Charting a path forward can be challenging when the event that comes to define you is both the best and worst moment of your life. In the case of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, that defining moment was its quiet dismissal from a comedy-averse NBC’s fall schedule and subsequent two-season pickup from Netflix, a far better home for its serialized, single-camera hyper-absurdity. The show’s journey mirrors that of its irrepressible heroine and has an equally optimistic ending. Just as Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) put down roots in Manhattan after escaping from a cult leader’s subterranean bunker, Kimmy went from being a broadcast network orphan to the hit sitcom most associated with the Netflix brand.
Both the character and the show face the question “What now?” “That’s gonna be… uh, y’know, a fascinating transition,” says Walter (Mike Britt), the charismatic witness to Kimmy’s rescue in the show’s earworm theme song. And it was indeed fascinating to watch Kimmy, to whom sarcasm and Snapchat are equally foreign concepts, go from her literally sheltered youth to flourishing in a city that even overwhelms people who haven’t spent half their lives cut off from the world. Kimmy’s theme song remains the same, but Kimmy has all but completed her transition, having found new friends and a love interest, landed a job, and started her education. Righting her path will take time for Kimmy, but outsmarting her former captor Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) and sealing his conviction in season one brought a sense of closure to that part of her story.
Kimmy is eager to get past the darkest chapter of her life, and who could blame her? But as season two starts to roll out, the fascinating transition becomes much more broad, less the story of a cult survivor trying to rebuild than that of a young woman continuing to adapt to a city she’s constitutionally incompatible with. The season premiere, written by co-creator Tina Fey, is irresistible and hilarious, with a sense of urgency born of the first season’s cliffhangers. Once the show settles into its new groove, Kimmy’s origin story goes missing, more or less, and the relative absence of her history of captivity creates some emotional dissonance. It’s possible to want Kimmy to move beyond her traumatic past for her own sake, but stay stuck there for the sake of all the great jokes the cult years generate. As is generally the case with comedy, the trauma is where the gold is.
That isn’t to say Kimmy’s second season isn’t as funny as its first. Like Fey and Robert Carlock’s 30 Rock before it, Kimmy’s comedy is impossibly dense, and there’s a thrill in knowing your hysterical laughter is probably making you miss jokes you’ll be able to revisit later. The show is still jam-packed with goofy one-liners, esoteric pop-culture references, and meta-gags. Not to mention the jokes that combine all three elements, like a Mad Men-themed shout-out to Hamm that will sail right over the heads of anyone who didn’t follow the show. Fey’s comic sensibility is referential as hell, but her shows don’t get enough credit for the amazing jokes that don’t require having committed two decades of pop culture to memory. A metaphor involving biscotti is one of the best bits in the half-dozen episodes screened for critics, the kind of structurally elaborate joke that couldn’t have possibly been captured in a single take.
The biscotti joke, among many others, serves as a reminder that the show makes all the referential jokes because it wants to, not because there’s nothing else to riff on. Kimmy is fascinated by and devoted to its characters, as absurd as they are. The upside of focusing less on Kimmy’s past is that the supporting characters get to develop richer lives of their own. Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), Kimmy’s roommate and an aspiring off-off-Broadway diva, gets an origin story of his own, as well as an honest-to-goodness love interest. The show is genuinely interested in what makes Titus tick, so what could easily devolve into gay sidekick cliché turns into something far more satisfying.
The same can be said for Kimmy’s boss Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), whose journey dovetails with Kimmy’s. After divorcing an Upper West Side titan, Jacqueline has to acclimate to her new life as a fallen crumb from Manhattan’s upper crust. Jacqueline is the character most in need of an overhaul in season two, since Kimmy is about the lead character’s evolution, and Kimmy’s stint as Jacqueline’s all-purpose assistant has ended. Their new dynamic finds them navigating the transition from work friends to real friends with all of the awkward boundary drawing that requires, another thematic similarity to 30 Rock, which frequently explored the gray area between professional and personal affinities.
There’s more to love about Kimmy’s second season both figuratively and literally, now that the standard 22-minute network length has been ditched in favor of episodes that run a full half-hour or more. The longer runtimes are likely to divide the cult of Kimmy Schmidt between those who will take as much of the show as they can get, and those who prefer the leaner version. For a comedy as dense as Kimmy, the expanded length is a blessing as often as it is a curse. There’s room for more complete stories, but some jokes feel like throwaways, and the cutaways can be interminable. When Kimmy’s cult days come back to the fore, the supersized length suddenly seems justifiable. That’s the position Kimmy now finds itself in: It’s a show about a woman intent on moving forward that’s at its best when it’s looking backward.
Binge-watch reviews by Gwen Ihnat will run Friday, April 15 through Sunday, April 17. For readers watching the show at a more moderate pace, reviews by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya will run daily from Monday, April 18 through Saturday, April 30.