'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' Doubles Down On Racial Problems In Season 2

And it's not good for the comedy.
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” has set itself a demanding task.

The sitcom, which returned to Netflix with a second season on April 15, crams an almost mind-boggling range of silliness and deeply morbid, envelope-pushing comedy into each episode. Season 1 featured the heroine, almost ludicrously bubbly Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), moving to New York City after being freed from a bunker in Indiana where she and several other women had been held captive by a charismatic kidnapper, Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) for years. For a sitcom, that's heavy.

It’s not just Kimmy, either. Instead of a straight-man character anchoring the show, a grumpy but relatively sane character like Liz Lemon on "30 Rock," or a knowing normal like Jim on "The Office," "Kimmy Schmidt" is populated almost exclusively by bizarre characters with impossible backstories, and boasts a comedic style that’s rapid-fire, relentlessly allusive, and utterly goofy despite frequently targeting sensitive topics like racism and horrific violence. As Arthur Chu put it on Slate after last season, “Tina Fey’s high-wire act is all about the alchemy of making it OK to laugh at big, heavy issues -- like kidnapped women, the experience of undocumented Vietnamese immigrants, and people with Native American ancestry passing as white -- by skimming over them with a light touch.”

The show is trying to get a whole lot done in every single episode, with a lot of different moving parts, and sometimes those different parts are bound to grate against each other or even collide head-on.

If that happened in Season 1, well, Tina Fey and co-creator Robert Carlock were just getting started. Season 2 contains just as many irresistible one-liners as its predecessor. When Kimmy is confronted with the concept of moral relativism, she bursts out, "Some things are just wrong! Like kissing a married person, or tracing something and saying you drew it." But if anything, the show’s problems only seem more pronounced now that “Kimmy Schmidt” is getting a chance to find its groove.

As the new season picks up, Kimmy is back in New York after putting the Reverend behind bars (thanks to the discovery of a suspiciously timed “The Apprentice” audition tape). Her old boss, Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski) has reunited with her family in South Dakota, where she’s ruining their peaceful lives by enthusiastically engaging in Lakota traditions she doesn’t understand. Kimmy's scene-stealing roommate Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), having been found by his wife -- whom he left on their wedding day and who believed he was dead -- needs to reckon with his roots to deal with their divorce.

With Kimmy’s initial reintroduction to society over, and her captor appropriately punished, there’s some loss of motivation for her character, whose optimistic, uncomprehending reactions to everyday events seem less convincing the further she moves from her years in the bunker. It’s Jacqueline’s and Titus’s journeys motoring the story forward. Unfortunately, those journeys have some inherent flaws.

After the first season dropped, critics applauded the show’s ambition, comic daring, and powerhouse performances, particularly from Kemper and Burgess. And yet ... there was an "and yet."

“Kimmy Schmidt” encapsulated the term “uneven,” with some episodes slipping into cumbersome side plots and containing one too many clunky jokes. That comic daring, meanwhile, proved to be a mitigated virtue. Some writers called out Kimmy’s love interest Dong (Ki Hong Lee) -- a Vietnamese immigrant who works as a Chinese food deliveryman, is good at math, and is terrified of deportation -- as an assemblage of xenophobic Asian stereotypes. The revelation that Kimmy’s entitled boss Jacqueline is a Lakota woman passing as white also brought troubling questions, not least of which was simply -- why was a white actress cast to play a Native American woman?

Despite the thoughtful and nuanced critiques that addressed “Kimmy Schmidt’s” racial politics, Fey made it pretty clear that there were no plans to take those criticisms into account for future seasons. Addressing the controversy around Krakowski’s portrayal of a Lakota woman, Fey said in an interview, “I feel like we put so much effort into writing and crafting everything, they need to speak for themselves. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”

Refusing to apologize is one thing, but refusing to acknowledge that if a piece of art isn’t conveying what you meant to convey with it, you may have failed -- that’s another. In season 2, “Kimmy Schmidt” doubles down on the racially problematic aspects of the first season, suggesting that the showrunners not only didn’t care to learn from their critics, but that they’re digging in.

Parts of the second season actually play out like raps on the knuckles to those who dare to criticize the show. Most obviously, in the third episode, "Kimmy Schmidt" takes aim at Twitter activism and social justice critiques. Titus creates his own one-man show, "Kimono She Didn’t," which features Titus in full geisha get-up, including makeup, to tell the story of Murasaki, a geisha he claims to have been in a previous life. A group of Asian-American media activists seize upon Titus's show to indulge in an uninformed rage-a-thon on their forums, then show up to drown out the show by booing relentlessly.

Once there, however, the SJWs are silenced by the power of Titus’s performance. “What do we do now that we’re not offended?” wonders one protester, looking dazed. Another chimes in: “Yeah, I feel weird ... it’s like I can’t breathe. Wait, I’m not allowed to say that! I offended ... myself!” And with that, a beam of light washes over the protester and she vanishes, too much offendedness and offensiveness in one person for the world to bear.

The almost palpable vindictiveness in this episode, especially toward non-white viewers who didn’t embrace Season 1’s uncomfortable racial humor, weights down the usually complex and fleet-footed comedy of the show. The jab at social justice warriors feels defensive rather than clever, nasty rather than thought-provoking. Fey’s comedy usually tries to find the humanity in the outsiders, but here the minority activists are flattened, reduced to one-dimensional caricatures who literally have nothing to say or any reason to exist save for manufactured outrage.

As a writer on the Internet, I know no irritant surpasses that of seeing some smartass in your mentions responding to your article in a manner that makes it abundantly clear they only read the headline. It’s tempting to tell yourself that if people would only read your work, they’d get how subversive and nuanced and brilliant you are -- a condescending perspective that allows you to assume all your critics simply haven't taken in the totality of your unimpeachable work. But a headline can be problematic in itself. A show title, an artistic approach (a non-Asian person caked in geisha makeup and swathed in a kimono, for example), or a single sentence can be problematic in themselves. Context matters; context is good. But it’s not everything.

Take Jacqueline’s reclamation of her Lakota heritage, which becomes a central plot in this season. In context, there’s plenty of evidence that the show intends to skewer well-intentioned but under-informed white allies, as demonstrated by Jacqueline’s own cluelessness (though, of course, she herself isn’t white) about the issues she suddenly claims to care about. Her pivot to limousine activism also provides the show an opportunity to give airtime to often-forgotten injustices toward Native Americans and to mock self-involved wealthy donors, getting solid laughs out of the storyline.

Nonetheless, her ignorance about her family’s heritage, though it might be intended to mock her, also sets up a convenient opportunity for Krakowski to perform dumb gags with dreamcatchers and dance the electric slide in a field while singing to what she calls “the corn god.” Though her parents, Fern and Virgil, are there to shake their heads at her idiocy, it’s hard to see the benefit -- or the comedic innovation -- in getting laughs from spoofing Native cultures. These jokes don’t feel fresh, insightful, or meaningful, especially since it’s unclear whether they’re meant to mock white people or people who, like Jacqueline, are passing as white to avoid the disadvantages of being perceived as a racial minority.

The subtler moments, when Fern and Virgil try to relate to Jacqueline's struggles over arranging an opulent gala benefit, or get confused by her voicemail (ah, parents) -- in other words, when they're allowed to be like any slightly clueless parents who don't understand their children's crazy worlds -- feel more true, and funny.

Tiny Fey might not be Adam Sandler -- the show, she and Carlock have pointed out, has two writers of Native descent on staff, and her humor often dabbles in dangerous racial waters while trying to puncture stereotypes -- but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. The insistence on not even hearing criticism ultimately weakens the art rather than allowing it to flourish. The clumsiest, most didactic parts of the first six episodes come from awkward racial humor and pointedly anti-PC jabs. Meanwhile, non-white characters like Jacqueline’s parents and Dong have little room to be funny when they’re busy rolling their eyes at other characters’ questionable behavior.

As Chu wrote about the first season, “Everyone who’s tried to walk an actual tightrope knows that the key is to walk confidently and calmly, to take a straight, smooth path without hesitating.”

At many points this season, one gets the sense that the tightrope walker has stopped to shadow-box with the air or shout insults at onlookers, and unfortunately, it’s the comedy that suffers.

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