Netflix UK TV review: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 2
Ivan Radford | On 14, Apr 2016Reading time: 6 mins
“The only way to go is just go on,” sing Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) and his landlord, Lillian (Carol Kane), in one of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s many inspired musical numbers. It’s the sentiment that drives Season 2, which sees the show attempt to recapture the bottled lightning feel of its unashamedly silly (and utterly brilliant) first season. That charted the tale of a woman struggling to overcome the trauma of being locked up in a bunker by a cult leader who looked like Don Draper – something Kimmy managed to do, thanks to a magical combination of school education, men giving her dolphins in the street, and sheer, unfettered optimism. With that chapter over, what’s next for her?
It’s the age-old sequel problem that we see over and over again – in superhero blockbuster terms, Kimmy’s origins story has finished, and now, she must find her place in The Avengers. Or something. But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t need soul-searching or navel-gazing to fuel its narrative, just as Kimmy doesn’t need to question herself every step of the way. “I’m like a biscotti,” Kimmy explains in one of the programme’s many inspired speeches. “People act like I’m a sweet cookie but I’m really a super hard thing that nobody knows what I am or why I am.” Then she grins and goes on with life. It’s a beautiful moment of nonsensical wisdom, but what makes it work is the simple truth behind it: she’s unbreakable. Dammit.
If Kimmy’s journey is no longer the focus of Unbreakable Kimmy Scmidt, it’s perhaps understandable that its second run begins slightly aimlessnessly. Co-creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock seem to be trying a little too hard in Episode 1, with the constant stream of one-liners, pop culture references and surreal outbursts occasionally feeling a little forced. But as we spend less time with Kimmy trying to get over Dong (Ki Hong Lee) and more time with the series’ supporting cast, Kimmy Schmidt soon settles back into its groove – and the laughs just keep on coming.
The supporting characters are a big part of Kimmy Schmidt’s success, able to be ridiculous yet somehow oddly believable. Tituss Burgess’ wannabe Broadway star gets more fabulous with every minute he’s on screen, his astonishingly good vocals easily selling his would-be celebrity complex – some of the best moments of the opening five episodes come from him just sitting at a piano. But we also get to see some of his back-story for the first time, as we follow his progress from closeted fiance to runaway Andromedon – someone who refuses to say sorry for jilting his spouse. (“There are three things Titus doesn’t do: apologies, drag and calculus.”)
Jane Krakowski gets even more screentime as the bewildered Jacqueline, who is trying to find herself somewhere between her native family upbringing (smartly played so that the jokes are on her, rather than her parents or their culture) and New York’s self-centred social scene. Anna Camp is magnificent during a brief appearance as as her rival, Deirdre Robespierre, who is calculating and cruel, yet equally clueless. They lock horns in art auctions, play dates and more, but the show remains careful not to make Jacqueline’s social standing the end goal – for all their flaws, there’s an inherent likability, a naive niceness, to our lead quartet, all of whom are just trying to make good in a strange world.
The sitcom’s jokes have always been less at their expense and more at the expense of the world around them and how absurd supposedly normal people are. It’s a philosophy that feeds seamlessly into the non-stop verbal gags; from schools being closed for Rupert Murdoch’s birthday to the omnipresence of the Kardashians, the stupidity of real life is exaggerated only marginally beyond the realms of plausibility, and often not at all. As a result, it’s hard to distinguish between what’s misunderstanding on the part of our sheltered outsiders and what’s genuine: when we hear in passing about “chop chop” (where they cut your hair while doing plastic surgery) or Lillian’s old boyfriend, Bobby Durst (“He tried to crush me…” “That’s just because he likes you!”), we’re never sure whether we’ll actually see them the very next episode. That unpredictability puts us on the same side of reality as our heroes, allowing us to be just as surprised at the weirdness as they are.
Two seasons in and that magic hasn’t worn off (you’ll still be laughing out loud without expecting it), even as Fey and Carlock increasingly seem to use it to skewer serious targets – one episode is devoted almost entirely to tackling abuse and trolling on the Internet. In other hands, that kind of rebuttal to online criticism might come across as bitter or mean, but Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t have a bitter or mean bone in its body.
“Am I the only one who doesn’t do whatever, whenever?” she exclaims at one point, frustrated by those around her. But that frustration soon disappears, morphing once more into Ellie Kemper’s irresistable smile. Her manic, relentless enthusiasm means she’s the only person you can ever imagine making the role work. Her performance is happiness personified; it’s like watching sunshine with legs. Kemper’s upbeat presence is the thing around which the whole show revolves, her brightness as impossible in Kimmy’s universe as it is in ours. “I thought you were a Jeff Koon sculpture of Ronald McDonald!” exclaims one character, after realising that she’s an actual human being.
It’s a rare thing to find in a modern TV show, with most comedies preferring to be half drama, with some level of tragedy or angst involved. Not since Parks and Recreation has there been a sitcom simply happy to be, well, happy. Putting the identity crisis of Season 1 behind it, this second season sees our empowering female instead begin empowering other people, whether that’s Titus and a potential romantic interest in construction worker Mike (the endearingly not-butch Mike Carlsen), Jacqueline and her growing acceptance of parental responsibility, Lillian and her fight against the neighbourhood’s gentrification, or checking up with her old bunker mates and how they’re faring.
“Seeing Dong might be difficult,” advises Lillian. “More difficult than keeping hope alive every day in a bunker where the end of your braid is your toothbrush as well as your best friend?” Kimmy hits back. In an age of angry Internet commenters, miserable TV shows and the day-to-day grind of existence, Kimmy, with her unbreakable positive spirit, is the superhero we need. With her origins story ended, and her ensemble developing and expanding, her sitcom grows in this second season to become a cheerful tribute to coming to terms with the past and just getting on with life. It’s an infectious message – and it makes for a consistently hilarious TV show, more than papering over any faults or cracks in subject and pacing. Even the longer episodes don’t notably dampen the gag rate, giving the writers more freedom to wander off on tangents, such as “Bunny and Kitty” (guaranteed to be your new favourite crime-solving house-pet detective show). “We should start a band!” Kimmy randomly cries halfway through an episode. She probably will. Dammit.
All episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 2 are available to watch on Netflix UK from Friday 15th April, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.