One of the biggest success stories of Netflix’s original programming, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s comedy series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt kicked off last year with a first season filled with colorful characters and the kind of absurd, unpredictable humor that sucker punches laughs out of its audience. Comedy bits like Titus Andromedon’s (Tituss Burgess) anthem “Peeno Noir” and the failed musical Daddy’s Boy became instant Internet classics, and starting off on such a high note left the showrunners under a lot of pressure to live up to that high in the second season.
The worst trap that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s sophomore season could have fallen into would be relying too much on callbacks previous jokes. Those callbacks do happen (though thankfully with restraint), and they are about as funny as telling the same joke a second time with no evolution of the joke can can be expected to be. What’s more interesting, however, is how many jokes from the first season get turned into actual plot points in the second. That throwaway joke about Kimmy being irrationally terrified of velcro? That’s the climactic turning point of this season’s finale. That closeted construction worker who helped give Titus back his confidence? He’s a main character now.
There’s also a lot more original music – everything from a series of made-up showtunes that Titus sings when he finds himself uncharacteristically content, to a mix-tape called “Now That Sounds Like Music!” which is filled with ripoffs of famous songs. In fact, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt season 2 probably qualifies the show as a musical comedy, based on the sheer number of songs in it. Most of the songs aren’t that funny, but Titus’ impromptu Trident jingle that gets quickly derailed into a ditty about the everyday horror of teeth being “outside bones” is sure to be this season’s runaway hit.
What Fey and Carlock seem most eager to bring to the table in season 2 is character growth and development, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but does end up sucking some of the fun out of the show. For example, a running joke in the first season was that Jacqueline’s (Jane Krakowski) son Buckley (Tanner Flood) was basically a psychopath in the making (his last name is Voorhees), but in the second season Jacqueline spends an episode learning the value of Buckley’s wild ways and getting to know him – culminating in a somewhat schmaltzy scene where she eschews a shopping session in favor of playing Transformers with him. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with character development in a comedy show, the writers sometimes seem to be focusing so much on cute character moments that they forget to try and make the audience laugh.
Perhaps emblematic of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s identity crisis is the fact that a great deal of the season is about therapy. Around halfway through the season, Kimmy comes across a heavy-drinking therapist called Andrea (the second character on the show to be played by Fey), and becomes determined to get to the root of her psychological issues. This leads to many scenes of Kimmy and Andrea talking about Kimmy’s feelings and her need to bottle everything up, but it’s difficult to get invested in Kimmy’s search for self-actualization when Kimmy’s myriad psychological issues (and her refusal to deal with them) are one of the funniest things about the character.
One a similar note, Jacqueline’s character arc this season is about learning that there are more important things in life than having money – be it getting in touch with her Native American roots, getting to know her son, or finding a husband whom she actually likes for something other than his bank balance. Jacqueline’s attempts to get help from New York’s elite for her folks back home leads to the introduction of one of the best side characters in this season: Anna Camp as Deirdre Robespierre, a trophy wife whose lack of an outlet for her genius-level IQ has driven her to invest in back-stabbing socialite politics with an insane fervor.
The episode that has caused the most discussion this season is “Kimmy Goes to a Play!”, a rather hit-and-miss attempt to satirize Internet “outrage culture”. In this episode, Titus decides to put on a play about Murasaki, a geisha whom he claims he was in a past life. A group called Respectful Asian Portrayals in Entertainment (get it?) is hugely offended by this and marches their strawman arguments right up to the play, claiming that Titus is the #3 Hitler of all time (the real Hitler didn’t even make the top 5). After hearing Murasaki’s beautiful songs, however, R.A.P.E. is so moved that they find themselves in an existential crisis, not knowing what to do with themselves now that they are not offended any more.
The episode is a rather transparent hit back against those who criticized Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s first season for having an illegal immigrant called Dong as its only Asian character, as well as the generally rather awkward and unfunny subplot about Jacqueline’s Native American heritage. While there are some great comedy nuggets (for example, Titus explaining to Kimmy that the Internet speaks with the voice of Chandler from Friends) and Murasaki’s songs really are rather beautiful, as a critique of outrage culture this episode falls flat, and is a bit too bitter and defensive to be charming. Fey and Carlock’s views on offense are further muddled by the fact that this season repeatedly delineates the Washington Redskins’ name and mascot as being genuinely offensive. So, being offended by Native American stereotypes is legitimate, but being offended by yellowface and Asian stereotypes is utterly ridiculous? Perhaps making a statement is not this show’s forté.
Thanks to a continued subplot about Lillian (Carol Kane) try to roll back the inevitable march of gentrification, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt season 2 also has a huge amount of hipster-mocking humor. Hipsters are kind of a soft target and the show doesn’t really do much thinking outside the box (hipsters like bad clothes, vaping, and high-speed Wi-Fi!) it’s a very rich pool to draw from. Also, anything that gives Kane more screen time is extremely welcome.
Overall, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s second season fails to live up to the highs of its first, but there are still plenty of well-crafted jokes and laugh-out-loud moments, and those who are really invested in these characters will probably get an extra kick out of seeing them strive for happiness.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt seasons 1 and 2 are now available on Netflix.