I was once worried that Tina Fey’s delightfully subversive, daring Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt would veer away from the strikingly dark themes its first season embraced and simply go all in with the satirical, wacky universe its characters inhabit, a universe marked by one visual gag and clever zinger after another while the various cast members fly in and out of the frame and around New York City, going on crazy adventures as Kimmy transforms herself into a person who can stand her ground after a traumatic experience. That wouldn’t have been a bad thing at all, as the show is hilarious enough on its own, and this world is creative, colorful and appealing enough to stand apart from the uncomfortable realities of the premise from which it sprung.
But Season 2 of Kimmy Schmidt far exceeded my expectations by living up to all those standards of hilarity while simultaneously and wholeheartedly diving into Kimmy’s scarred and wounded psyche, never once allowing the root of what happened to her to be ignored or to overwhelm who she is as a person. By doing all of that on top of being so outrageously hilarious, surreal and over the top, it becomes a wondrous mix of happily damaged characters who go about their nutty lives while overcoming the problems that actually make them feel human, in spite of living in a Looney Tunes version of New York where your boyfriend’s racist grandma is an actual decrepit puppet presiding over Sunday dinner (I literally choked on my soda, I was laughing so hard at that joke).
After her captor, the crazy reverend Wayne Gary Wayne (played by Jon Hamm) was put away last season, Kimmy continues to try to live her life anew, and the early episodes involve her job at the everyday Christmas store and her ongoing, start-and-stop romance with Dong (Ki Hong Lee), himself trapped in a green card marriage to the pester-y Sonya, while periodically helping her fellow bunkmates find ways to start their own crazy lives fresh from the tyranny reigned down on them by the reverend. Titus Burgess continues to excel as Kimmy’s roommate, as he must confront his own past and a wife he never wanted, tries out a one man show starring as his Japanese geisha alter ego, and eventually forms a relationship with sweet construction worker Mikey (Mike Carlsen), seemingly his opposite in every way, yet here the romance is adorable. Just about every episode is bright, sunny, filled with clever wordplay, out of nowhere musical interludes, blink and you miss it gags, and an all around zany vibe that plummets you into Tina Fey and Robert Carlock's New York City that’s more of a live action cartoon than actual reality.
And yet the show takes its time setting up the effects of Kimmy’s PTSD, as she can’t handle reminders of her years in the bunker, and flashbacks show us the mental wherewithal she undertook to keep herself strong and sane (one revelation devolves into an actual cartoon rendering of herself as a Disney princess slaughtering the reverend into bloody, gory pieces all over a hand drawn background of singing birds). The show then places Kimmy in therapy with Fey herself playing the alcoholic psychologist Andrea, who manages to help Kimmy somewhat face her past and confront her issues with the mother who abandoned her as a teen, while getting in her own not insignificant amount of verbal barbs as both the professional therapist and her evil, drunk alter ego who roams the bars at night with Kimmy as uber driver chauffeur to her exploits.
The show handles every area of focus with the same pitch perfect tone. It seems strange to think you can watch Kimmy and Dong playing Home Alone in an abandoned hotel and in the next scene make a joke about Kimmy’s involuntary violent reaction to the idea of intimacy with him. When Kimmy confronts her long lost mother (played by Lisa Kudrow) in the season finale, Kudrow becomes the first character to actually utter the word “rape” in regards to what Kimmy suffered in the bunker all those years, and yet it doesn’t shy away from that either, as we are told that Kimmy only feels safe with Dong when his hands are tied, and bursts into fighting stance when someone accidentally touches her neck.
The success with which the show navigates those thorny issues is an impressive feat, never sacrificing its outrageous comedy for the heartbreaking tragedy that Kimmy suffered, while at the same time also never seeming insensitive in the way it regards survivors of trauma and sexual assault. And Kimmy’s not the only unbreakable one, as Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline also stages a comeback, returning to the city after spending time with her native american family, intent on reclaiming her roots and re-entering high society, this time as a non-trophy wife. The friendship between her and Kimmy is unique, in that it never returns to employer/employee status, and the two women genuinely help each other to move forward, as Jacqueline gets a pretty surprising amount of character development this season, further separating her from the character Krakowski played on 30 Rock. She’s still somewhat shallow and focused on superficiality, but with an inner core and new depth revealed through each triumph, from her hilarious feud with fellow society wife and rival Deirdre (a superb Anna Camp, who should be Emmy nominated for guest actress for this), her final repudiation of Julian’s fortune, her eventual newfound connection with son Buckley, and her golddigging turned genuine relationship with sad sack lawyer Russ (an always excellent David Cross, whose own comedic timing fits perfectly with Krakowski’s).
Just about every story beat worked this season, although Carol Kane’s Lillian, who can be funny when used as a snarky, sarcastic deliverer of one liners and hardened, sage advice, is still a little uninteresting when propped into her ongoing personal battle against the gentrification of her neighborhood, but the core cast and supporting characters are lovably wacky, and the outstanding guest stars are never wasted (from Jeff Goldblum as a reality show “doctor” to Joshua Jackson popping up out of nowhere to deliver a screed against Dawson’s Creek, and Fred Armisen as Bobby, Lillian’s former Fred Durst lookalike boyfriend). No less than three quotes per episode instantly get stuck in my head, and the show comes with a built-in re-watchability factor simply so you can be allowed to catch every joke you may have missed the first time around. Ellie Kemper anchors it all with her oddball, very physical, very manic performance that captures all of Kimmy’s excitability, determination, optimism and childlike nature along with the lit fuse of repression and anger that simmers under the surface of her outward expression, just waiting to explode. Her enduring and affectionate friendships with both Titus and Jacqueline provide something of a heart in the center of all this madness and sadness creeping in on the fringes of the world. This remains undoubtedly one of TV’s best comedies, and if the madcap humor’s not for you, all I can say is that’s too bad. Because you’re missing out.