Thursday 8 December 2016

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt returns with a fun but flawed second season

Meadhbh McGrath

Published 16/04/2016 | 10:36

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt/Netflix
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt/Netflix
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt/Netflix
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt/Netflix
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt/Netflix

Netflix’s first original comedy is back, and it’s trying to leave the bunker behind.

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**WARNING: Mild spoilers**

It’s been a long year since we left Kimmy Schmidt celebrating on the steps of an Indiana courthouse as doomsday cult leader Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne was carted off to prison.

If you’re one of the viewers who binged on all 13 episodes in one weekend, you may find yourself grasping to remember how the addictive first season wrapped up. When we last saw Kimmy, she was shocked by the news of her crush Dong’s sudden green-card marriage and the return of her gay roommate Titus’ long-lost wife, while her former boss Jacqueline was headed back to her family home in South Dakota.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt/Netflix
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt/Netflix

In its second season, the tirelessly optimistic Kimmy Schmidt has just about completed her transition from being trapped in an underground bunker for 15 years to living in Manhattan, leaving the show open to develop richer lives for its supporting characters.

The first episode takes a while to get going: after an unnecessary flash-forward, the show makes viewers suffer through Jacqueline’s continuously misguided Native American plot - not to mention countless jokes about the Kardashians’ rise to ubiquity - before rewarding us with an origin story for Titus and a rousing dance sequence.

By episode two, Jacqueline’s story is proven to be a non-starter, as she comes running back to Manhattan. Jane Krakowski tends to get the best one-liners as a fallen socialiate scrambling to maintain her status as “social royalty” after splitting from her multi-millionaire husband (and receiving only $12m in the divorce).

The show tries to soften her character a little by focusing on Jacqueline’s relationship with her son - without Kimmy as her nanny, she is forced to care for Buckley alone, and the show explores parents medicating their kids, while Jacqueline adjusts to life as a single mother and gains a better understanding of her hyperactive son.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt/Netflix
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt/Netflix

Tituss Burgess was the sitcom’s biggest break-out star as Kimmy’s roommate (and Pinot Noir lover) Titus Andromedon. In its second outing, the show develops Titus beyond the ‘sassy gay best friend’ with a new romance that proves to be one of the strongest storylines in the half-dozen episodes screened for critics.

His love interest comes in the form of Mikey, an adorable construction worker who tried to play it straight with his co-workers by “airbrushing a hot chick on the back of my truck” - which turns out to be a portrait of Tilda Swinton.

The fourth episode is a particular standout, as the show explores their budding relationship with a perfect balance of comedy and tenderness, while Kimmy attempts to rescue one of her former bunker-mates from the church of Cosmetology, a heavily-contoured spoof on Scientologists.

Ellie Kemper is just as excellent as Kimmy, managing to sell both the character’s sweet innocence and plucky determination. In the first half of the season, however, Kimmy plays more of a supporting role.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt/Netflix
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt/Netflix

While her scenes with Titus and Jacqueline are great, her primary solo storyline - the hangover from her ill-fated flirtation with classmate Dong (one of the first season’s weakest characters) - drags on, making you wish the show would give her something more exciting to grapple with.

The first season gifted us with scene-stealing cameos from Jon Hamm and Martin Short, and while some of the second season’s guest stars disappoint, Amy Sedaris is hilarious as Jacqueline’s sad, goofy friend, delivering some bits so absurdly funny you’ll want to watch them again and again. She fits into the world of the show so well, you wonder why she’s not a regular cast member already.

Pitch Perfect’s Anna Camp also impresses as Deirdre Robespierre, an Upper East Side mean girl, in some bitingly funny scenes with her new frenemy Jacqueline. The latter half of the season promises appearances from Jeff Goldblum, David Cross and Tina Fey.

Some of the characters, most notably Carol Kane’s landlady Lillian, suffer in the second season. Although she may be fun to watch, the show seems to have lost its grasp on who she is supposed to be, making her more often a vessel for jokes than anything resembling an actual person.

As Lillian’s neighbourhood is invaded by young hipsters, the show tries to say something about class anxiety, but her crusade against gentrification amounts to little more than tired hipster bashing, and it’s even more frustrating to see Girls’s Zosia Mamet turn up only to play one of these lazy stereotypes.

The first season was originally developed for network TV, before it was picked up by Netflix, and the second season ditches the standard 22-minute length of network sitcoms to allow episodes to run to half an hour or more.

For some stories, the longer runtimes work in the show’s favour, giving us more to love, but in weaker episodes, viewers may find themselves missing the brisk pace of the first season.

In a show as stuffed with gags as this, there will inevitably be some sloppy jokes that fail to land, but a longer run time means some episodes fumble more than others.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has an uncomfortable relationship with its own critics, including those who tore into the show’s clumsy handling of Jacqueline’s ‘real’ background as a Native American.

Co-creator Tina Fey addressed the criticisms in an interview with Net-a-Porter, saying: “Steer clear of the internet and you’ll live forever. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”

While Fey may have chosen to opt out, the show devotes a whole episode to “taking on the haters”. What results is an ugly mess: rather than trying to engage with the criticism, the show grumpily responds to internet outrage by portraying a group of online activists from a group advocating for “Respectful Asian Portrayals in Entertainment” who struggle to articulate why they’re so angry.

Missteps such as these make the show more difficult to enjoy. However, when it’s not trying to clap back, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is as fun as ever, filled with whimsy musical bits, surreal gags and touching character moments.

In its relentless pursuit of laughs, the show favours throwing everything and seeing what sticks, rather than deciding what beats it really wants to hit. You get the sense it could be a much sharper - and much funnier - show if it only reined itself in a little.

All 13 episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's second season are available on Netflix now.

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