Netflix original series have a way of making me feel more important than I am: Once a year, an entire season of a TV show magically appears on my computer for my binge-watching pleasure. In a weekend’s time, I have devoured hours and hours of shows straight from today’s greatest (and in my case, usually comedic) minds.
The once-yearly binge watch, though, leaves a lot of room for forgetting. When I tuned in to the second season of the Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (“30 Rock,” “Saturday Night Live”) masterpiece that is “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” I had forgotten just how dark the underlying premise of the entire show could be.
For those who also may have forgotten, or have yet to get into “Kimmy Schmidt” (though I highly recommend you change that), here’s a quick refresher: After 15 years of living underground in a doomsday bunker with three other kidnapped women and the deranged Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (John Hamm), Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) starts her life anew in New York City with her roommate and wannabe musical theater star Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), crazy landlord Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane) and wealthy employer Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski). Kimmy works as a nanny, attempts to earn her GED, and navigates her way through the modern world with the help of her oddball new crew, who are often misguided themselves.
With Kimmy firmly established in the real world again, the series takes a turn down some deeper and darker pathways. The first half of the season, though a bit jumbled, delves into the lives of the supporting characters in ways not seen before in the previous season.
Titus finally gets some closure from his days as a closeted runaway groom in Mississippi and falls for construction worker Mikey (Mike Carlsen, who appeared briefly last season as an insecure construction worker cat-calling Kimmy on the street). While he was lovable as a curmudgeonly shut-in, he’s just as lovely to watch as a man happy and in love. The creative transformation he undergoes is brought to life brilliantly by composer Jeff Richmond (“30 Rock”), whose songs score the least-gimmicky musical episode (“Kimmy Gives Up!”) I’ve ever seen. Lillian, the gritty, long-time New Yorker that she is, has her own wildly entertaining subplots, as she rekindles her romance with Bobby Durst (Fred Armisen, who is clearly satirizing murderer Robert Durst of “The Jinx”) and struggles against the hipster-led gentrification movement encroaching on her territory.
Dong, Kimmy’s friend from GED class and sort-of-boyfriend played by Ki Hong Lee, is trapped in a green-card marriage, and though he and Kimmy have some fun times together (i.e. sex in the back of a police car), his suffering through his marriage to a loony older woman and deep forbidden love for Kimmy provide the show with the first of many plot lines that become increasingly darker over the course of the season.
This season takes a few episodes to find its footing. Don’t give up after the first, and arguably the weakest, episode. Despite the chaos of it, the sharp humor with which Fey and Carlock approach each episode make some of the lowest points of “Kimmy Schmidt”’ better than other shows’ greatest triumphs.
Plus, a lot of what felt weak and disconnected in the beginning of the season really tie together in episodes 9 through 13, where Kimmy finally delves into the psychological issues she had been repressing for the past two seasons. In her new job as an Uber driver, Kimmy serendipitously picks up therapist-by-day and raucous-alcoholic-by-night Andrea Bayden (Fey in her second cameo role of the series), who, despite a clear conflict of interest, agrees to treat Kimmy.
Andrea’s keen psychiatric eye, despite being clouded by alternating drunkenness and hangovers, sees right to the core of Kimmy’s problems, helping her confront them one by one as the season comes to a close. At the core of Kimmy’s people-pleasing ways, it turns out, is not the kidnapping (though the trauma of her years underground clearly show throughout the series and receive their due attention as well) is her neglectful mother, Lori-Ann Schmidt (Lisa Kudrow). In the final episode of the season, Kimmy sets off to find her at none other than Orlando Studios in Florida. Because this is “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” where absurdity and reality comfortably coexist, her mother is addicted to roller coasters.
It is both sad and deeply satisfying to see Kimmy confront these issues head-on. At the same time, Titus and Mikey agree to make their relationship work while the former travels to perform, and Lillian finally makes a difference in her battle against the hipsters. For a season that starts off so scattered, the end result is a neat little package of realized goals and self-discovery. The very last words, though, will leave you at the edge of your seat for the next 12 months.
The first half of the season in particular has its messy points. The plot lines jump around more than I had expected them to, and at times I felt that the writers were trying too hard to rectify some of their weaker points from the first season. Dong’s overstated Vietnamese accent, which has dissipated upon his appearance in the first episode thanks to his constantly watching “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” is quickly addressed and dropped, much more neatly than the second point of controversy involving Jacqueline’s largely unnecessary Native American backstory. This plot point resurfaces quickly in what appears to be a way to rectify the portrayal of her family on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota. But instead of dropping this theme altogether, as the writers should have, they take the time to show how Jacqueline is no longer a part of her old community as well as how impossible it was to get others to care about righting wrongs against Native Americans by white settlers, cementing her status as an outsider.
Fey, an outspoken critic of an Internet culture that demands apologies, expresses this distaste in what I think is one of the strongest points of the season: The entire third episode, in which Titus puts on a ridiculous play about one of his past lives as a geisha, draws the ire of an activist group, who, upon seeing the lengths to which Titus goes to give an authentic performance, are so unsure of how to respond that one protestor, who ends up “offending herself” actually disintegrates into a cloud of smoke as a result of her conclusion.
It’s nice to see a criticism of the extremes to which political correctness can take us, and for a show that gets increasingly wrapped up in its own little world, this episode provides a perceptive bird’s-eye view of an incredibly difficult to navigate cultural phenomenon.
Despite its rocky start, the rapid-fire pace of the jokes, endless cultural references, pointed social criticism, and host of complex characters figuring out their lives together makes the second season of “Kimmy Schmidt” fundamentally different from the first, but in no way worse.