In “Kimmy Goes to a Play!,” Kimmy encourages Titus to put on a one-man show about his life. Titus quickly realizes his story has been done before though, and he wants to do something new. So he reminds Kimmy that he has a very vivid memory of his past live, deciding to perform his show as Murasaki, the geisha he lived as in a past life and who we’ve seen little glimmers of throughout the season. But a quick internet search at the local library shows Titus that people—specifically, The Forum To Advocate Respectful Asian Portrayals In Entertainment—are not too happy about his decision to play a Japanese woman. Yes, alright, I see what you’re doing there, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The episode serves as a meta-reflection—and derision—of the critical response during season one to Jane Krakowski playing a character who turns out to be Native American. But in their attempts to defend a “creative choice,” the makers of Kimmy Schmidt come off as, at best, out-of-touch and, at worst, smug.
There were already plenty of signs that Kimmy Schmidt co-creators Robert Carlock and Tina Fey did not really understand the controversy surrounding Jacqueline’s Native American background. As former TV Club writer Caroline Framke wrote over at Vox, Fey took a hard stance against internet criticism in a Net-a-Porter cover story, specifically citing reactions to the Kimmy Schmidt storyline in question. Fey said she was “opting out” of the internet’s “culture of demanding apologies.” But in generalizing all internet commentary, Fey doesn’t really seem to understand the difference between mean, troll-like attacks and thoughtful criticism. She’s deflecting. At the risk of sounding like I’m trying to merely defend what I do for a living: Just because criticism lives on the internet doesn’t mean it is inherently cruel or dismissive.
The Titus storyline, ultimately, misses the point. The episode paints Kimmy and Titus as victims of the mean monster known as the internet. To a certain extent, I understand. As a woman who writes for the internet, I’ve been attacked by my fair share of online haters. It’s not fun. And the running joke in “Kimmy Goes to a Play!” that the internet is just a bunch of Chandlers is really quite good. But Kimmy Schmidt is waging a war against the wrong part of the internet, vilifying and belittling people who are just trying to make a point about cultural appropriation and media representation. Titus and Kimmy berate the angry people who show up to Titus’s show just so they can boo it, telling them they haven’t even seen it yet. How can they know if something is offensive if they don’t know the context? In essence, Carlock and Fey are berating the people who took offense at the Jacqueline storyline as it unfolded last season. But if Carlock and Fey are suggesting that the offended were only offended because they had not seen the show in full, well, that simply isn’t true. A lot of the criticism was coming from critics, who don’t simply react to sound bites or synopses but rather engage with the full work.
The “haters” eventually come around, because the show Titus puts on is so good. Kimmy and Titus are proud. Their point has been made. All their haters needed to do was judge the show on its overall merit and not on the poster they were quick to react to. The assumption implied here is that the people who had hesitation over Jacqueline’s storyline unequivocally hated the show as a whole and were the angry internet hozers depicted here in the episode. Again, I just don’t really think that’s true. I certainly see how Jacqueline’s storyline fits the overall themes of the show and understand exactly what the writers were going for. But two things can be true: A storyline can make sense in the context of a show’s framework, and that storyline can be a whitewashed, perplexing mess. The former does not excuse the latter. Yes, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a great show, just like Titus’s performance is a great show. That doesn’t mean either should be above critical response.
I get that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is trying to have a sense of humor about the issue. Titus is appalled that anyone would attack him for portraying someone else’s life because he lived that life in a past life. That logic is somewhat amusing, especially the further the show pushes it. But the entire storyline just comes off as a backwards defense of the first season’s only major misstep. If Kimmy Schmidt writers don’t want to listen to backlash, that’s their prerogative. But this episode shows that they are listening; they’re just choosing to shout over it and smugly pat themselves on the back by creating such a convoluted premise that it’s basically too wacky to unpack. So, you thought parsing out what it means for a white actor to play a Native American character pretending to be white? Here’s a Black actor playing a Black character playing a Japanese woman who he lived as in one of his past lives. Figure out how you feel about that. Fey and Carlock are very intentionally making this as messy as possible, and maybe some people will find it amusing. I mostly found it exhausting.
Titus asks his haters to be more nuanced in their understanding of his show, but Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t approach this storyline with the slightest bit of nuance or complexity. The show thrives on heightening certain scenarios, but by having the critics of Titus’s show compare him to Hitler, “Kimmy Goes to a Play!” unnecessarily trivializes very real and meaningful conversations about race and representation in media. Sure, it’s a joke. But it isn’t a particularly funny one. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has so much funnier material to work with! Why is this the target it chose? The episode preaches about representation but brings in a group of non-white characters and labels them trivial and sensitive.
The internet really is the villain of the episode. Lillian becomes increasingly distressed about the gentrification of her neighborhood, but her hope is renewed when the “f105” gang starts tagging her street. In actuality, the graffiti says “fios,” because Verizon is marking up places to put internet lines for a new building going up. That storyline is fine, carried mostly by Carol Kane’s impeccable delivery and timing.
The best part of the episode, however, is Jacqueline’s quest to start dating again. Amy Sedaris returns as the human disaster Mimi Kanasis, and the two hit the town, ready for some action: “Time to get more D’s than an undiagnosed kid with dyslexia.” After Kimmy persuades Jacqueline to go for someone who’s the opposite of her dirtbag ex-husband, Jacqueline ends up with a young, poor, hot dog masseuse and aspiring DJ. She goes from trophy wife to sugar mama, and Jacqueline finds the shift empowering. But Kimmy points out that in her attempts to date someone who isn’t Julian, she has effectively become the Julian, treating the person she’s dating as little more than an object or pet (when her new boyfriend Doug spills wine on her new $30,000 rug, she alternates between yelling “bad Doug!” and “bad dog!”). There’s a lot of funny—and even some emotional—substance in there, but it gets overshadowed by the episode’s heavy-handed and misguided attempts to crucify the “haters.”
- “Whose ghosts are they? Why are they haunting Pac-Man? What did he do to them?!” The episode opens with its strongest joke.
- Ellie Kemper has such fantastic facial expressions. It’s very fun to watch Kimmy while other characters are speaking.
- I love the obsession rich people have with blimps in this world.
- Kimmy calls brunch “breakfast lunches.”
- “Patti LuPone? Patti LaBelle? I’m out of Pattis. Does it have to be a Patty or did I do that?”