Saturday, August 29, 2015

TV series review: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
(USA, 2015)
created by Robert Carlock and Tina Fey
starring Carol Kane, Tituss Burgess, Ellie Kemper, Jane Krakowski, Ki Hong Lee

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a very odd premise for what is essentially supposed to be a sitcom--four women are finally rescued after being held hostage for 15 years by a mad doomsday prophet (Jon Hamm) in an underground bunker in Indiana. The prophet brainwashes them, tells them that the world ended on June 6, 2006, so there is no point leaving the bunker, and keeps them there for his own nefarious purposes. (These purposes are only vaguely hinted at and very rarely described--except for how they all had to take shifts turning a giant crank, which surprisingly is not a euphemism for something sexual.)

There are quite a few real-life situations this premise brings to mind: the women held as sex slaves in Cleveland; Jaycee Dugard; Elizabeth Smart. All these women were treated horrifically and their captivity and eventual release are really not something one should joke about. So it was with trepidation that I started watching UKS, mostly because I had read that it was actually a very well-done show that had some thoughtful things to say about about surviving trauma and reclaiming one's life in the aftermath.

Now that I have watched all 13 episodes (thank you Netflix auto-play--I watched the series in 3 days), I can see where this assessment of the show comes from. Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) is a wonderfully resilient character who never forgets that she has been through terrible trauma but spends every day enjoying her new lease on life and putting one foot in front of the other. Her response to her liberation is utter delight and a determination to spend her newfound freedom by living the life she has always wanted--as an independent woman in New York City. Her trauma in the bunker remains a very big part of the show, rather than a plot contrivance played merely for laughs. Kimmy is pretty close mouthed about exactly what happened in the bunker most of the time, but the show consistently sprinkles hints that it was pretty traumatizing a lot of the time. Kimmy has nightmares; she sleepwalks and attacks her roommate; she has very violent responses to certain everyday stimuli.

When Kimmy and her three fellow captives are rescued, they are insultingly dubbed "The Indiana Mole Women" by the media, and (of course) brought onto the talk show circuit. After their appearance on the Today Show in New York City, Kimmy makes the sudden decision she is not going to go back to Durnsville, Indiana, but she is going to stay in New York City and try to make it on her own there. She finds a roommate, a job, and begins to live as a free woman.

Part of the show's delight is Kemper's perfect portrayal as an innocent naif who is never played as an idiot. Yes, we definitely laugh when Kimmy uses slang that is 15 years out of date, or is baffled by the ubiquity of cell phones or doesn't know what a "selfie" is. But she is the show's centre, grounded and practical with a good moral compass. She doesn't like unkindness, or deceptive behaviour, or exploitation of the vulnerable, and she puts her money where her mouth is, jumping to action to defend people or do the right thing. She struggles with her experiences in the bunker and the fact that she lost 15 years of her life to the crazy reverend, but she is not afraid to stand up for herself; she copes as best she can and is kind enough to share her compassion and coping techniques with others who are having a hard time. One of my favourite moments in the show is her explanation that "you can stand anything for ten seconds." It's heartbreaking but it encapsulates Kimmy's determination, strength, and life philosophy in a six-word mantra. 

Kimmy's roommate, Titus (Tituss Burgess), is the other delight of the show. He is a gay black man who dreams of being on Broadway but so far has not managed to even get many auditions, never mind a part in a musical. He is introduced as a fairly self-centred person who really, really does not want Kimmy as a roommate but relents when he realizes that she is vulnerable (well, and she can also pay the back rent he owes to their wacky landlady, played by Carol Kane) and then morphs into her friend and confidante as she reveals her secret to him--that she is one of the "Indiana Mole Women."He is fascinated, horrified, and sympathetic all at once, and vows to get her up to speed on pop culture and current events, and help her act like the 30 year old she is instead of the teenager she's been for the last 15 years.

Jane Krakowski plays Kimmy's incredibly clueless, spoiled, and shallow boss, Jacqueline. Jacqueline married for money and is now paying the price with a distant husband who is rarely even physically present, a bratty son (Kimmy catches him shoplifting twice and the second time brings him home, which is how she lands her job as Jacqueline's assistant), and a scary teenaged stepdaughter. Krakowski is basically reprising the main parts of her role on 30 Rock, but she is still pretty funny as she teeters from crisis to crisis.

There are, however, a few things that made me cringe about UKS. I was not crazy about the way the show deals with issues of race. One of Kimmy's romantic prospects is her GED classmate (played by Ki Hong Lee), a young Vietnamese man named...Dong. Yes, his name is Dong. No, this is not 1955 or even 1985 but 2015, and we still have an Asian man named Dong. Now, upon Kimmy's exclamation upon meeting him that "Dong means penis in English!" Dong retorts, "Well, Kimmy means penis in Vietnamese!" which is at least an attempt at subverting the stereotype. There are a few other attempts at subverting the stereotypes through ironic racism, which...just don't work. Sorry, Tina Fey. You, a white woman, are just not going to be able to pull off ironic racism in the way you hope to. I can fully appreciate that Tina Fey and Robert Carlock are attempting to make social commentary with the stereotypes they feature in UKS. Sometimes I know exactly what they are going for, and sometimes the social commentary actually works very well! There is a terrific sequence where Titus gets a job playing a werewolf in a theme restaurant, and there is some pretty clever, sharp commentary on the prejudice black men are exposed to every day in the US. However, more often than not, the racial humour just falls on the "racist" side as opposed to the "clever commentary on racism" side.

There is a particularly egregious plotline involving a reveal that one of the characters (played by a white actor) is actually a person of colour "passing" as white. Done carefully, this could be pretty great. But it is not done well or carefully, and I was left cringing and shaking my head. There is only one way this can possibly be redeemed, and it would involve a reveal in the second season that the character only thinks they are a person of colour and that they were actually a white baby adopted by a family of colour. And even then, it would not make me forget the missteps of the first season.

However, that aside (and it is a pretty big "that"), I did really enjoy almost all of the show. It was very funny, easy to get drawn into, and featured witty writing and excellent acting. I fervently hope that the writers get some guidance on how to handle race issues so that when I inevitably watch the second season I can spend less time cringing and more just enjoying a good show.

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