Written by Max Thornton.
Like sitcom enthusiasts all across America, I spent my weekend mainlining my latest obsession, Tina Fey’s new show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. NBC’s critical darlings – The Office, 30 Rock, Community, and Parks and Recreation – have all trickled off our screens over the past few years, and Kimmy was to have filled the void; but NBC can’t let itself have anything nice without self-sabotaging, and passed the show on to Netflix. Someone in the network’s upper echelons has presumably spent the whole weekend in bitter self-recrimination for throwing away what would have been NBC’s best new show since 2009.[caption id="attachment_19598" align="aligncenter" width="500"] This poster promises an inversion of How I Met Your Mother‘s yellow umbrella and the white, heteropatriarchal sitcom norms it represents.[/caption]
A cynic might suggest that NBC’s cold feet had less to do with the show’s premise (a young woman adjusting to life outside the underground bunker in which she has spent the last 15 years as the captive of an apocalyptic cult) than with its profound lack of interest in the white men who so dominate the television landscape. The opening credits make this abundantly clear: only one white man’s name appears, that of co-creator Robert Carlock. White men are background players in the world of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (and, of those who do appear, there’s scarcely a one who isn’t either comically inept or flat-out evil). As the lyrics of the theme song state, “White dudes hold the record for creepy crimes, but females are strong as hell, unbreakable. They alive, dammit!”
All of the reviews I’ve seen have lauded the show for handling its dark premise so pitch-perfectly, attributing the comedic transmutation to the showrunners’ biting 30 Rock-honed wit or to Ellie Kemper’s wonderful performance as Kimmy. The real reason it works so well, though, is because the show is fundamentally about womanhood in general. Kimmy’s specific trauma is a reflection of, and metaphor for, the collective trauma of growing up female in a woman-hating world.
The underground bunker, into which Kimmy is forced as a newly pubescent 14-year-old, represents the constraints of heteropatriarchal gender norms, which are most fully embodied in Jon Hamm’s creepy cult leader. He emotionally abuses and manipulates the women he has imprisoned, gets inside their heads, interprets the Bible in a way that supports his lies, and – once he’s on trial – charms and dazzles everyone around him into accepting his nonsense. The bunker-as-patriarchy metaphor is made explicit more than once: in the pilot episode, when Matt Lauer observes, “I’m always amazed at what women will do because they’re afraid of being rude”; when Kimmy realizes her wealthy employer’s loveless marriage is a bunker in its own way; when a certain upscale fitness trend is revealed to be yet another way to keep women in a dark room doing what a man tells them to.[caption id="attachment_19599" align="aligncenter" width="500"] This robot is much more sympathetic than most white men on TV (and off it).[/caption]
The women of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, who have all been victimized by heteropatriarchy, use an assortment of coping mechanisms. Cyndee exploits her victim status to get free stuff from all the people who feel sorry for her. Donna Maria keeps her skills close to her chest and doesn’t let on that she’s savvier than the rest put together. Gretchen goes deep into denial. Kimmy tries to put her past behind her and get on with life. These different coping mechanisms sometimes bring them into conflict with one another; however, it’s only by working together that they can confront and defang their aggressor. This idea, of people who aren’t white men banding together to pull back the curtain and reveal the patriarchal Wonderful Wizard as a sham, is a major theme of the show. It’s as though Tina Fey took on board certain feminist criticisms of 30 Rock‘s tendency to be male-dominated and decided to do something very different.
The show addresses manhood, too, in a wonderful plot where Kimmy’s magnificently queeny roommate Titus takes classes on how to pass as a straight man. Hilariously, his mentor is Hank from Breaking Bad, a show which was also about the destructiveness of white male patriarchy, but which – because it chose to portray this from the perspective of the said white male patriarch – was dangerously susceptible to misreadings from misogynistic fanboys who found Walter White’s badassery admirable. No such danger with Kimmy, in which the reveal that Entourage 2 will not be happening causes a bar full of strangers to break out into cheering and applause. What Titus learns about heterosexual masculinity is that he possesses the ability to fake it, but it’s aggro, destructive, and (contra the sexist mythos of heteropatriarchy) more artificial than the fabulous femmeyness that comes so naturally to him.[caption id="attachment_19597" align="aligncenter" width="400"] We can all relate to this moment.[/caption]
It’s worth mentioning that this show can be read as a metaphor for trans womanhood specifically, an idea suggested by the last line of the theme song: “That’s gonna be, you know, a fascinating transition.” Consider: after many years of being lied to about the world and her place in it, Kimmy moves to the big city, changes her name, and conceals her past for her own safety and peace of mind. She is an adult who is still to some extent an emotional adolescent, temporally out of sync with the world around her, which is not wholly unlike the experience of beginning transition as an adult. Again, it’s not a huge leap to read this as a deliberate correction of some of 30 Rock‘s missteps.
There are also ongoing threads skewering wealth and class, the immigration system, and white supremacy – Titus realizing he is treated far better on the streets of New York as a werewolf than a Black man is on the nose, but it’s timely and it’s very funny. I realize I haven’t said much about the actual comedy aspect of the show, but rest assured that it is absolutely hilarious. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt succeeds as a work of intersectional feminism, and it also succeeds as a comedy. It’s everything I want in my entertainment, and I can’t wait for season two.