Aside from the initial news footage we see during the opening credits sequence every week, we don’t know a lot about what happened on the day Kimmy and the other mole women left the bunker. In the first few days after the series premiered, I saw a lot of people asking where the hell Kimmy’s family was. For me, the question wasn’t all that pressing. I trusted the show to explain her family absence eventually, but I also felt like the answer didn’t really matter that much. Since the beginning, Kimmy Schmidt has been a show about a woman reclaiming her life and marching forward. Any real attachment to her past life in Durnesville would be unnecessary weight and wouldn’t have given the character that initial freedom to choose her new NYC life.

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So I figured there was some context for the lack of a big welcome home moment for Kimmy, but it wasn’t really needed. Not yet, at least. “Kimmy Has A Birthday!” tries to answer some of those questions though, and it all unfolds pretty quickly. Kimmy’s mother seems perpetually absent, even on the day her daughter is rescued from a bunker after 15 years. But Kimmy’s stepfather Randy Peterson (Tim Blake Nelson)—who’s also the cop led the failed investigation to find Kimmy—and half-sister Kymmi (Kiernan Shipka) arrive in New York on Kimmy’s 30th birthday, and Kimmy’s not too happy to see them.

Seeing her inept stepdad and viciously hateful sister immediately puts Kimmy in a bad mood that spirals downward as the episode goes on. Her 30th birthday party isn’t what she had in mind: Her boyfriend gets her a bunch of impersonal gifts, brings four pieces of artisanal frozen water when she asks him to bring ice, gets in a fight with Dong. Titus cares more about the cute mystery man he invited than about the party itself. “I threw this party to celebrate me! And everyone’s making it about themselves!” Kimmy shouts, in the first diva outburst we’ve ever seen from her.

This is a very different Kimmy, and even though it’s a jarring gear switch, it’s a compelling one. Kimmy Schmidt the show as well as Kimmy Schmidt the character have been marked by their sweetness. Even when the tone of the show gets dark, it almost always bounces back to a bright place. There’s a relentless optimism about the show, even as it admits how shitty the world can be. But this time, Kimmy gets a little selfish. And it’s damn warranted. Kimmy has been so busy taking care of everyone else and doing her best to forget about the bunker and Durnesville, and then two reminders of that past come marching back in unannounced. “Kimmy Has A Birthday!” allows Ellie Kemper to show even more shades of Kimmy, and she nails them. Exasperated, angry Kimmy is as convincing as cheery Kimmy.

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That being said, everything unravels a little too fast. The one major downside of the show ignoring Kimmy’s family until now is that we’re expected to care without a whole lot of context or development. Shipka nails Kymmi’s teen hate, and she matches Kemper’s commitment in the tiny violin/tiny hammer/shark bit. But the way Kymmi explains that she has been robbed of her own childhood because of what happened to Kimmy is all written without much nuance. Most of Randy and Kymmi’s dialogue feels pretty clunky, and “Kimmy Has A Birthday!” has the weakest jokes of any episode so far. The heroin bit just doesn’t fit.

Even though Kimmy’s family’s presence provides context for the attitude switch we see in Kimmy here, it overshadows some of the other conflicts that seem more important to the show’s more long-term plotting. The tension between Dong and Logan, for example, gets completely swallowed up by the rest of the episode. And Titus’s side plot about a sexy mummy who turns out to be his ex doesn’t really go anywhere. Giving all of the episode’s emotional weight to Randy and Kymmi is a strange choice when we’re only just now meeting these characters. It’s not one completely without payoffs: The sweet Olive Garden scene at the end feels largely earned. But 22 minutes is a very short time to have Kimmy reconnect with her estranged family and completely change her relationship dynamics with them.

Stray observations:

  • “I will handle the music. And it will all be from after the year after Christina Aguilera started eating hotdogs.” Even though Titus doesn’t have much to do in this episode, he remains flawless.
  • Titus trying to pass off Katy Perry’s “Firework” as an original song he wrote for Kimmy’s birthday is a delightful moment.
  • Even better is Kimmy’s realization that she is like a plastic bag.
  • Logan has to go. The end of “Kimmy Goes To A Party!” attempts to make him seem like an okay dude. But here, he’s just a straight-up asshole. I don’t believe Kimmy would be into this at all. Choose Dong, Kimmy! He built you a bike!
  • Titus is correct: Having an adult party almost always means having a shitshow of a party.

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