Because its characters aren’t all completely morally bankrupt or assholes as is common of most dark comedies, you don’t see that subgenre thrown around a lot when it comes to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which is more often described as charming and delightful than dark. But underneath all the bright colors of Kimmy’s wardrobe and her inspirational pep talks, we can never fully forget about the very bleak and fucked up recent history of the character. Playing a plot about an abusive cult leader who holds women hostage for over a decade for comedy isn’t as simple a task as, say, playing a dysfunctional family or an unproductive workplace for comedy is. Mining comedy from trauma without offending or making light of the situation is a challenge.
The show has certainly stumbled on that front, the most noticeable time being Kimmy’s off-hand remark about “weird sex stuff” happening in the bunker in the pilot. That’s some seriously traumatic shit that shouldn’t just be packaged up into a quick joke. “Kimmy Rides A Bike” walks the line best. It’s one of the darkest episodes of the season, bringing us face to face with none other than Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) and also placing Kimmy in a vulnerable position. But it’s also one of the funniest, using jokes to hit all its major themes.
It turns out I spoke a little too soon when I declared Dean Norris the best Kimmy Schmidt guest star yesterday. Here we are just one episode later, and Jon Hamm shows up with one of my favorite comedic performances of his career. He’s perfectly charming and manipulative as the smooth-talking reverend, who decides to represent himself in court. Hamm delivers some of the reverend’s crazier lines with a nonchalant cadence that makes it all the creepier. Is there anything Jon Hamm can’t do?
I figured it was only a matter of time before Tina Fey also showed up on her own show, and I’m delighted by how small and weird her role is here. She and Jerry Minor play Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, who are now representing the mole women. Living up to their reputations, they’re so laughably inept in court that they more often end up siding with the reverend. Their awkwardly choreographed opening argument is hilarious, as is their outburst at Cyndee when she actually asks a real question during the proceedings. Fey and Minor play off each other excellently, making the contributing just as much as Hamm to the comedic success of the courtroom scenes.
But the most effective part of “Kimmy Rides A Bike” is outside of the courtroom, in New York, where Jacqueline convinces Kimmy to join Spirit Cycle, an intense spin class program led by Tristafé (Nick Kroll). Hoping it will help her forget about Dong’s immigration problems and the bunker—which is back on her mind after having told Jacqueline the truth—Kimmy pours all her energy into Spirit Cycle. But she doesn’t realize Tristafé’s controlling and manipulative behaviors until Titus points it out.
The fact that it’s Titus who helps Kimmy realize Tristafé isn’t all that different from Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne shows growth for the character and his relationship with Kimmy. I’ve written before about how Titus can often feel too detached from the emotional beats of the show. On the one hand, it’s important that Titus has his own storylines that belong entirely to him instead of just being an accessory for Kimmy’s life. But there’s a difference between autonomy and disconnection. “Kimmy Rides A Bike” finally finds a balance. Here, he’s seen having his own life. Sure, he’s wrapped up in the thrills of Kimmy’s case, but it’s more because of his own morbid curiosity than because of Kimmy herself. But he’s also more attached to the narrative heart of the episode than usual. Titus might get hooked by the case initially for selfish reasons, but when he falls for the reverend’s tricks, he empathizes with Kimmy. He’s confronted directly by the horrors she faced, and it pushes him to push her.
This time, Kimmy really does need that outside push to help her see things for how they really are and to convince her to go to Durnsville. Her speech to the ladies—and gay guy!— of Spirit Cycle hits with more force than some of her past inspirational speeches because of how unforced and unromanticized her realization feels. Despite some of its over-the-top details, the Spirit Cycle plot is written with restraint and nuance. Tristafé never seems quite as noxious as the reverend, but all the points Kimmy hits ring true. The patriarchal desire to control women and their choices manifests in many ways, sometimes in something as commonplace as a fitness group.
- “I prefer my students in ponytails so I can imagine them as ponies.” Kroll delivers this so well. I’m still shuddering.
- “What white nonsense is this?” should be Titus’s official catchphrase.
- The reverend’s obsession with “School Ties” is a particularly great recurring bit.
- Tituss Burgess plays Titus’s inability to be comforting and supportive toward Kimmy so well. “I’m your friend, so I’m going to come to Durnsville with you…so I can see the trial without ads!”
- Kimmy’s reaction to someone in the spin class saying she prefers the original Roman Brady is priceless.