a LOLcat that reads, “Privlij! I haz it!”? Thanks.) These perks take the form of unpaid internships, grueling networking, and, of course, free screenings of yet-to-be-released films and television shows.

Tonight I got to see the pilot episode of New Girl, which officially premieres on FOX in September. And you know what? It didn’t suck. It was light and goofy, but generally pretty fun.

Now here’s where the truth n beauty come in: Impish Zooey D steals every scene she’s in with those big doe eyes that make me think she made an unholy deal with an anime character. An anime character who now drips enormous sweat-tears from beady rat eyes. So yeah, Zooey is pretty  beautiful, despite the thick, plastic frame glasses she wears to better impersonate an awkward girl. Oh honey, you’re never going to be the awkward girl, no matter how much bad dancing you do, or how many of your botched smiles turn into grimaces. But it’s just so darn cute to watch you try! (Incidentally, I am still undecided as to whether Liz Meriwether is mocking this ridiculous trope, or whether she genuinely thinks Zooey looks like a homely weirdo just because of some Henry Kissinger specs. Please, dear god, let it be the former.)

And the truth? Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the premise of New Girl bears some similarity to my living situation here in sunny, flesh-blistering California. You see, Zooey (aka Jess) lives with three male roommates after a cruel cucqueaning by her fashion model boyfriend (Yeah, you like that one?). And I, too, live with three male roommates, though I seem to have avoided the tense situations that arise when one is in possession of a model boyfriend. Darn!

This fictional situation, and my real one, raise some interesting questions about fabricating narrative. The premise of New Girl sounds equally hackneyed and absurd, and yet, it could happen to anyone. With an adorable performance by Zooey Deschanel (or should I say “Adorkable,” like the text on the t-shirt I got in my first swag bag? Oh geez. It’s happening.), we can see how an unusual housing situation, coupled with a relatable but simultaneously pathetic main character, becomes the premise for a situational comedy. Personal experiences are magnified and details are invented, but the resulting narrative still bears a passing resemblance to identifiable events. This strategy ensures that even when we laugh at Zooey/Jess’s foibles, we can see a little of ourselves in her.

I’d wager New Girl will last at least a full season, but I am hoping for some healthy competition from Two Broke Girls and Whitney. But regular readers know how I feel about any show of this ilk: if the protagonists are women, and the show itself is mildly watchable, then I completely support these endeavors. Now if we could only see some non-white actresses in these roles. We’ll revisit the issue in ten years. Surely there will be more to discuss by that time (Unless there isn’t, in which case I will quit Hollywood without so much as a backward glance or an Emmy nom.) Until then, stay tuned!


True Love Travels: The Bachelor S15 E09

1 March 2011

Bachelor Brad awaits true love in scenic South Africa

Yesterday my obliging viewing partner and I watched the penultimate episode of the The Bachelor before the final decisive revelation (next week’s episode is a reunion show, then in two weeks, the big reveal). In this episode, Brad takes the remaining three women to South Africa. Now they’ve been to Costa Rica, Anguilla, and the Dark Continent–I’m really making the effort here to choose terminology that Texan Brad might use. After all, his child-like shock at viewing a pride of drowsy lions betrays his belief that Africa is a place of magic and wonder. Just like Disneyland, except here the material poverty surpasses the spiritual kind.

So why can’t we find love in America? What’s so innately detrimental about experiencing romance in the United States that Brad can’t whisk the ladies away for a weekend at the Hearst Castle, or a tour of the Grand Canyon?

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that these questions are partially provoked by a friend of mine who’s studying the aesthetics of grandiose and significant places constructed by humans. In The Bachelor, Brad chaperons the women to places where ostensibly they will be awed by nature: the lush, verdant jungles of Costa Rica, the warm sand and light drizzle of an Anguilla night, and an open-air tree house on the South African savanna. Hope they brought mosquito netting!

Although the beauty of these locales originates in their natural qualities, they have become tourist destinations through human efforts to subdue or capture nature. In one distinct space, in a single tiny corner of South Africa, we can experience everything–the myriad types of wildlife and plants, the heady scent of a foreign and therefore slightly dangerous place, and the thrill of having the ubiquitous experience of love in a spot where surely no one else has felt it as you do.

Brad and his women travel to places where an entire culture is condensed into a single oceanic resort or a starry picnic under unfamiliar skies. How accurate their travel destinations seem when we recall that this is a television program about condensing love. The Bachelor asks us to believe that a man and a woman find some sort of kinship in the span of a few short weeks merely by experiencing each other through the heightened awareness of an endless first date. Much like their hyperbolic travel destinations, the women of The Bachelor, and to some extent, Brad, experience a sort of exaggerated journey to true love.

And much like the man-made jungle or the constructed safari experience, The Bachelor is all about taming women. My viewing partner and I often refer to the show as “infantilizing women,” but that’s not what it’s doing. It isn’t re-imagining women as children; it’s re-imagining uncontrolled single women as full-fledged adults. It’s about subduing all desires except for the right one: the desire to find a man and get married. The final rose ceremony doesn’t culminate in a conclusive flower and a trip around the world; it ends with a rock. A diamond and the promise of an engagement, that’s all women want.

The Bachelor eliminates our urges to explore, to probe our world in its natural state. We are taught to focus our hysteria on the overly intense beauty of artificial vistas and on the rugged ideal of a proper man. We must channel our energy into securing this man, but as Chantal O. recently learned, we must never appear over-eager lest he think that we are unstable or erratic.

The Bachelor is my vicarious encounter with the romantic dream of true love. It is every Disney princess movie, every perfect Hollywood marriage, and every single woman waiting for her entitlement. The Bachelor doesn’t sell white picket fences to spinsters in cluttered studio apartments–it’s a commercial whose message is keep waiting, no matter what, for the fantasy that is your birthright.

Can a single television show really capture the zeitgeist of a generation of women? (rhetorical LOL) And when will this hysterical bitch be tamed just like nature? (You know, there’s a reason both women and fields are “plowed”) Stay tuned!


Stuff I Love: 30 Rock S05 E16

25 February 2011

"I want to roll my eyes right now, but the doctor said if I keep doing it my ocular muscles might spasm, and eject my eyeballs."

TINA FEY, ARE YOU READING MY BLOG?

Because really, this episode was the perfect antidote to my Liz Lemon concerns of last week. This is the Liz Lemon I love, the woman I can imagine running a television show, managing the writers, and standing up for her gender. Just when I think Liz has become another sad-sack eating her way out of a failed relationship, the 30 Rock writers come up with a surprise like this. Did you guys know it’s my birthday on Saturday? Otherwise I can’t account for the timely relevance of this hilarious and smart episode.

There are two plots here, a Liz plot and a Jack subplot, and both involve the manipulation of a younger woman. Liz hires a new female comic featured on the fake ladyblog “Joan of Snark,” but she’s distressed by the woman’s “baby hooker” appearance, childish voice, and sexualized interactions with the male writers. Jack decides to convince a little girl that she shouldn’t run the family business, corporate behemoth Kabletown, so that he’ll have a chance to take over the company instead. Liz tries to change her new guest writer, and Jack tries to sway a little girl’s dreams, but both schemes inevitably backfire.

In the meantime, we gain some insight from Liz on what it’s like to be a woman working in television.

 

Liz and Abby converse under a statue of Liz’s heroine Eleanor Roosevelt

 

Abby: You know what Liz, I don’t have to explain myself to you. My life is none of your business.

Liz: Except it is, because you represent my show, and you represent my gender in this business, and you embarrass me.

I’ve never heard a female character on television say anything remotely resembling this comment. And on a television show about television too! If Liz Lemon is indeed a character based on Fey’s own experiences working in the television industry, then this is a critical and astute statement. I’m sure many women who watched this episode could recall similar experiences: moments when they felt compelled to counsel their younger counterparts, perhaps to the detriment of their personal relationships, or moments when they received the unwanted advice of an older woman.

The only weak spot in this episode was the ending of the Liz plot, in which Liz learns that Abby only adopted the baby hooker persona to avoid her psychotic ex-husband. I understand what 30 Rock is trying to say in this moment–that we should encourage women as a gender, but not without understanding them as individuals–but I think the comedy fell flat. I can, however, see the difficulty in trying to get such an earnest message across in a television sitcom, so I can’t fault the writers for that too much. Otherwise, I sincerely appreciated this episode and its covert implications, all of which was executed through comedy that was never didactic or moralistic. Stay tuned!

 

Confidential to Tina in Manhattan: If you’re really reading, I loved your recent article in The New Yorker.


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!