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Females Are Strong as Hell

The uncommon ambition of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."

Courtesy of Netflix

Unbrekable Kimmy Schmidt is a comedy about trauma. The show, which premiered as a Netflix original in 2015 and released a third season last month, is about the adventures of the bright-eyed Kimmy, an escaped victim of kidnapping, imprisonment, and—it’s implied—repeated rape by the leader of a religious cult. The show’s premise is dark, but its comedy is light: In that contrast lies its appeal, and the basis of its wry and affectionate update on the sitcom. Kimmy Schmidt was recently picked up for a fourth season, and the question that the show now makes unavoidable is what the sitcom can do for audiences in 2017.

Lately, the genre has been somewhat forgotten: Multi-camera sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory command reliably enormous audiences, but almost no critical attention. Prestige television has moved beyond the laugh track and the studio audience. Shows that still rely on this familiar format often seem as if they’ve been culturally left behind as well, relying on jokes that feel like comfortable carbon copies of sitcoms past, or sourly trying to cram current events into a format so falsely cheerful that the results can seem downright surreal. “I must really trust you,” a black character tells a policewoman in CBS’ new multi-camera sitcom Superior Donuts. “I’m turning my back on a Chicago cop.” “I’m not gonna shoot you,” she replies. “I got my body cam on.”

Is this a joke? Did anyone, at any time, mistake it for a joke? Or is Superior Donuts just an excuse for its star, Judd Hirsch, to have something to do on weekdays? It’s unclear exactly what this kind of “topical” gesture is meant to accomplish, and it’s uncomfortable to watch the writers fumble so badly, trying to make the tragic comic within the bounds of a form that’s designed to be lighthearted and disposable. The whole thing raises more anxieties than it relieves—not a good sign in a genre whose primary purpose is escapism.

Tina Fey knows that sitcoms get the best laughs when they don’t try too hard to be relevant. Kimmy Schmidt’s producer proceeds from the assumption that to the extent that a sitcom can be about anything, it can most effectively do so by building on a foundation of the simplest possible comedy. It’s a genre of TV whose roots are still, visibly, in theater, and it is the tools borrowed from theater that still make Kimmy Schmidt and other shows like it so successful. Great sitcoms are all about timing, looks, and letting an audience’s laughter build. A little does a lot. After all, one of the most legendary moments in TV comedy, on Judd Hirsch’s Taxi, came courtesy of exactly six words.

But what can a sitcom do without a studio audience? Removing the laugh track from a show built around one produces surreal and sometimes eerie results, and a sitcom whose characters wink at viewers through a screen rather than from a stage conjures its own version of reality: broad, at times a little cartoonish, and difficult to structure without the scaffolding of a live laugh-o-meter. Fey’s previous effort, 30 Rock, with its energetic pacing and reliance on funny voices and one-liners, may have been the best single-camera sitcom to capture the energy of comedies past, while still moving beyond their outmoded format. Sometimes you don’t need more from your entertainment than simply getting to hear Alec Baldwin tell his unborn child, with perfect gravitas, that “Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ was in fact written … by me.”

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is recognizable as a sitcom, but it began as a tightly realized story with a defined first-season arc. Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), who was abducted as a middle schooler and spent fifteen years held captive by an abusive cult leader in an underground bunker, is finally freed at twenty-nine, and, with both childlike joy and a traumatized refusal to open the door of negative emotions, tried to build a new life for herself in New York City.

The first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was about Kimmy learning to trust the people around her—including her new roommate Titus (the glorious Tituss Burgess) and her landlady Lillian (Carol Kane)—enough to open that door just slightly. The events of the show’s first season culminated in Kimmy returning to her hometown of Durnsville, Indiana (named for its founder, Zachary Ville), and putting her former captor, the self-named reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) in prison. The seasons that have followed, however, have leaned more heavily on the sitcom storytelling format: Kimmy is still growing, finding herself, and gradually confronting her trauma, but we now spend much more time on classic sitcom storylines, the kind that unfold without lasting consequences, and hit a reassuring reset button at the end of each episode.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has the deeply satisfying—and often thought provoking—ability to blend the familiar pleasures of the sitcom with hallmarks of our current media landscape. In the opening credits, the “Indiana Mole Women’s” escape is framed as we would see it on YouTube, with the kind of autotuned viral video sensation that so often accompanies real news stories. The theme song of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—with its “females are strong as hell” refrain—grows more and more touching with repetition, and is not so much a parody as a reenactment of the interview that broke the news of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight’s rescue, in 2013, from their captor’s home in Cleveland. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt begins by trying to imagine the lives that women like Berry, DeJesus, and Knight might lead after finding that their rescue has come with a jarring kind of fame: They get their first glimpse of freedom at the same moment that they are shackled to the role of celebrity victim.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s first-season blend of tragedy and farce turned out to be an uncannily apt representation of the experience of being an American in the age of the meme. We often face the most disturbing news with the most juvenile humor we can muster, simply because it’s the only way we can bear to keep following the day’s events. In the two years since the show premiered, this trend has only become more noticeable. Today, it’s hard to return to Kimmy Schmidt’s first season without noticing that the Reverend Wayne’s trial hinged on his audition tape for Donald Trump’s The Apprentice. The man who once offered inspiration to Kimmy’s captor is now holding our nation captive.

In light of this, it seems like something of a wasted opportunity that the most recent season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has sunk more deeply into well worn sitcom clichés. In this season, Kimmy goes to college and searches for her purpose, Titus finds fame, and Lillian finds love. Yet all these plotlines allow the show’s characters to move incrementally—but unmistakably—away from the queasy blend of bright comedy and dark truth that made the series’ first season so compelling, and made Ellie Kemper’s performance, as Kimmy, so touching. As someone who had been stolen away from reality as an adolescent, Kimmy was always trying to attack the problems of adulthood with childlike naivete and enthusiasm. She was a wise fool set loose in New York City, and she was often able to inspire the people around her to be better simply by letting them see in themselves what she saw in them.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is not just about trauma, but about healing. Yet this last season has been comforting to watch, not for its characters’ continued growth, but for the simple joys it offers. Of course, difficult times call for undemanding pleasures, and laughter for laughter’s sake is still deeply worthwhile. And, even at its least meaningful, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt still milks laughs from its characters in a way that betrays a deep fondness for them on the part of the writers. Some of the jokes are simplistic and even lazy—Jane Krakowski’s character has always been a weak spot, and these days the writers seem to have little idea of what to do with her—but they are never unkind in the manner of the most retrograde-feeling sitcoms on TV today, which often result to simple mockery as the writers struggle to fit two or three jokes per minute into a basically inert premise.

It’s hard to generate laugh after laugh when you’re not working in the realm of character, and the characters on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt remain consistently funny because their antics and reactions, no matter how outlandish, remain, somehow, believable: because they represent some internal consistency, and come from a character’s personality, rather than a writer’s need to fill an empty space. We know what world we’re looking at, no matter how often the reset button is pushed. And we understand, through even the most exaggerated humor, the characters of the people we are observing and spending time with. By loving its characters, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt allows us to love them, and to derive comfort from the time we spend in their company.

But is comfort enough? When sitcoms dominated primetime TV, they were capable not only of capturing enormous ratings, but of furthering social change—a capacity perhaps best exemplified by the work of show runner Norman Lear, who in the 1970s acquainted Americans with a constellation of families not so different from their own. Lear’s TV empire included All in the Family, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Maude. Lear utilized the light, comfortable format of the sitcom, and the sense of familiarity it bred in viewers, to bring serious topics home: If you watched the same people every week, they became more like family surrogates than celebrities, and you could watch them ponder the same social issues and emotional dilemmas that were present in your life. Happy families are all alike, but every American family has its own Archie Bunker.

In Lear’s world, characters had miscarriages and abortions, found themselves the victims of hate crimes and sexual assault, and coped with institutionalized racism—and with their own prejudices. In “Cousin Liz,” an Emmy Award-winning episode of All in the Family that aired in 1977, Archie and Edith Bunker struggle first to understand, and then to respect, that a recently deceased relative was a lesbian—and then to honor her surviving partner’s wishes.

“We had a happy, wonderful life together,” Liz’s partner says. “Twenty-five marvelous years.”

“Oh, that’s good,” a stunned Edith says. “I wonder why she never mentioned it.”

“Well, people don’t want to hear about that,” she explains. “I mean, do you think that we would have been allowed to work as schoolteachers?”

“Well, why not?” Edith asks. “I mean, that don’t affect the brain, does it?”

Like Edith Bunker, Kimmy Schmidt is at once hilariously childlike and uncannily wise. Everything is new to her, and so viewers get to have the experience of watching Kimmy work through everything that she has been kept from experiencing in the bunker: how to process anger, how to establish healthy emotional boundaries, how to reckon with the past. If Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt defies the odds and works as a sitcom in a time when sitcoms are a thing of the past, it is in large part because Kimmy is someone whose trauma has led her to act like a sitcom character within the real world. Her willingness to work through the things that confuse her, rather than pretending she has her life figured out, makes her not just entertaining to watch, but a character who can teach us to be as unashamed as she is about struggling with the issues that flummox us. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has, in its third season, grown slightly tepid, and retreated to sitcom conventions—but these qualities don’t go hand in hand. There is hard wisdom to be gained within the sitcom model. Even if the reset button is pressed at the end of every episode, we, as audiences, remember what we saw.