Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s disparate obsessions form an unwieldy constellation, like a winged horse with three eyes and a blobfish for a tail. Tina Fey’s Netflix comedy mines one-liners from doomsday cults, parenthood, the gig economy, 1990s pop culture, feminine accommodation and the Upper East Side’s gold-toilet elite.
The only constant in cult escapee Kimmy’s (Ellie Kemper) eccentric universe is bombardment: Life — and jokes — come at you fast.
30 Rock, Fey’s masterpiece, was the rare sitcom that could make viewers laugh at an episode more the second time around: The quips flew past so quickly that fans could reliably find ones they’d missed on the first watch. Even during the middle of 30 Rock’s run, when the plots became more repetitive and less involving, the writers could claim the title of TV’s best gag factory. The competition is tougher for Kimmy Schmidt (especially with Broad City at its heels), but its third season finds Fey still deserving of the crown. If you’re too lazy to do crunches, give your core muscles a workout with japes such as “I’m taking ‘Power, Gender and Marginalization in Contemporary Yogurt Commercials’” and “I can put up with anything. I regularly judge a student-film competition.” In response to a songwriter who describes his ditties as his “babies,” there’s also: “They stole your youth and made you poor?”
And yet, after last year’s remarkable run of episodes tackling Kimmy’s trauma (a cult leader imprisoned her in a bunker for years before the series starts) through humor, the first half of the third season (the portion offered to critics) is something of a letdown for being only riotously funny. Fey doesn’t appear as Kimmy’s surprisingly affecting whoopsie-wino therapist until the final third leg of Season Two, so perhaps the 13 new episodes won’t turn out as narratively unambitious as the initial six installments suggest. But Kimmy’s new storylines — starting college and negotiating a divorce from the imprisoned Reverend (Jon Hamm), who it turns out she’s been married to all along — lack the urgent mystery and thematic richness of the sophomore season. They recall 30 Rock’s middle sag.
At least Kimmy has a direction to go: She’s convinced by a new friend (Hamilton alum Daveed Diggs) to give school a try instead of just settling for any old job, and she’s coached by her former boss, the millionaire divorcée Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), to wring a large-enough settlement from the Reverend to pay for tuition. In contrast, the show keeps Kimmy’s roommate, Titus (Tituss Burgess), and landlady, Lillian (Carol Kane), in a holding pattern after getting rid of their respective boyfriends in the first two installments. Titus returns to the audition grind, which provides an excuse for Burgess to sing nearly every half-hour, including a hilarious parody of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” that gets to the point of that oldie-not-a-goodie: The boobs in California are the greatest boobs around. Kane’s endearingly demented performance doesn’t get the material it deserves, though: Lillian’s anti-gentrification efforts in her neighborhood of “East Dogmouth” are characterized by her clinging to dirty water and food deserts.
On the whole, though, Kimmy Schmidt is great when it comes to its white women. The third episode, in which Laura Dern guests as the Reverend’s seemingly normal new fiancée, is pretty much perfect. The half-hour exhibits pathos and barbs as Dern’s male apologist reveals her true reasons for marrying the Reverend. It’s a showcase of the actress’ unique ability to make female self-hatred terrifying. (See also: HBO’s Enlightened.) Nearly as great is the fifth installment, which finds Kimmy recruited by the FBI to talk her ex-bunkmate Gretchen (Lauren Adams), who has since founded her own cult, out of blowing up herself and her “child husbands.” Traditionally Reverend Gary’s most loyal follower, “the first female cult leader ever” bristles at all the ways her version of feminist progress has been diminished, in a sharp satire of how female leaders are treated.
But if you’re the type of viewer who turns to Tina Fey comedies hoping for progressive insights, you’re also probably tuning in with a certain amount of dread. Yes, Fey and co-creator Robert Carlock messed up in the first season by casting Krakowski as the Native American Jacqueline. That mistake could have been swept under the rug by ignoring the character’s racial background moving forward, but the show insists that the whitewashing linger in our minds by having the socialite scheme this season to change the name of Washington, D.C.’s football team. (“How is ‘Redskins’ still a thing?” asks Kimmy Schmidt, painfully unaware of the irony.)
If that hypocrisy bothers you, you’ll likely clench involuntarily when Lillian’s efforts to keep her neighborhood affordable get painted as moronic, Kimmy defends Jacqueline’s erstwhile stepdaughter’s (Dylan Gelula) using-the-family-helicopter-to-dry-her-jeans privilege, and an oblivious college student explains that “seventh-wave feminism” is about dressing like a ho. Oops, sorry: “They’re called sex workers, and they’re heroes.” The jokes can’t be beat. But it’s harder to laugh when we’re preparing to wince.