Sometimes, the irrepressible ex-captive of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt inches forward on her own: She earns a GED, goes to therapy, or finds the resolve to tell a friend that she doesn’t have to run her cult the same exact way their former captor, Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm), ran his. Sometimes, life makes Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) move on. So it goes with the third season of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Netflix comedy, which opens on the image of Kimmy’s roommate, Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), washing ashore from his stint as a cruise-ship entertainer, before hitting Kimmy with her own cold wave of reality: The reverend wants a divorce. Oh, also, somehow the marriage ceremonies the reverend performed in the bunker were legally binding.
TV’s premier live-action cartoon has a bit of spectacle up its sleeve for season three. The heavily publicized Lemonade parody in episode two is no joke, a reverent homage that also takes into account the fact that Titus’ cash and creative reserves fall somewhat short of Beyoncé’s. The show also continues to attract top-flight guest talent, folding Laura Dern and Daveed Diggs into its collection of Big Apple dingbats, the former’s weirdo energy—as Wendy, the reverend’s new fiancée—an especially inspired match for the show. There are comments on feminism, campus culture, and racist sports mascots, and slightly more riffs on the 2016 presidential election than the creators have implied, not all of which—as a result of the show’s 360-degree joke-spray—hit their mark. But it retains a distinct method of nesting jokes within jokes, like the way Titus’ version of “Hold Up” calls back to previous mentions of a Grease cast recording and “an audio tape of commercials I use as a shopping list.”
But amid those pyrotechnics, there’s an overriding sense that season three’s main priority is tightening focus on the show’s main characters. Romantic relationships from season two are sidelined in the early goings—can’t re-make Lemonade without some of the lemons that inspired the real deal. There’s a re-centering that gets Kimmy, Titus, Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), and Lillian (Carol Kane) back in the same place, but not necessarily on the same track: While Kimmy applies to such august institutions as Roy Cohn Community College and Hudson University (“As seen on Law & Order: SVU”) and Lillian rages from within the political machine of the Upper Upper Upper Manhattan Zoning District, Jacqueline wages a personal war against the Washington Redskins. Titus is set adrift on the ocean of love without much story to cling to, but that frees Burgess up for episodic adventures like a dodgy recording gig and an uproarious sex farce opposite Krakowski and returning guest Josh Charles (and, eventually, Kane). He also gets the season’s best running gag, a deliciously dark insistence that he did not resort to cannibalism at sea.
The result is an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt whose sense of humor is sharper than ever. Losing the broadcast-TV constraints for season two meant greater opportunities for serialized storytelling and greater risk for narrative bloat, a circle that Fey and Carlock seem to have squared in season three. The first six episodes find ways to reflect Kimmy’s growing sophistication—like the increasingly muted yellows in her wardrobe—while also churning out jokes with the fury of their uncannily strong protagonist turning the Mystery Crank. When Kimmy plays hardball with the divorce proceedings, the show flips the power dynamics of her relationship with the reverend, while setting up ample opportunities for Kemper and Hamm to snipe at one another on the telephone. If going to college comes across as a rote continuation of Kimmy’s GED classes, just wait until she embarks on a quest to lock down extracurricular activities for one application.
When Kimmy first encounters some college students speaking in exaggerated academic language and identity-politics terminology, it looks like the show is loading the same gun it shot its foot off with in last season’s “Kimmy Goes To A Play!” But the conclusions drawn about those characters are leavened by some surprising insight, a dose of sympathy, and some not-so-subtle reminders that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt takes place in a heightened reality occupied by cartoon people and a small population of robots. (On that note: Diggs, pivoting smoothly from the cartoon bohemian he’s been playing on Black-ish, represents the show’s very first face of Frank Grimes.) It’s still weird that Fey, Carlock, and team previously staked out Jacqueline’s Native American heritage as the hill they’re going to die on—and it still factors in to these new episodes in cringe-inducing fashion—but season three represents a smarter approach to topical material. Just like its namesake character, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is growing up.
Reviews by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya will run every other day beginning Friday, May 19.