Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' Should Be Considered Dark Comedy

Last month, I started watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a sitcom created by Tina Fey that streams on Netflix (which I don't have, so thanks to the random website where I found the first season).

So given the fact that I don't have Netflix, this is my first Netflix series. I've listened to literally everyone on my social media timelines and my friends in real life gush about Orange is the New Black and how everyone should watch it and blah blah blah. Honestly, the premise of that show does not intrigue me at all, so I'll probably never watch it. But, I had been hearing some nice things about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which stars Ellie Kemper from Bridesmaids, The Office and Identity Thief and was created by Tina Fey, so I figured I'd give it a try.

The series is...different, to say the least. The premise is quite different, and a lot of the dialogue is very risque, both socially and culturally. Kemper plays the titular role, Kimmy Schmidt, who is rescued from a "doomsday cult" in Indiana, where she had been held captive in a bunker by a priest for the past 15 years. In other words, she was kidnapped 15 years ago and has been rescued, having been convinced that the world had ended and she and her bunker mates were the only survivors. If we throw away the doomsday cult weirdness for a second, what does this bring to mind? Off the top of my head, the Jaycee Lee Dugard story, or better yet, the Ariel Castro kidnappings in Cleveland. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is essentially making light of something like being kidnapped and held captive for an extensive period of time. If you ask me, something like that should definitely not be funny. And yet, somehow, it is.

The series is quirky. It follows Kimmy as she chooses to move to New York City and start a new life, having only a seventh grade education and no experiences with the real world. She responds to a roommate ad from Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), a flamboyantly gay black man who is an aspiring actor and singer. Their landlord is Lillian (Carol Kane), who is odd and zany as only Kane could play. Kimmy miraculously finds a job as a nanny for a rich white socialite, Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), who is equally as funny and enjoyable. At first, she tells Jacqueline her name is Kimmy Smith, as the whole point of Kimmy moving to New York was for her to be seen no longer as a victim, but a person with a positive attitude. And that's what makes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt work, in my opinion. But there are still some factors that need to be considered.

The series should definitely be in the dark comedy genre, but from what I can find, it's not. Like I said, making light and comedic zingers out of topics like kidnappings and rescues decades later, which we have seen happen in real life too many times along with the victims' painful memoirs, should not be funny, but it is. So that right there should make the series dark comedy. Among the scenes that stick out in my brain from the first season was when Kimmy was talking to a rich handsome man at a party of Jacqueline's and she said she needed to excuse herself to go use the "filth bucket... err, bathroom." That creates quite an image that shouldn't be funny, and yet again, it somehow is.

But from my research, the kidnapping and rescue premise didn't seem to catch critics' attention as much as Jacqueline's backstory. Early in the first season, it is revealed that Jacqueline is in fact not white by descent, she was raised on a Lakota Native American reserve in North Dakota, her real name is Jackie Lynn and she left her home and her parents to move to New York (where she would dye her hair blonde and pass for white) so she could have a chance at a better life. This, of course, can definitely be seen as racially insensitive as this has happened in the past; First Nations women dying their hair and changing their identity, so this tidbit in the storyline could definitely make them feel uncomfortable. Not to mention the fact that Jacqueline's backstory seemed to only be introduced for comedic effect, which also extends the insensitivity issue. Another racial issue the series brought about was a Vietnamese character named Dong, who Kimmy meets in her adult ed class. His character focuses heavily on racial stereotypes and brings to mind other racially insensitive characters in history, like Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's or Long Duck Don in Sixteen Candles. It seems as though the world has risen above characters like these, yet Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has now made one of their own again. Dong as well as Jacqueline's backstory have led several critics to declare that the series has a race problem, and after considering it, I think they might be onto something there.

But don't get me wrong, I like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I thoroughly enjoy the comedic one-liners and how the premise of a woman being rescued from a bunker in Indiana shouldn't work comedically and yet it does. I like how the series promotes being your own person, being endlessly positive when there are a thousand reasons not to be and how you shouldn't let life's crap hold you down. I also love the theme song. But my real issue with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is not the dark comedy, nor the race issues. It's how this Netflix series, which is definitely not for everyone, has been garnering Primetime Emmy Award nominations. You heard me say it, I like the show, but I do not think it deserves Emmy consideration. Yes, the writing is on point and the cast really functions with it, but there are several other comedy series that deserve consideration before this one (Canadian sitcom Schitt's Creek if I may, but yeah I know I'm dreaming there). I continue to really not understand the barrier between streaming services and broadcast television: why is it that basically every series produced by a streaming service gets Emmy consideration? Why is it that more and more broadcast television series are being overlooked? Sure, you could argue that the streaming service series are just better, but I've seen bits and pieces of a few series produced by streaming services. They are out there. That is not to say that's a bad thing, but can we not just hand out Emmy nominations to every new show made by Netflix or Amazon? It's also worth mentioning that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was initially supposed to air on NBC but they dropped it last minute. Hmm, I wonder why; because they knew making light of kidnapping and other factors brought about would not fly on network TV. CBS pulled Jane Lynch's new sitcom Angel from Hell earlier this year after it received harsh criticism from Christian groups, could you imagine what other groups would do to this series? So yes, maybe streaming services give people more creative freedom beyond the restrictions of broadcast TV, but that is not to say that one is necessarily better than the other.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has two seasons currently streaming on Netflix (or, if you're like me and don't have that luxury, you can browse the Internet for it).

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