Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, like 30 Rock before it, is the sitcom equivalent of those malfunctioning tennis-ball machines ubiquitous in ‘80s movies. The jokes arrive pell-mell, one right after the other, from sneaky corners and sly angles. Even Ben Affleck’s CrossFit-trained Bruce Wayne would have trouble catching them all; only an actual alien like Superman could keep up with the torrent of gifts that creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock lob our way at breakneck velocity.
That’s what makes watching Kimmy Schmidt (and 30 Rock) so exhilarating, if also occasionally exhausting. (Both shows are built for rewatching; there’s always a gag you missed the first time around because you were too busy already laughing.) Debuting on Friday, April 15, Kimmy Schmidt’s second season offers more of the same, albeit with lower stakes for its characters. The Netflix series is a smiley face with hidden spikes, a wonderful mix of goofy whimsy and caustic satire. Unfortunately, that sameness cuts both ways: Fey and Carlock are also tripling down on the awkward casting of the brilliant Jane Krakowski as a Native American woman by flouting the show’s critics and dressing up Titus (Tituss Burgess) as a geisha as part of an earnest exploration of the character’s artistry. (Ugh.)
But let’s get to the good stuff first. The ensemble of Ellie Kemper, Krakowski, Burgess, and Carol Kane is one of the strongest comedy casts on TV, bringing to cartoonish life an economically bifurcated New York where anxiety hangs thicker in the air than Manhattan’s trash-stink humidity in summer. Clowns could learn how to be more expressive from Kemper’s cult-escapee Kimmy, whose manic excitability balances out the series’s darker undertones. When she gets a job that requires a second cell phone, she places each device on either side of her head. “I’ve got two phones!” she tells her friend and former boss Jacqueline (Krakowski). “I can call my other ear!”
Season 2 finds the Unbreakables doing that thing TV characters always seem to be doing way more than real-life individuals:
leaving their doors open for anyone to walk in trying to become better people. Kimmy struggles to let go of her crush on the now-married Dong (Ki Hong Lee), who fears he’ll be deported if he can’t sell his sham union to immigration officials. Left with only $12 million after her divorce (she might as well apply for food stamps with that kind of pocket change), Jacqueline adjusts to single motherhood and the pitiful existence of a “dozennaire.” Fresh off his own divorce from his beard of an ex-wife, Titus is challenged by Kimmy and his landlord Lillian (Kane) to be a more considerate friend and beau. Lillian, meanwhile, does her part to keep hipsters away from her neighborhood. Her best (inadvertent) ally may be her rekindled flame, “Bobby” Durst (Fred Armisen).
In the six episodes made available to critics, the only ongoing arcs are Kimmy’s seemingly star-crossed romance with Dong and Titus’s new relationship with a recently out construction worker (Mike Carlsen), neither of which garner much emotional investment. And with the debut season’s themes of trauma and resilience largely out of the way, much of the show’s urgency is lost. Kimmy’s low-grade cluelessness still delights, though: She offers condolences to a pair of Santas returning from a funeral (two Hasidim walking down the street). And Titus’s flair for, well, flair is a daily act of defiance against his theme-restaurant-server income.
Kimmy hasn’t moved entirely past her bunker years; she attempts to prevent Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne’s most loyal follower, Gretchen (Lauren Adams), from joining a different cult in an episode that turns into an anthem for a perverse kind of female empowerment. And when Jacqueline returns to New York for the first time since her split from her husband in Episode 2, she practically takes the show’s comic center with her to the Upper West Side, so hilariously acidic are its observations about the vain and too-rich. In a worthy follow-up to Martin Short’s scene-stealing plastic surgeon in Season 1, one of Jacqueline’s silver-haired, well-preserved suitors explains, “I did that thing that Trump did, where they gather your head skin up and tie it in a knot on top of your skull, then cut new face holes in what used to be your neck.” Anna Camp guest stars as a one-percenter mommy poisoned by the waste of her potential, while Steve Buscemi, Patrick Stewart, and Dean “Dennis Duffy” Winters make memorable voice cameos.
But the show’s deft touch around gender doesn’t extend to its treatment of race, which continues to induce cringes. To be sure, Kimmy Schmidt, like 30 Rock, includes some sharp puncturing of white privilege. “I don’t want to go back to Vietnam,” complains Dong to Kimmy. “It’s full of baby boomer tourists trying to feel something.” Native Americans, who had Krakowski to represent them in Season 1 (along with Native actors Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster), get a couple of shout-outs when the Washington Redskins mascot asks, “How am I still a thing?!” in a cutaway gag, and when Jacqueline notes that her family was given the last name “White” by a sarcastic census taker in the ‘20s in a nod to historical context.
Jacqueline’s plight as a woman of color who has so internalized America’s racial hierarchy that she sees whitewashing herself as her best chance to get ahead in life is also an intelligent provocation. The problem lies in the casting; in an industry like entertainment, where so many roles are written and reserved for white performers -- who have also gotten first dibs on playing people of other races -- having a Caucasian actress like Krakowski play a Native American is a problem, because Jacqueline’s story line about the perils of whitewashing engages in the very same thing it’s criticizing. And it looks like a problem Fey is willing to abide; her April vehicle, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, featured two white actors, Christopher Abbott and Alfred Molina, playing Afghan characters. In her memoir Bossypants, Fey discusses how she phased out SNL’s penchant for having men in dresses play female characters instead of utilizing the women already in the cast. But actors of color, already disadvantaged within the industry, are still waiting to receive that same fair treatment from Fey’s own projects.
[Warning: An Episode 3 spoiler appears in these two paragraphs.] In that light, the African-American Burgess playing a geisha named Lady Murasaki in a one-man show -- a personage he claims he was in a past life -- is deeply uncomfortable. Powdered into whiteness and donning a kimono, the fictional Titus isn’t as brazenly offensive as, say, Katy Perry, but he still traffics in a version of Asian femininity and sexuality that’s yellowface: more a Western cultural appropriation and an Orientalist fantasy than a real (and respectful) appreciation of Japanese culture. The conclusion of that episode, with an Asian-American protester thanking Titus for singing a Japanese song he hadn’t heard since his youth, is all the more enraging for the implication that it’s Westerners claiming a special affinity to Asian culture who can help Asian-Americans get in deeper touch with their roots. That is some straight-up Rachel Dolezal shit.
It doesn’t help, either, that the episode echoes Fey’s snide dismissiveness of her critics as people who don’t bother to watch what they critique and “don’t want to hear the end of anything anyone has to say.” There are a few great jabs at Internet commenters as a whole -- one of them makes a list of the top five Hitlers that doesn’t include the actual Hitler -- but waving off online reaction as all equally valueless and overreactive is an insult to fans who like Fey’s work but want to think critically about it, as well as to responsible critics who consider her a culturally important writer who is worthy of discussion. I love Fey’s work because she’s so good at making me laugh and think at the same time; she promises me that I can have it all! With Kimmy Schmidt’s missteps, though, she’s making us settle for less.