The third season of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s quirky all-ages comedy about a young woman (Ellie Kemper) who spent the bulk of her life in an underground doomsday cult led by a menacing reverend (Jon Hamm) hits most of the same beats as the first two. It’s still a fish-out-of-water story, with an incredible supporting cast, great one-liners, and mixed results when it tries to go any deeper.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt returned to Netflix over the weekend, introducing new characters (Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs as a love interest!) and a new startup app for the title character to use. TaskRabbit, which Kimmy uses to make some money while applying for college, is at the center of the show’s third app-based plot. Last season, the writers dabbled with Uber and Airbnb, embedding both deeply into core storylines.
Choosing to address the gig economy isn’t that weird on its own — Kimmy Schmidt is about a young, unemployed person in contemporary New York City — but in the context of a show that’s deeply cynical about all other hallmarks of the late-millennial, early Gen-Y age demo, the focus sticks out.
The show holds palpable disdain for “PC” online communities and “outrage bloggers.” In 2016, it dedicated a whole episode to a cruel, heavy-handed satire of people on the internet who are offended by cultural appropriation. The rising action of that episode is a group of young Asian bloggers catching wind of a one-man show that Titus (Tituss Burgess) is planning, in which he claims to be a geisha in a former life. Their vicious anger serves as Kimmy’s first exposure to “internet sarcasm.” The episode’s denouement comes when they realize they’re wrong about the “beautiful” show, and then they’re sucked up into the sky by beams of heavenly light.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has no love for college campus politics, either; a season 3 episode sets up an elaborate parody of undergraduate discussions of sexual consent. When Kimmy (who is supposed to be in her mid-20s) briefly considers making out with a teenager, he hands her a sexual consent form. When she doesn’t want to sign, he calls his mom and cries, prompting an epiphany moment for Kimmy: “They’re just babies. They don’t know anything.”
That episode was written by Grace Edwards and Sam Means, with the latter also co-writing the season 2 episode where Kimmy takes on the overnight shift as an Uber driver. Both Uber and TaskRabbit are presented as uncomplicated solves for Kimmy’s employment issue, a strangely optimistic take given that the writers have clearly made a habit of reading online criticisms of Tina Fey and op-eds about the dangers of overly liberal college campuses. Surely they would have seen some writing about the dark side of the gig economy, too?
For example (just one of many), my colleague Michael Zelenko, wrote about TaskRabbit’s “We do chores. You live life.” subway ads for The Verge last September: “Instead of establishing partnerships within a community, the gig economy and TaskRabbit’s ads reaffirm a class divide, between the ‘You’ — whose life is defined by recreational activities — and the ‘We,’ whose lives are devoted to doing your chores.” This tension goes unexamined in the show, and after just one TaskRabbit gig, Kimmy lands a full scholarship to Columbia University as a new member of the crew team.
On the other hand, the writers initially seemed willing to engage with the idea that Airbnb can be a harbinger of gentrification, as well as a natural enemy for affordable housing. In season 2, Lillian (Carol Kane) uses both of these arguments to rail against the decision to invite any “hipsters” into her home. In season 3, she dips her toe into local politics specifically to stop the building of a Whole Foods-style grocery store in her beloved neighborhood, and goes head-to-head with a grocery-store mogul (Peter Riegert). When he runs into Lillian in a more affluent neighborhood, desperately looking for vegetables to cure Titus’ scurvy, he explains food deserts to her, then prompts, “So you agree, your neighborhood deserves the best?”
The arc, building toward the middle of the season, is leading Lillian to accept that gentrification is the price her neighborhood will have to pay if she doesn’t want everyone there to die of a Vitamin C deficiency. Never mind that there are plenty of ways to diversify a community’s access to produce without moving a gleaming, overpriced corporation into the mix.
To its credit, acknowledging any of these forces at all makes Kimmy Schmidt more aware of the political complexities of city life and labor than any of its New York-set contemporaries — an unlikely designation for an often silly series that flubs its dealings with simpler issues. But giving multi-billion-dollar startups that each have their own very public, seedy problems the benefit of the doubt when 18-year-old progressives don’t get the same is an off-putting choice.
For Kimmy, who’s just emerging into the world after a long time away, everything about contemporary life is new and surprising. That gives Kimmy Schmidt the opportunity to come at all of its political, social, and technological interests from the same angle — wide-eyed wonder, with a thousand follow-up questions. It’d be a much better show if it kept that lens a little more consistent. If it found a better balance — and possibly a more emotionally generous one — the city its creators so clearly love would get a far more insightful portrait streamed into millions of homes.