With the combined forces of composer Jeff Richmond and Broadway performers Tituss Burgess and Carol Kane, it comes to no surprise that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt pulls off a spectacular musical episode. It isn’t a musical episode in the traditional sense. Titus is really the only character who breaks out in song (Jane Krakowski has one brief musical outburst that made me wish for more), and “Kimmy Gives Up!” really does feel like business as usual for the show rather than a special, stylized episode. The more I think about it, the more I realize that just about every episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt feels like it could, at any point, turn into a musical episode. Likely due to the runaway success of season one’s “Peeno Noir,” season two has ramped up the musical numbers, starting with Lillian and “Bobby” Durst’s love song in the premiere. And with its bright colors and over-the-top world, Kimmy Schmidt has Broadway sensibilities even when no one’s singing. So when Titus spends most of this episode singing his way through the songbooks of the best musicals that never existed, it just feels right.
When it comes to made-up pop cultural references, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt truly shines (For what it’s worth, it’s great at the real references, too—the Frasier/Living Single riff in the cold open is delightful). The show already introduced us to the gem that is Daddy’s Boy—an “innocent” tale about a father’s love for his infant son—in season one. It makes a beautiful comeback, full of ambiguous lyrics: “Sometimes, I get lost in your big blue eyes / I just can’t help dreamin’ about your alabaster thighs / Though you love to tease and give your daddy sass / How I love by baby’s naughty little…personality.” But Daddy’s Boy is just one of several musical theater insta-classics that Titus introduces Lillian and viewers to. There’s also a musical about marionettes (which sounds terrifying), an unauthorized Helen Keller musical and, my personal favorite, Gangly Orphan Jeff, the ill-fated musical that opened six days after Annie. Lillian and Titus collaborate on a duet of the Gangly Orphan Jeff number “Just Go On,” a decidedly gloomier take on Annie’s “Tomorrow.” But “Just Go On” doesn’t simply function on a comedic level; the song rather perfectly embodies the ethos of the episode, which is all about moving forward.
“Kimmy Gives Up!” doesn’t just let Titus sing; the episode justifies why he’s singing. Other musical episodes in television history have certainly provided a reason for why its characters suddenly find the need to express themselves in song, but what I love about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s approach here is how the explanation is rooted in how Titus feels. It’s not a magical curse or an out-of-body experience—although either scenario could easily fit this show. Rather, Titus is singing because he’s happy. The creative choice is grounded in the story and in the character’s emotions. He claims he just wants to teach Lillian the songs he loves, but she sees the truth. After all, Lillian makes for a very perceptive “stoop crone”—a character from another one of Titus’s shows but also the perfect description of Kane’s wise and weird Lillian. She’s a one-woman Greek chorus, and she fulfills her duties as such effectively in “Kimmy Gives Up!” Season two has already given us a lot more Lillian than season one did, and she’s a strong choice for the show’s emotional guide, telling the other characters what they need to hear while still delivering it in a way that’s funny and, often, off-putting. Titus, Kimmy, and Jacqueline all have three distinct yet thematically connected storylines in “Kimmy Gives Up!,” and Lillian ends up being an essential player in both Titus and Kimmy’s. She helps Titus realize that, sure, happiness is fleeting, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t embrace it. She also helps Kimmy continue to get over Dong by spinning a flawless analogy to all the years she sat around waiting for the promised-but-still-nonexistent Second Avenue Subway. Because above all else, Lillian is pure New York, and the Kimmy Schmidt writers use that to inform so much of what the character says and does.
Much like I imagine the musical Gangly Orphan Jeff to be, Titus’s storyline warms and breaks hearts all at once. I’m so happy to see how much detail the writers are pouring into Titus’s relationship arc with Mikey, who doesn’t actually appear in “Kimmy Gives Up!” but whose presence is definitely felt in the personal crisis Titus sings and dances his way through. Titus still seems like the Titus we’ve come to know. He’s very busy being fabulous and knowing he’s fabulous and living a life full of fantastical thrills, but season two is showing much more of the character. Titus, like Kimmy, is multidimensional, and his past shapes who he is, but he doesn’t let it define him. Happiness scares him, and that’s a very real, very poignant conflict for the character to be struggling with. But that’s the kind of messy shit Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt grapples with, even as its firing off the jokes. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is so good at infusing its bright, sing-songy world with darkness, as is evident in the show’s very premise. Kimmy is an abuse survivor. She’s an abuse survivor in a comedy that’s more 30 Rock than it is Girls. That shouldn’t work at all, but the writers and actors are so good and layered in their approach to the comedy that it does. The show’s brilliance lies in its ability to explore that darkness through its often absurd comedy.
Kimmy’s bunker experiences certainly come into play in the episode in a very meaningful but complicated way. She’s still not over Dong. Instead of preparing for her GED, she gets caught up in helping him prepare for his meeting with an immigration officer. Kimmy tries to insist that she just wants to help Dong because it’s the right thing to do, but ol’ stoop crone Lillian again sees the truth: Kimmy’s holding onto him. She’s running up against the metaphorical brick wall that is her relationship with Dong just like she kept running up against the literal brick wall down in the bunker. “I have hope,” Kimmy says to Lillian about Dong. “Hope that got me through 15 years in the bunker. I don’t quit.” Kimmy’s resilience has certainly been her most defining quality throughout the season. But “Kimmy Gives Up!” teaches her a tricky lesson. Sometimes quitting is the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s the only way to move forward. Kimmy often wishes the world were more clear-cut, but her post-bunker life is full of complexity and gray areas. Titus has found happiness and it’s freaking him out, but Kimmy is still grasping at what happiness means. She’s clearly a joyful person, but like she explains in the episode, she’s like biscotti. She seems like a simple fun cookie, but people don’t actually know what or why she is. Especially because we’re so used to seeing a smiling, fist-pumping Kimmy, watching her give up on Dong is pretty devastating. When Dong reaches into the fountain to collect the 78 cents he owes her, Kimmy’s face falls. It’s a cute gesture, but she knows what it means: She no longer has any tie to him. Dong doesn’t have any reason to come knocking on her door if his debt is paid. As Lillian and Titus sing “Just Go On,” Kimmy deletes his number from her phone. She’s trying, as she always has, to just go on.
The episode truly accomplishes so much. Jacqueline’s storyline is on par with the others, showing yet another side of the character and further humanizing her. Jacqueline is still self-centered and expects others to do things for her, but while Kimmy is giving up in the episode, Jacqueline is really trying. Specifically, she’s trying when it comes to her son Buckley. Growing up without any kind of rules, Buckley is in need of some serious discipline. So his doctor prescribes Dyziplen, a drug to make Buckley less of a handful (“which is a medical term for how many pills he needs”). Tanner Flood gives a great performance in the episode, flipping the switch seamlessly from wild pre-Dyziplen Buckley and robotic, medicated Buckley. Jacqueline takes Buckley to the park, where he and the other Dyziplen’d kids move and speak mechanically as if they are aliens pretending to be human children.
The eerie playground scene is topped by the sequence that unfolds when Jacqueline decides to take Dyziplen for herself. It kicks in just as the designer arrives with beautiful gowns for her to pick from in anticipation of gala season, and her passion for sparkly, expensive things is immediately replaced with despondence. “My brain! It’s Talbotsing!” she shouts, seeing the designer gowns as mere Talbots garb. As much as she enjoys spending time with a mellow Buckley, she realizes that the meds are taking his joy away, and she doesn’t want that. Even more touching is her attempt at speaking to Buckley in terms he can understand, playing into his Transformers game instead of just yelling at him to chill out when she takes him to a boutique and he starts acting up. Then when the saleswoman suggests she’s a higher size than Jacqueline fancies herself, she helps Buckley destroy the place. Like mother, like son.
Krakowski delivers such a fantastic performance in every episode, but she’s particularly great in this one, doing a lot of physical comedy and elevating all of her lines with her delivery. But she also gets to dig a little deeper in “Kimmy Gives Up!” Just look at the sudden transformation of her face when Buckley goes in for that hug at the end. Can you believe Jane Krakowski has never won an Emmy? I cannot. And the writing this season has made Jacqueline much more than just a colorful character in Kimmy’s life. She’s learning about herself just as much as Titus and Kimmy are in the episode. I only wish she had sung a song about it.
- According to Kimmy, leaving her blue scrunchy at Dong’s fudged up her entire scrunchy rotation system. “I can’t wear a green scrunchy on Thursday. Everyone will think I’m horny!” Titus immediately responds: “That’s true. I will.” Burgess’s delivery of that line caught me so off guard, I almost did a spit take.
- Kimmy asks Titus if she has any mail, and he replies: “Girl, I don’t know. Check my Quest Diagnostics Barbie chalet.” That chalet is the single more beautiful prop I’ve ever seen on television. Shoutout to the Kimmy Schmidt art department.
- Jacqueline, horrified: “Are you listing things at me?”
- Jacqueline, to Kimmy: “Look, I know you were frozen in ice for 10 years or whatever…”
- Zombie-Buckley, on the walls in Jacqueline’s apartment: “I like how it’s all white and flat. Like my dreams.”
- “Damnit, Lillian! What kind of white Six Feet Under nonsense is this?!”
- The lyrics to all of the songs Titus sings throughout the episode were too good for me to not transcribe them, so I will include some of them here:
- From “A Glorious Morning,” a number from the now-banned Black version of Oklahoma!, Alabama!: “Oh, what a glorious morning / Oh, all the joy it will bring! / If I don’t ever mind voting / Or my church burning down while I sing”
- From the Helen Keller-inspired but unauthorized musical Feels Like Love: “Does he even see me? / Is he screaming my name? / Is it him or a mop or a chair or a cop? / Sad to say, but to me feels the same”
- From Croon, Crone, Croon, the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic that was eventually reworked into The Sound Of Music: “Stoop crone, no loitering please / Stoop crone, you’re kind of a sleaze”
- Additional lyrics from Daddy’s Boy: “You’re my baby now when you’re squirming in my lappy / Such a big boy, wow! You make daddy very happy / Brazen muscles, man you got ’em / You’re the tops and I’m the bottom / I’m a lucky daddy, because you’re my baby now / But you’ll grow up and you’ll be gone / Then I’ll sing a different song / You’re not my baby now”
- From Stephen Sondheim’s Pinocchio: “You do not define me, Richard / I cannot be owned / And if I had my way, Richard / I would die alone / Eaten by birds, digested by birds, shat out by birds, alone” (That last line was maybe my favorite lyric of the whole episode.)