It’s Dead, Dammit!
Netflix released the final six episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, including one double-sized Sliding Doors homage, in typical fashion last week. They dropped like Santa gifts in the middle of the night. Some push alerts went out to viewers of prior seasons. Maybe you got an email on Friday reminding you to finish off the series.
But the episodes themselves fell into the gigantic, billions-of-dollars bucket of Netflix, a rectangular blip on the home screen that will be gone before you blink. Such is the current saturation of streaming TV comedy.
Remember that Kimmy Schmidt got there first. As Netflix’s first successful half-hour comedy (way back in, when was it, 2015 you say ?) it marked one of the first big pulls of talent away from broadcast TV. 30 Rock creator Tina Fey and showrunner Robert Carlock brought their weird alternate-reality New York City to a story about a kidnapping survivor from Durnsville, Indiana, and her damaged new friends.
It was a show about a how an indomitably sunny woman could get past the most horrible experience of her life without letting the world beat her. With a perfectly-cast Ellie Kemper, breakout scene stealer Titus Burgess, Jane Krakowski and Carol Kane as the leads, it found firm footing fast, with lots of buzz and Emmy nominations for its first season.
Kimmy Falls Behind The Times!
Somewhere around Season Three, though, something seemed off about Kimmy Schmidt. A flood of competing streaming comedies, from Netflix’s own BoJack Horseman, GLOW and Master of None to Fleabag and One Mississippi on Amazon, broke out of the sitcom format in more interesting ways. Kimmy Schmidt struggled with too many supporting-character B-stories, which the creators themselves admit led to a touch of bloat. The show’s most-anything-for-a-joke ethos finally went too far for some by doubling down against PC culture.
Like a lot of viewers, I jumped ship somewhere around the third or fourth episode of that season. I had far too many other shows to watch. The Fey-Carlock machine-gun rhythm of the show’s joke writing started to feel overly familiar, especially coming after seven seasons of 30 Rock.
Over the holidays, though, I caught up through the first half of the fourth season. I remembered why I liked it so much in the first place. Kimmy Schmidt stayed light on its feet, even when tackling the darkest of topics (trauma, gentrification, gender inequality, even rape). It featured a top-notch guest cast, in particular Jon Hamm, Maya Rudolph and the marvel that is Amy Sedaris as perpetually defeated socialite Mimi Kanasis.
And it continued to have the best, catchiest theme song of any current TV show. Sorry, don’t fight me on this.
I’d missed, most of all, the writing of Byzantine jokes like this one, delivered by Burgess to his agent: “You got me fired from ‘Cats.’ And now I’m homeless. I can’t live on the street! I’m not a car! I belong inside, like Jerry Seinfeld’s cars!”
The last six episodes, and the fourth season as a whole, feel like a return to form after a wandering, baggy Season Three. The focus seems tighter. They jettisoned dead-weight love interests (sorry, Peter Riegert and Daveed Diggs). There’s a clear sprint to an ending tying together so many subplots and the show’s prime theme: how to move forward from victimhood.
But it stays wacky and topical. Titus gets involved in a #metoo scandal involving a dirty old puppet, Kimmy tries to publish a fantasy book about toxic masculinity for young boys. All the characters somehow get involved with a tech startup that uses mobile phones and computers to spy on everyone. Beyond the sometimes slapdash plotting, there’s genuine affection and emotion under it all.
“Sliding Van Doors,” the double-length episode, imagines life if Kimmy hadn’t been abducted and if Titus missed his Lion King audition, both events hinging on a Durnsville screening of the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors. It’s a great showcase for Kemper, who gets to play a career-climbing, fully-grown-up version of Kimmy completely different from the character we’ve been rooting for. It’s an episode that will wear on the patience of some: it’s a long way to go to deliver the message that Kimmy shouldn’t live her life wishing things had gone differently.
But those threads pay off in the finale of the show, allowing a time jump where each of the four leads has let go of the past to end up where they’ve always wanted. Kimmy finds a way to improve the world without exploiting her “Mole Woman” fame and to forgive everyone who’s let her down in the past. Titus stops being selfish long enough to fall in love and find success in entertainment. Jacqueline quits relying on powerful men to define her life. And even Lillian finds a way to make herself an immortal part of New York City without killing anyone.
It’s a generous end for a show, even for one as perpetually sunny as this one. And the door appears open for one-off movies or specials in the future.
Now’s the time to petition Netflix for more: allow me to request a Titus Andromedon variety special featuring Maya Rudolph returning with her loopy, delightfully wrong Dionne Warwick impression. That’s going to be a uh, you know, uh, fascinating transition.