Artwork by DAVID SARCINO
BY ZACHARY SHEVICH Two weeks ago, the new Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, from 30 Rock creator & star Tina Fey, as well as former 30 Rock showrunner Robert Carlock, unveiled its 13-episode first season full of eclectic, goofy characters. Built around the talents of Ellie Kemper — formerly the receptionist Erin on the later seasons of The Office as well a horny high school teacher in 21 Jump Street — Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is about a 29-year-old woman who moves to New York City after being freed from 15 years in an underground bunker with a doomsday cult. Juxtaposing Kemper’s 100 watt smile and the character’s naiveté against the seedy, unkind streets of New York City would have all the makings of a cynical, dark comedy; however, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt molds itself into a happy, life-affirming, hopeful show that tonally falls in between 30 Rock and the recently departed Parks & Recreation.
With its plethora of characters of varying race, age, gender and sexuality, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt exists in a widely diverse version of New York City that is rare amongst TV comedies. The characters filling out the world of Kimmy Schmidt include Kimmy’s gay, black roommate Titus Andromedon, her landlord Lillian played by Carol Kane, as well as Jane Krakowski in the role of wealthy housewife Jacqueline Voorhees. Fey & Carlock have developed a world in which capable, engaging women are the focal point and the show features young, middle aged, and older women in the starring, supporting, and minor roles. Both Krakowski’s opulently ignorant Jacqueline Voorhees and Kane’s irreverent, wacky landlord register as female variations on roles usually played by males. Beyond series regulars, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt incorporates distinctive daughters, friends, sisters, “Mole Women,” and other random oddballs that provide many roles for funny women.
Large portions of the show’s non-female characters are gay. Several times, the series will introduce a character where a hetero-normative expectation calls for a hertosexual character, only for the dialog to reveal his homosexuality. These punch lines would have come across as mean-spirited on 30 Rock, but the world in Kimmy Schmidt is too idealistic, its titular protagonist is too kind and accepting for these bit players to be considered the butt of the joke.
Instead, it’s the straight, white male characters — that ordinarily would hog the foreground on a show like this — who are relegated to supporting roles as comic foils on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. More often than not these straight, white male characters are pathetic, villainous, or both. Characters such as Tim Blake Nelson’s Officer Randy, the incompetent policeman who failed to find Kimmy for the duration of her kidnapping, or the preacher Richard Wayne Gary Wayne who held Kimmy hostage but still comes across as trustworthy to the jury at his trial, feel designed to point out that white males still win even when they lose.
Yet much of the discussion around Kimmy Schmidt has focused on its perceived negative depictions of diversity, invariably asking whether or not the show is racist. Much but not all of the reasoning for this argument stems from the script writers’ utilization of commonly held stereotypes of minorities. The gay character Titus Andromedon is a drama queen; the Vietnamese love interest Dong Nguyen speaks poor English and is really good at math; the show’s only two Hispanic females are employed as maids; its primary Native American character is played by a white actress. While these types of representations could perpetuate negative perceptions, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt chooses to go beyond mere caricatures to get to deeper cultural truths and social perceptions. Viewing Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s characters as nothing but ugly stereotypes is a simplistic reading of the show’s universe.
For example, Titus’ flamboyance serves to compensate for his failures as an aspiring actor. He claims the spotlight in his personal life that heretofore he has been unable to claim on a Broadway stage. Titus is also subject of the show’s funniest satirical observation of race when he finds he’s treated better in the city when dressed up as a theme restaurant werewolf than his daily life as a regular black man. Asian character Dong, who at first struggles with English –and it must be said that the joke is not on Dong, but rather about mistranslations — becomes more fluent, is given a backstory, and develops into a central character in Kimmy’s life that will likely factor into the 2nd season of the show. After 12 episodes of speaking only Spanish, Donna Maria Nuñez, the Hispanic woman from a maid service stuck in the underground bunker with Kimmy, is revealed to be the most cunning of “the Mole Women.” Minor characters, like the catcalling construction worker who harasses women to mask his homosexual desires, ultimately reveal complexity and nuance that defies the audience’s first impression of them. This seems to have been lost on the naysayers in their rush to judgement.
The hardest issue to defend is the show’s literal white-washing of the Native American character Jacqueline Vorhees with Caucasian actress Jane Krokowski, but that’s only the case if you overlook the fact that Jacqueline was in all likelihood cast before the character “became” a Native American. Krakowski was cast in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt after a pilot, and just the pilot, had already been shot. She replaced Megan Dodds, another blonde and white actress but with less comedy experience. In the pilot, Jacqueline was a one-scene role, not likely a primary focus of the show. Krakowski most recently spent seven seasons with Fey & Carlock on 30 Rock, where she was the show’s Swiss army knife, molding herself in her character to sell jokes and storylines. It’s possible that at this early stage, the staff of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt hadn’t even developed the character’s Lakota backstory.
By expanding on Jacqueline’s past in the series’ third episode to include the whitewashed background, the show actually does give two Native American actors (Gil Cunningham and Sheri Foster as Jacqueline’s parents) recurring parts on the show that would have otherwise gone to white actors. Furthermore, the show’s acknowledgement of Native American issues, including the self-referential use of actors of other ethnicities to play Native American roles, devotes screen time to the same problems Kimmy’s critics launch at the show. Most would argue that what Kimmy Schmidt does isn’t going far enough, but a vast majority of other TV shows ignore these issues entirely.
The very fact that we are having this debate is progress in and of itself. Unlike a movie, an ongoing series has the opportunity to evolve and hopefully Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt will continue to do so in its pursuit of diversity. With every stereotype the show turns on its ear comes a greater understanding of The Other, as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt drags prime time and, by extension, white middle America, into the 21st Century, where sitcom roles are judged not by the color of their skin or the nature of their sexual orientation, and content of their character.