Have you ever experienced something deeply traumatizing? If so, we’re glad you’re still here; however you feel about the horror now, you made it out the other side. What kind of person does trauma turn you into? Do we have a say in the outcome, or is it inevitable? Is it automatic that we then become hard-hearted and cynical—protecting ourselves from any more harm? Or are there other ways to move forward? Do we all just become saturnine at some point in life from either a massive wound to our heart or a thousand paper cuts?
What if the trauma stole fifteen years away from your life—putting you through hell in a windowless room?
That is the premise of the deftly hilarious new Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Kimmy is part of a small group of small-town women captured by a deranged, fundamentalist Christian cult leader, Wayne Gary Wayne, and imprisoned in a bunker for fifteen years as holdouts of the “apocalypse.” Through the course of Season 1, the audience only gets small glimpses here and there in flashbacks of the freakishness of the bunker, but Kimmy eerily notes early on after her escape that there was “weird sex stuff.” It doesn’t take long for the imagination to latch on to the abhorrent Ariel Castros or Warren Jeffses of the real world. Kimmy Schmidt is undeniably a comedy, but it is firmly grounded in the darkness of some of the worst that life could throw at a person.
It’s a brilliant juxtaposition. The absurd trauma Kimmy experienced is from the outset the context for all of the difficulties of city life in the Big Apple—her new home. What’s finding an apartment and job and dealing with some inner-city depravity when you’ve been in the dungeon of a maniacal religious fanatic for the last decade and a half? She made herself truly unbreakable by being unconditionally resilient then; she’s not going to start now. As Kimmy settles in to being roommates with boisterous failed artist Titus Andromedon, working as a nanny for the incomprehensibly privileged Jacqueline Voorhees, taking GED classes with her immigrant study buddy Dong Nguyen, and more, the actual severity of most everyday struggles is thrown into sharp relief.
It’s an uproarious sitcom that’s not merely the fallout of some mischief or poor decision-making in the cold open. The bunker/New York juxtaposition would be hilarious on its own for several episodes—Kimmy Schmidt (actress Ellie Kemper)’s facial expressions alone are amazing—but Unbreakable even more brilliantly uses the contrast to explore deeper levels of possibility. Kimmy begins her New York life as a true escape, trying to hide and run from her past as a “mole woman” in the bunker. On a number of occasions, she shows restraint in not revealing how painful and ridiculous her own past was while genuinely and thoughtfully helping others go through their relatively much more trivial hardships. Through the narrative of the season, the contrasts of bunker and freedom, small-town Indiana and big-city New York, childhood dreams and turning thirty, low-income rejection and posh lavishness, embarrassing past and uncertain future, begin to weave together a thread of what it means to know oneself and own who you are, be grateful for what you have, and be resilient anywhere—not just in the most preposterous environment a showrunner could create.
The true resonance of the show is that Tina Fey and Co. have been able to craft a story touching on those themes that is hilarious and heartfelt. For any show that would try to be both, it’s hard not to immediately set off the chintzy alarm and lose an audience after the first couple minutes. Self-identity, gratitude, unbridled optimism sounds like so much self-help rubbish that too many people idiotically spend $19.95 for at the bookstore or waste an hour everyday watching on daytime television. But with roots in the depths to which humanity can sink, and it’s glimmer-of-light-in-the-darkness premise, Kimmy Schmidt is able to touch on such meaningful themes in ways that you cannot resist smiling at and appreciating.
At the end of Season, Kimmy has not only worked toward closure by confronting Wayne Gary Wayne in court, but has inspired Jacqueline to rediscover her Native American roots she has long suppressed, and set Jacqueline’s faux-angsty stepdaughter Xanthippe, Titus, crazed Landlord Lillian, and a handful of others, on an enlivened path forward with her infectious hopefulness. It takes a unique spirit to not let the difficulties of life of any size bog you down. All of the sudden a toothy, light-up-shoes-wearing Midwesterner, fifteen years behind the times has become a loveable embodiment of it in popular culture. We wholeheartedly commend Season 1, and can’t wait for Season 2. Females are strong as hell.
Two&Too rating: ****/****
Watch it here: http://www.netflix.com/WiMovie/80025384?locale=en-US