'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' Is An Extraordinarily Thoughtful Show About Tragedy, Trauma, And Survival

Now if only it could get race right, too

The second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a late bloomer: Its best storyline doesn’t begin until Episode 9, more than halfway through its 13 episodes. After a series of satirical jabs at the Upper West Side so barbed and brutal they felt more like a (thoroughly satisfying) barrage of shivs, the latter half of the season returns to Kimmy (Ellie Kemper). Specifically, it visits her happy place -- and all the years of anger buried underneath like haunted, restless bones. With Dong in her rearview mirror, Kimmy picks herself up, then opens up to someone else who changes her life -- her therapist, Andrea (Tina Fey) -- in a development that illustrates just how warm, sharp, unique, and impressive this Netflix comedy is.

The miracle of Unbreakable lies in the implausible marriage of its genre and premise: Tina Fey and Robert Carlock have created a goofy comedy about a woman recovering from the trauma of being kidnapped as a teen and kept underground for “weird sexual stuff” by a psychopath for half her life. Kimmy follows many a sitcom heroine’s footsteps as a young woman starting over in the city, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show on down to current shows like Younger. But Unbreakable is distinguished from its forebears by one key difference: It matters where this newest New Yorker comes from, and how she’s dealing with, or more often not dealing with, her past. “I’m more than this one terrible thing that happened to me,” Kimmy declares in what amounts to the show’s empowering treatise on victimhood in the Season 2 finale. Before she gets to assert that, though, Unbreakable has a lot of fascinating and urgent things to say about the way girls and women are socialized to be vulnerable and treacherously selfless by being taught passivity, accommodation, and the taboo of female anger.

“I’m always amazed at what women will do because they’re afraid of being rude,” responds Matt Lauer, playing himself, when one of Kimmy’s fellow Mole Women explains that she ended up captured by the Reverend (Jon Hamm) because she didn’t want to refuse her waitressing regular's request to meet him at his car at night to check out his baby rabbits. In typical Unbreakable form, the story is cute and slightly absurdist but also alloyed with wise bitterness, in part because food service is one of the most common industries where a woman's appearance and likability can determine her success.

Therapy plots tend to be innately interesting because they push characters to see and interact with their friends and family differently. After her first session with Andrea, for example, Kimmy immediately ends up fighting with her roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess), who had been monopolizing the shower for his Barbies’ hair treatments. Following Andrea’s advice, Kimmy stands up for herself, then confronts Titus about his self-absorption and lack of follow-through. Later, she’s able to grow from a clam (“clenched up tight, full of grit, and if you get pried open, you’ll die”) to the champion of honesty who can tell her irresponsible mother Lori-Ann Schmidt (Lisa Kudrow) that she was a “bad mom.” To watch Kimmy gradually come to terms with her wrath and her sadness is to watch her bloom. The result is as soothing as it is inspiring.

Lori-Ann Schmidt may have crashed her car into a Denny’s (the one time Kimmy ever had a hot breakfast, the daughter ruefully notes), but the show clearly lays the blame where it really belongs: “A crazy man snatched you and locked you up. Men keep doing that, every dang day, every dang way. When are we going to talk about that, world?” The touching reunion between Kimmy and her mom reveals some of the abductee’s grudges against her mom to be justified and some not, but Kimmy ultimately arrives at the conclusion that “there’s nothing I can say that will un-kidnap me or fix my childhood.” Ever fair to its women, Unbreakable also allows Lori-Ann to lodge valid complaints about how Kimmy’s abduction affected her life, in particular how she felt pressured to be sad all the time, to stop living her own life when her daughter went missing.

Kimmy’s therapy sessions, on the other hand, are occasions for pointed and hilarious criticisms of how girls and women are socialized to put others before themselves, even at the cost of their dignity and self-protection -- and how ridiculous that looks from the outside. Comparing herself to a pretty-calm-considering-everything Disney princess like the imprisoned Belle or the silenced Ariel, Kimmy proclaims, “Anger is bad and ugly; it’s the opposite of who I want to be. So I don’t get pissed off. I get pissed on.” The show’s garish colors, farcical pace, bouncy soundtrack, and heightened reality keep the tone fleet and light, especially during Kimmy’s tics: lying awake grinning all night; compulsively burping; choking Titus in his sleep; beating up loud, catty strangers on the street (hey, Billy Eichner); and whacking Dong on the head with a rotary phone each time he tried to initiate sex. But take all those symptoms of Kimmy’s unresolved trauma together and, well, Andrea puts it best: “When you shove your problems down, they’re gonna bust out in weird ways.”

It’s too bad that Unbreakable’s persistent racial stumbles have dominated headlines (including my own), because it causes dialogue around the show to neglect the show's earnest and extraordinarily thoughtful ideas about therapy and self-care. (Fey tends to avoid talking about her own childhood encounter with an assailant, but it doesn’t seem impossible that that event led her to think profoundly about violence and its aftereffects. In a recent interview, Carlock noted that Kimmy’s history is rooted in an “extreme place,” but “that extreme place fed into many things that interest us in terms of the way women are treated, and the way the media treats these kinds of stories.”)

As Andrea’s booze-soaked spiral toward probably passing out in a snow bank and losing another toe suggests, therapy can’t help everyone, and long-term results require constant management. But there’s definitely good therapy and bad therapy (like the painfully on-the-mark Dr. Phil parody), just as there’s coasting along and real reconciliation. “Happy people value their needs as much as otherses’” isn’t as catchy as “Peeno Noir” or as revelatory as “Your teeth are bones that live outside,” but it’s the hopeful, tender message that many of us need to hear. That it comes from one of the prickliest comedians working today is, like the rest of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a wonder and a delight.

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