With its second season just on the edge of the horizon, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt remains a fundamentally strange piece of television. Think of the recipe: take three parts 30 Rock — blinding speed, urban grit, a fondness for absurdity — and stir in Parks and Recreation’s indomitable spirit and optimism. Bind them together with a backstory that sounds more like an alternate version of Room than your typical comedic fodder. The final product is somehow a traditional sitcom, a brisk half-hour show in which a group of flawed but decent people help each other improve over time.
It’s an improbable concoction, but it’s one you can recommend for reasons beyond its novelty. Kimmy Schmidt’s first season clicked because its characters had plenty to offer beyond their surface-level absurdity. Titus (Tituss Burgess) used melodrama and a closetful of exquisite kimonos to distract from his self-consciousness and vulnerability; Jacqueline’s (Jane Krakowski) snobbery was largely performative, a smokescreen hiding the insecurity at her core.
Kimmy’s liberation from the Reverend’s bunker meant she had to reckon with the shape of her adult life and the qualities she offered beyond victimhood. She sums it up herself midway through the show’s second season, justifying her decision to help her ex-boyfriend legitimize his depressing green-card marriage instead of fighting for their love: “I’m like a biscotti,” she says. “People act like I’m this sweet cookie, but I’m really this super hard thing that nobody knows… what I am, or why I am.” The same is true for all of the show’s lead characters, and it’s that solid, biscotti-like foundation that allows Kimmy Schmidt’s new batch of episodes to survive and thrive, even as the show starts to leave the bunker behind.
The first half-dozen episodes of Kimmy Schmidt's second season are mostly spent bringing everyone back together after last season’s climactic trial. Jacqueline finds her way back to the Upper East Side after her misguided journey to the Midwest, her Native American roots abandoned after a trippy vision quest in a sauna-like police car. Kimmy works on leaving her relationship with Dong (one of the first season’s weakest characters) behind. Tina Fey and Robert Carlock have a better handle on the strengths of the show’s core four players, and they put them in positions to succeed.
Jacqueline and Lillian (Carol Kane) anchor the show’s broadest bits, its funniest physical comedy, and its weirdest non-sequiturs. Jacqueline has to get used to a hardscrabble lifestyle after receiving only $12 million in her divorce, and finds herself reduced to crawling through a businessman’s Bentley to avoid judgment from an upper-crust rival. Lillian is encouraged by her neighborhood’s slowed gentrification, only to be let down when a new gang’s tags are actually markers for high-speed internet service. Taken together, their storylines make for surprising commentary on class anxiety in New York. Meanwhile, Titus is given a love interest, a development that opens the door for tender exploration of what it means to be gay and to be happy. And in Ellie Kemper’s capable hands, Kimmy remains the glue holding everything together. Her performance is still an impressive balancing act: sweet without being cloying, innocent without being dumb, vulnerable and yet steely.
There’s a standout scene in the fourth episode that highlights the exceptional work Kemper and Burgess are doing, and it feels representative of the show as a whole. After half an hour of romantic indecision, Titus and his maybe-boyfriend share a kiss in the dingy apartment Titus and Kimmy call home. Kimmy is hiding in a nearby closet, watching the action through a hole in the door. When they finally come together to make out, she melts for about a second before starting to snicker: "It’s two boys!" It’s the kind of moment that’d be deserving fodder for a backlash in someone else’s hands. But the show’s come far enough for the viewer to understand that there’s nothing malicious about her chuckling: she’s a kind, immature woman who didn’t grow up with a ton of conditioning with respect to gay relationships. It feels funny and sweet, and it doesn’t do anything to diminish the importance of Titus’ character development.
And while that essential sweetness is the show’s greatest strength, it also means the second season’s few sour notes stand out that much more. Jokes about the omnipresence of the Kardashians and the scourge of hipsters feel like fossils excavated from some other show, one half a decade older and surely cancelled, and their inclusion is puzzling. The third episode is even more unsettling. It’s an obvious rebuttal to online critics who tore into a specific first season storyline that involved Jacqueline’s Native American heritage. (Fey responded by tackling the internet’s hypersensitivity: "Steer clear of the internet and you’ll live forever," she told Net-a-Porter. "There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.")
Titus plans a one-man show as Murasaki, a geisha out of one of his many past lives; it’s called Kimono You Didn’t: Murasaki’s Journey, and he performs in full makeup and costume. He’s besieged by internet activists from "the forum to advocated Respectful Asian Portrayals in Entertainment" (spell it out), none of whom can agree on what they’re protesting or why they’re angry. (One of them is "transracial," a seeming nod to Rachel Dolezal.) They’re turned into knots when they actually watch Titus’ performance, which is respectful and beautifully sung. Standing backstage after the show, the transracial member of the group is rendered helpless: "What do we do now that we’re not offended?"
Fey and her writers have the freedom to clap back at overzealous commenters with all the sharpness they can muster, of course, and you can argue the episode is just a plea for more reasoned dialogue and thorough evaluation. (It’s also an opportunity for Burgess to show off his gorgeous voice, which is always welcome.) But it feels more like a stinging rebuke than an olive branch, and it’d feel incongruous if you went in without having read Fey’s comments. It punctures the show’s universe, and it looks especially bad since the storyline in question was mostly jettisoned rather than improved. (We'll see if that holds up through the season's second half.)
It’s a misstep, but Kimmy Schmidt is funny and humane enough to make you forget about it. When Fey & co. are making a show with gags as good as the Rem Koolhaas R.E.M. Cool House (don’t ask) or Daddy’s Boy — everyone’s favorite accidentally explicit Broadway musical — it’s easy to leave her battle with the internet behind. I still want to spend time with these characters, and I want to watch them grow, even if Kimmy’s experience in the bunker is becoming more and more of a distant memory. That fondness is the surest sign of a comedy’s success, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s second season continues to inspire it.