Saturday, May 28, 2016

REVEALING THE DARK SIDE OF KIMMY SCHMIDT

Original caricature by Jeff York of the cast of UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT (copyright 2016)

I don’t often write about television here. This is a movie blog after all. However, when a program stands out to me, like MAD MEN, SHERLOCK, GAME OF THRONES, BREAKING BAD, BATES MOTEL or THE PEOPLE VS. OJ SIMPSON, I feel compelled to share some thoughts. And the latest program that has really moved me in such a way is the Netflix original sitcom UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT. I adored its first season and laughed out loud at it more than any show I’ve watched in eons. Still, it was its second that truly blew me away and compelled me to devote a blog post to it. Why? Because while its latest 13 episodes continued to be hilarious, the main thrust of its story arc this year concerned Kimmy dealing with the fact that she had been raped.

Yep, that’s right. Despite its candy-colored, almost cartoon palate, along with its title character’s Pollyanna-esque naiveté, UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT is a rather dark comedy. And this season, it explored subject material as dark as just about any sitcom on television has ever produced. And it was even more brilliant because it tackled such a subject as sexual abuse.

Much of Kimmy’s story is standard sitcom heroine trajectory. She is a young woman venturing to the big city, trying to make it there, turning the world on with her smile. And just as Mary Richards did when she moved to Minneapolis to work in television news in the legendary 70’s sitcom THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, Kimmy comes to Manhattan with a lot to prove and more than a few people to win over. But from there, the comparisons to Mary, Rhoda, two broke girls, or just about any other female sitcom leads ends. Kimmy’s back story, you see, was that she was held captive in a bunker for 15 years by a crazy religious zealot. And the gravity of such a scenario gives this series its darkness, as well as an umbrella of out-and-out tragedy.


Not to say that the show is a downer in any way. Quite the contrary, it may have more laughs per episode than THE SIMPSONS did in its heyday 15 years ago. Still, this show mines huge comedy out of one of the strangest and most startling starting points ever for a TV series. Kimmy and three other women were kidnapped and held against their will by Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. He claimed to be protecting them from an apocalypse that laid waste to the world outside their bunker. It was the first of many lies he told them to keep them down and force them to serve as his cult members, companions, servants and yes, sexual slaves. Any similarities to the Ariel Castro kidnappings were purely intentional.

When the women were finally discovered, and escaped their imprisonment, Kimmy decided to make the most of her life. She refused to live as a woman angry and disgruntled by her awful history. Instead, she used her new freedom to launch into an incredible journey of self-discovery. That’s where the Mary Richards part comes in as she started out on an adventure to find her new self. And through thick and thin, Kimmy has shown that indeed, she is unbreakable. Kimmy is nothing if not a walking seminar of positive thinking as she tries to flap her wings while remaining unflappable at whatever is tossed her way.

Still, the history of her incarceration is constantly referenced on the series, usually in flashbacks. A lot of the comedy comes from how Kimmy (the truly Emmy-worthy Ellie Kemper) views the world. Having been kidnapped when she was just 14, Kimmy at 29 is a woman-child whose stunted growth has turned her into a person out of time. She’s unfamiliar with all that the world has been up to due to those years she was underground. Her warped sensibilities, based on such limited perspective, are where the show derives most of its humor from. But despite being so out of sorts, her pluck and positive outlook ended up affecting the downtrodden, modern day New Yorkers she came into contact with that first season. Her roommate Titus Andromedon (Titus Burgess), landlady Lillian Kauschtupper (Carol Kane), and employer Jacqueline White (Jane Krakowski) all became better and more generous people because of what Kimmy had to offer them. Her effect was contagious. 


In season two however, Kimmy discovered that her sunniness could only carry things so far. More and more, as frustrations of life grew exponentially, Kimmy’s past angers and vexation surfaced. Being held underground for the prime of one's young adult life would naturally take such a toll, and the show increased the specter of the shadow it continued to cast on her. 

Kimmy did admit it in the very first episode that there was sexual abuse in her past, telling her new roommate Titus (Titus Burgess) that there was “weird sex stuff in the bunker” but the rest of the original 13 shows that season dealt mostly with her learning to survive in New York. She found a place to live, got a job, and made friends. But her admission left many unanswered questions. Just what kind of weird sex stuff was she talking about? And whom was it with exactly?

When the show flashbacked back to the bunker throughout both seasons, they were mostly scenes of her interacting with the three other female hostages. We got to see how the four women existed, sometimes in the most absurd of ways. They made games out of their hair or whatever meager accessories were at their disposal, and Kimmy learned to do without most luxuries that we would take for granted. She stated that she hadn’t had a clock since her Tamagotchi died. These women were surviving as best they could, making the most of what they had, even if such meager means were mined for some of the biggest laughs on the show.


The one character we never saw in those flashbacks was their incarcerator. The reverend was not revealed to the viewers until the last few episodes of that first season, allowing us to build up our image of him in our minds. What did this awful man look like? Did the monster have a Charles Manson quality to him, or David Koresh? Was he some inbred country creep? The mystery was answered when he was finally shown, and quite the contrary, Wayne could almost have been Bruce Wayne. He was played by Jon Hamm and the casting of such a handsome leading man in such a despicable role threw off our expectations. Sure, Hamm may have done seven seasons as Don Draper, the antihero of MAD MEN, but his persona outside of that show is a beloved one. In talk show visits and interviews, he never comes off as less than affable, courteous and delightful, as charming as anyone in Hollywood. And his appearances as host on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE were always utter comic delights.

Yet Hamm was playing a monster here, and his reptilian charms were on display even when Wayne was on trial. He represented himself and nearly convinced the jury to let him get away with all of his unforgivable sins. Still, he was brought to justice and when he was sentenced to a long prison sentence, it appeared that perhaps the show was going to move past that storyline.

And indeed, the first half of season two dealt with Kimmy’s growth beyond those horrors. She attained two new jobs, finding employment working in a Christmas store and as an Uber driver. (Even though she had no formal license, her pretend driving in the bunker helped her naturally navigate the dangerous roads of the Big Apple.) Kimmy also started expanding her portfolio of friends, even desiring a boyfriend. She had become friends in the first season with Dong (Ki Hong Lee), a student she met, and in season two she was ready to explore their relationship by taking it to the next level. And it was the intimacy of sexual relations that triggered the turn into an even darker comedic tone. 


Wayne may have been jailed, but his crimes were not so confined. The residue of what he did to Kimmy came to fruition when she attempted to tryst with Dong in a hotel room. Every time he tried to make a sexual move on her, she clobbered him with the phone from the night stand. Over and over again, her instinctive reaction was to defend herself against a man who was trying to touch her in a sexual way. It was hilarious physical comedy, worthy of Blake Edwards, but it was shattering too as we knew what it meant. Her defensiveness was echoing fighting off Wayne, her rapist, all those years. 

It was an amazing sitcom moment as Kimmy was no longer able to compartmentalize that which she had suffered. The rest of the five remaining episodes of the second season then thrust her into therapy to deal with the tragedy. With the help of a smart therapist (slyly played by Tina Fey), Kimmy learned to reckon with all of her past, including the details and tragedy of what she had merely categorized as “weird sex stuff” early in that first season.  


It was an amazing turn for a show that is always bordering on farce. True, the topic of rape is not a  rare one on television. It can often be found in television dramas, be it daytime serials or nighttime shows like SCANDAL, but rarely is it mined on sitcoms. ALL IN THE FAMILY, that landmark 70’s show, famously dealt with the topic in an episode where a rapist broke into Archie Bunker's house and tried to attack wife Edith. But here, on UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT, the second half of its sophomore season was dealing with the revelations of such an assault on Kimmy. Suddenly, her childlike qualities took on an even darker meaning. Was she like that because it was all she really knew, being snatched by Wayne when she was just starting her teen years? Or was she perhaps clinging to that part of herself that represented who she was before her sexual abuse? Might her squeaky, often pitched delivery even been a reflection of that trait of sexually abused women who often speak in such high tones? 

Rape statistics are horrifying, and while the show doesn’t overplay the topic, the facts inherent with what Kimmy is dealing with are unavoidable. According to the Department of Justice, one in six women in America will experience a rape or an attempted rape in their lifetime. 83% of the victims will be under the age of 25. 54% of them will be under the age of 18. And 22%, under the age of 12. According to the "Rape in America" study done in 1992, a third of rape victims were between 11 and 17. Kimmy may be a fictional character, but her story is speaking to such awful revelations.  


Fey, who along with Robert Carlock, has designed this show to be a laugh machine, but in the latter half of season two, raucous humor was juxtaposed right up against the tragic revelations of Kimmy’s past, creating one of the truly most unique shows ever created. To explore that much of a woman’s character, warts and all, is incredibly rare in any medium. It was a daring display for a show that could have been content with producing more laughs a minute than any show this side of ARCHER. And it truly should net the show a Peabody, as well as Emmys, if there is any justice in the entertainment world.

So where will the show go in season three and beyond? We know that the season two cliffhanger had Wayne calling Kimmy from jail to tell her that he’d met and fallen in love with a woman he'd met through correspondence and visitation at the prison. He desired to marry her and that meant that in order to do so, he'd now have to  divorce Kimmy Schmidt. Yep, as if her world of woe wasn't filled with tragedy already, the SOB somehow married her in that bunker. His history of abuse was even more extensive, and it will be fascinating to see just how Kimmy handles all of these new revelations.


In that first season, Kimmy was stuck at the age of 14, stunted by, and frozen in time, by the moment she was snatched by the reverend. Then, by the start of season two, she had matured more, entering what could be characterized as her surly teen/young adult phase. Kimmy was now dealing with her needs as a burgeoning woman approaching adulthood, including sexual intimacy. Perhaps what Fey and Carlock have in mind for each season of the show is to represent a growth spurt in Kimmy's maturity. It would appear that each season is covering about five years in her coming-of-age, and if that is the case, then Kimmy's personality will arrive at 35 years of age after a five-year sitcom run. At that time, she will finally be her true age physically, mentally and emotionally. It truly is one of the most enthralling character arcs in any medium.

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