Sunday, April 17, 2016

5 Things I Loved (and 5 Things I Didn't) About The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

(Warning: The Following Contains Spoilers About the new season of Kimmy Schmidt-if you haven't seen it yet, please bookmark and come back to discuss)

We're going to be trying something new on the blog in the next few weeks called "5 Things I Loved (and 5 Things I Didn't)" about different pop culture moments or topics that feel like a mixed bag.  So frequently with reviews I don't get to get into that much detail, so with big things (like entire seasons of shows), I figured it was something we should try-let me know if you like it in the comments and if so I'll continue doing them.

We're going to start out with the second season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which I binge-watched all of Friday and yesterday and went slightly overboard with, admittedly (especially since I won't have any new episodes for another twelve months-I probably could have paced myself more).  Overall, I really liked it-I was a big fan of the show initially, but the second season gave it more depth, we learned more about some of the side characters, and the show figured out some of its bugs.  However, because I'm not a fanboy robot, I can also acknowledge that there are still a few kinks to work out.  Therefore, here are five things I loved (and five things I didn't) about the second season:

Things I Loved

1. Mikey the Counstruction Worker

Nothing brought me greater joy than Mikey the Construction Worker (who I still think is a window into the 30 Rock world) becoming a recurring character this season.  Yes, he manages to be a bit of a blue-collar Manic Pixie Dream Guy, but he's lovable, wonderful, and is genuinely a nice guy, and believably with Titus.  I loved the dynamic of his family dinner when he comes out, and just in general his bizarre navigating of the gay world, where he truly feels out-of-place.  I think everyone assumes that when you come out you'll know everything happening in your new universe, but this isn't always the case and I think that this was a nice showcase of that happening especially as an adult, at least within the world of Kimmy Schmidt.  It also provided a believable way for the seemingly "lost in his own world" Titus to actually grow a bit (or as much as he can).

2. Lack of Cliffhangers

With the grand exception of the finale, the show learned a little bit from its first season and rarely ended episodes with a cliffhanger.  This is something that kind of turned me off of House of Cards because on Netflix, a cliffhanger is literally just an excuse to get you to watch the next episode, but Netflix doesn't really suffer from that problem.  In fact, not going to the next episode is probably a bigger problem for viewers like me who are in bed and eating Cold Stone already-it's not like our shame is going to go grow by clicking the next button on the computer.  This also allows for more happiness at the end of episodes, a nice change of pace from network serials/soaps, which always end on a dour note for our characters to get you to tune in next week.  Plus, it also makes the story feel more like installments that you can start any time than something you have to watch one-after-the-other.

3. Carol Kane

In the first season of the show, I felt like Carol Kane's Lillian was a little bit underwritten.  Yes, she'd show up and nail a particular scene or series of one-liners, but she was nothing more than a random person that sat on the stoop, completely unknowable, which felt like a disappointment for such a wonderfully-celebrated and brilliant character actress.  This season, this is no longer the case and in many ways Kane comes across as the season MVP, frequently finding great discomfort in the way that her neighborhood, her longtime home, is being gentrified by hipsters and (in an hilariously correct moment in the finale) a series of Lulu Lemon-wearing mothers.  Lillian grew the most this season in my opinion, but was consistently hilarious and Kane found her own special brand of moxie to put on her, for which I am extremely grateful.

4. Tina Fey

Tina Fey, if you recall correctly, played Marcia Clark this past season (isn't it weird after first Sarah Palin and now Marcia Clark that Fey keeps doing the comedic foil to Sarah Paulson TV dramas?), but this season she gets the new season's best brand-new character, Andrea, a chronic alcoholic who is an uptight therapist by day and an inebriated, though still highly cogent psychologist by night.  Her character, while still in the exaggerated form of Kimmy Schmidt, felt the most organic to this universe of any introduced, and it is wonderful that Fey is willing, even in her current state of moviestar-dom to go back to being a recurring character on her show here.  It works-Fey's Andrea gives Kimmy some of her best scenes this season, and I suspect we'll see Fey once again get nominated for Guest Actress at this year's Emmy Awards.

5. Dong's Kardashian Voice

Seriously-the premiere had possibly the best recurring joke of the season, with Dong proclaiming that he learned how to speak in an American accent while watching the Kardashians, and then slowly all of the characters randomly know literally everything about the Kardashians despite not actually watching them on television, ever (they learned about it, as Kimmy so aptly pointed out, "from the real news").  The ludicrous nature in which stations like CNN cover the Kardashians has been done as a joke before, but this is wonderfully sharp writing and pop culture observation, and deserves its own mention.

Things I Didn't

1. David Cross Doesn't Work

For the most part the guest stars in the series are wonderful this season ranging from one-scene wonders like Ice-T totally mocking the Law & Order franchise and what it means to struggling actors in NYC to Anna Camp who shows up in multiple scenes and is absolute dynamite as Jacqueline's foil (if she was more famous, I would assume she would be a shoo-in for an Emmy nomination alongside Fey).  However, one of the guest stars didn't work for me at all, and that was David Cross' Russ Snyder.  Perhaps it's because he's played by Cross, who is funny in his particular schtick, but has been doing it for so many years that it's completely worn out its comedic cache, but it wasn't clear until nearly the finale that his character was supposed to be a good guy and just is a loser.  Jacqueline, so vapid and in need of money, is the least tightly-written of the four main characters, and while that works because Jane Krakowski is a comedic genius, her plot feels most reliant on that writer's crutch of "convenient to the narrative" and she most often shifts her point-of-view to reflect what the plot needs and not to be reliant on character consistency.  She falls far too suddenly for Russ and gives up on her dream of wealth far too easily, which bothered me as it means he'll be around next season for even longer.

2. Kimmy & Dong's Relationship

The internet has co-opted the word 'problematic' to essentially be pointless and ridiculous, but I will say that it applies to Kimmy and Dong's relationship.  Though they were adorable and smitten lovebirds in the first season (something I didn't quite love as I felt like Kimmy's rich boyfriend just randomly ended up being a complete jerk as the year went on to make her like the poor Dong instead), this season it feels like Kimmy is pursuing a guy that is essentially horrible to her but still needs her.  It felt a lot like a mirror of her past relationships with men, which is perhaps smart writing but considering that the writers clearly still want us rooting for them in the future, it completely turned me off to their relationship and I was over it pretty fast-when Dong disappeared in the second half of the season, I was fine with it even if it meant no more Kardashian voice.  Kimmy can do better.

3. The Cartoon Challenge

This was always an issue on 30 Rock (still the better show, and I'll defend that to anyone), but it becomes more in-focus for Kimmy Schmidt.  The reality is that none of these people could possibly exist in real life, but on 30 Rock you were at least grounded with Liz Lemon playing someone that is, though occasionally ludicrous, based in reality in comparison to Tracy, Jenna, and Jack.  On Kimmy Schmidt there is no such character, as everyone is a cartoon.  This works for lighter-hearted moments, but it also makes feeling any deeper emotions about the characters considerably more challenging-Titus and Kimmy, in particular, feel like they might fall into the trap of Golden Girls or Glee in that they don't seem to move forward, or each episode it feels like they're falling back into an old pattern once again but now it's in a doctor's office or a boyfriend's home.  This doesn't work with the way that Fey is trying to shape the characters, and it made things like the mom storyline feel less earned (for the record I recognized the Fairy Godmother voice so the Lisa Kudrow appearance I knew was coming).

4. The Budget Still Shows

All right, this is less a reflection on Kimmy Schmidt and more on Netflix.  I think this is a terrific platform for television, and perhaps even new television, but it has its limitations.  One of those reasons is the budget is always showing.  Without the advantages afforded a major studio, the show frequently has empty streets when you'd expect fuller ones, jokes that clearly would be funnier with crowds or multiple locations but they skimp out on them.  I get that the budget for Netflix is slim because I would assume (especially without advertisers, though clearly companies like Five Guys or Verizon are on the take) the margin on the show is relatively light, but it does make select scenes feel stilted and under-produced.  The show makes up for this in part because of the writing, but looking cheap is still a problem for the series.

5. Thinness of Moving Forward

Netflix has improved quite a bit in terms of trying to write without audience reaction.  I remembered HATING this about the first season of House of Cards, where there was clearly no audience input so select characters and stories kept going or fell short without enough resolution.  Fey and Robert Carlock are good enough writers that they don't have this problem as often (and they also, despite protesting they aren't paying attention to the internet, brought back fan favorites like Mikey the Construction Worker this season so audience input is at least part of the process).  However, the stories and the movement of the show, especially for Kimmy and Jacqueline, feels out of place and quite rushed in the final few episodes.  The shows don't have the climactic build that a sitcom like The Office or 30 Rock is able to attain over a full season with actual time in-between the episodes.  The show is produced and meant to be binged, but that means that the actual movement of characters from Point A to Point B have less growth, and it feels like they haven't had as much change throughout the season.  Admittedly you might get a different feeling if you waited and only watched an episode a week, but that's not Netflix's game or intention.  As a result, it still becomes a problem that hasn't quite been solved, though they're making progress.

Those are my thoughts on what overall was a strong (and even improved) second season.  How about yourself-what'd you think of this year of Kimmy Schmidt, and what are your hopes for season three and all of the cliffhangers of the finale?

No comments: