Netflix released the whole second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Friday, and I’m going to offer some overall thoughts on the season, followed by specific takes on each episode, coming up just as soon as I ask whether Cate Blanchett is really a great actress, or just tall…
Netflix made the first six episodes available to critics, and while I enjoyed most of those early installments, the back half of the season was by far the stronger part, and the phase of things where the shift from making episodes for NBC to making them for Netflix was much more apparent. Season 1 also turned more serialized towards the end, with the trial of the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, and it had its emotional moments as Kimmy faced down her captor. But the later episodes of season 2 felt darker and more complicated in their attempt to address Kimmy’s emotional damage. It didn’t suddenly turn into an introspective drama – one of the ways Kimmy deals with her denial is through a huge belch (which Ellie Kemper warned me about) – but there was a sincerity to the later episodes that was striking in its effectiveness.
That’s not just the case with Kimmy dealing with both the bunker and her feelings about her estranged mother, but in Titus realizing he has real feelings for Mikey (and that he’s not sure if he still wants to be an actor), in Jacqueline discovering that there are things she cares about more than money and status, and even to an extent in Lillian battling the hipster gentrification of East Dogmouth. The joke writing on this show is so good, and so dense, that it could get away with being a live-action cartoon all the time without anybody minding. But this season ultimately felt even richer and more satisfying than the first, because all those absurd punchlines and visual gags were wrapped around characters who felt increasingly human, in a way that didn’t undercut the silliness.
So let’s go episode-by-episode through all the mayhem:
EPISODE 1: KIMMY GOES ROLLER SKATING!
This one has to set up a lot of the season’s story arcs (including a teaser that won’t be explained until we get to episode 8), as Jacqueline spends time back on the reservation (prompting the newfound interest in defending her heritage that will drive a lot of what she does this year), Titus faces down the wife he abandoned on their wedding day, Lillian resumes her affair with “Little Bobby Durst” (played perfectly by Fred Armisen), and Kimmy continues to struggle with the situation with Dong. But even in establishing where much of the season’s going to go, “Kimmy Goes Roller Skating!” still works well as an individual episode of the show, with its own built-in running gags like the way everyone keeps being surprised by how much they know about the Kardashians, or the great romantic comedy deconstruction at the end establishing that Amtrak isn’t actually a train company, but a business that always runs late so people can have romantic connections.
EPISODE 2: KIMMY GOES ON A PLAYDATE!
Not my favorite installment of the year, but one that establishes a couple of players who’ll be notable later on: Anna Camp as Jacqueline’s society nemesis Deirdre Robespierre, and Mike Carlsen as Titus’ construction worker boyfriend Mikey (who appeared back in season 1’s fifth episode, “Kimmy Kisses a Boy!”). It also has the season’s only appearance of Xanthippe, whose childish rivalry with Kimmy is always fun (Ellie Kemper miming booby honking!), particularly as we see that she views Kimmy the same way Kimmy views the Reverend.
EPISODE 3: KIMMY GOES TO A PLAY!
The less said about this one – basically, the Kimmy Schmidt equivalent of that West Wing episode where Aaron Sorkin had Josh yell at people on message boards for a while – the better. Also, the way the episode ends with high society mistaking Kimmy and Jacqueline for a couple suggests an ongoing storyline for the season, but this is the first and last we hear of it.
EPISODE 4: KIMMY KIDNAPS GRETCHEN!
First of all, why has Netflix not already greenlit an animated Bunny and Kitty spin-off, co-starring the voices of Dean Winters and Will Arnett, and rated TV-MA?
Both of this one’s stories play out very well. Gretchen’s difficulty living outside a cult setting helps to lay the groundwork for what’s coming in the season’s second half, while still being a ridiculous satire of both Scientology and the whole Mole Women backstory (not only the reference to the final scene of Mad Men, but the “Your legs are so strong!” “I have access to steps now!” exchange). And the fact that Titus keeps letting his guard down around Mikey actually gives the show license to make both Titus’ usual behavior and his take on gay culture even more surreal, because we keep being reminded of the guy underneath who just wants to eat some schwarma.
EPISODE 5: KIMMY GIVES UP!
The first of two episodes this season where Jeff Richmond goes to town with soundalike song parodies. I slightly preferred the “Now That Sounds Like Music!” running gag from episode 9, but the fake showtunes (and fake show titles, like Gangly Orphan Jeff, which had the poor fortune to open six days after Annie!) were still funny. Meanwhile, Jacquline realizing it was cruel to put Buckley on Dyziplen – which treats both hyperactivity and “Kanye West Spectrum Disorder” – is yet another example of the season slowly but surely turning her into more than just a caricatured socialite.
EPISODE 6: KIMMY DRIVES A CAR!
This one’s wonderfully absurd from start to finish, between Lillian being horrified by East Dogmouth being invaded by hipsters (including Zosia Mamet from Girls, note-perfect), Jacqueline dealing with the increasing horror of her chipped tooth (which she of course injured by biting into a biscotti: her involvement with Kimmy has brought her so much aggravation), Kimmy and Titus’ obsession with their Columbia House tapes, Kimmy’s DMV photo, and the way it all paid off in an elaborate fake Mentos ad.
EPISODE 7: KIMMY WALKS INTO A BAR!
One of the biggest benefits of Jacqueline becoming more human is that it allows the show to really go to extremes with Deirdre, who’s revealed to be not only insane, but someone who’s actually rooting for her opponent. The version where she’s just a bitch who’s always a step ahead of Jacqueline’s been done to death, and while I’m sure the Kimmy writers could have wrung some laughs from it, this was a lot more entertaining, and a great showcase for Anna Camp.
Kimmy’s upside-down face technique was one of several amusing ways the season gave us a version of the Reverend without going full Hamm until the finale, and her reaction to swallowing the limes was hilarious. This is where the season starts really leaning into the idea that Kimmy is repressing what she went through, here with a little help from Mad Men‘s evil Dr. Greg.
And all the Titus/Mikey stuff was gold, whether the awkward tension during the construction workers’ break, or the subtitles explaining what the guys actually say while all the equipment is running.
EPISODE 8: KIMMY GOES TO A HOTEL!
First of all, bravo to any show that would attempt to mix a story about paintings the Nazis stole from Jews during the Holocaust with ridiculous names like Ivana Ida Wiener and Maya Wiener-Hertz-Allott-Cozzabudts. If you’re going to be tasteless in pursuit of a laugh, you’d better go as far as this story (which introduced David Cross as Jacqueline’s love interest Russ Snyder) did.
As suggested by the meta humor in the “Kimono You Didn’t” episode, Dong was always going to be more trouble than he was worth for the show, and at least his farewell had a nice mix of absurdity (the abandoned hotel crewed by raccoons, Joshua Jackson’s cameo in the midst of all the Dawson’s Creek talk) and sweetness.
Meanwhile, Titus turning into Ebenezer Scrooge led to one of my favorite exchanges of the season, involving the co-worker who has named his ailing penis Tiny Tim:
“The hogwash only made it worse!”
EPISODE 9: KIMMY MEETS A DRUNK LADY!
And here’s where things started to get really interesting and complicated for the remainder of the season, with the introduction of Tina Fey herself as Andrea, Kimmy’s drunken mess of a therapist. It’s not only a very funny character for the show’s co-creator to play – the envelope full of farts was a great parody of the kind of communication we often see between Jekyll and Hyde-type characters – but it finally allowed the show to address Kimmy’s trauma head on without undermining the humor. After all, some of Kimmy’s symptoms this week involve beating up Billy Eichner during a Billy on the Street segment and unleashing a monstrous belch before blacking out and waking up on the Coney Island Cyclone.
(Also, on first viewing, I thought that Andrea actually said “No shit, Sherlock,” which would be the one instance of Fey and Carlock actually making the content more explicit now that they’re no longer on NBC. But when watched again, Andrea’s so drunk that she gets several consonants backwards.)
As mentioned before, the “Now That Sounds Like Music” gag was perhaps peak Jeff Richmond, and I very much want a soundtrack with full versions of “Brother Baptist,” “I’m Convinced I Can Swim,” and whatever that “MMMBop” parody was called.
EPISODE 10: KIMMY GOES TO HER HAPPY PLACE!
The ultra-violent animated Disney princess parody that gives this episode its title provides another stealth Hamm appearance, as the cartoon Reverend is horribly dismembered by Kimmy’s animal friends, while also smuggling in the first appearance of Lisa Kudrow as the voice of Kimmy’s fairy godmother.
This is one of the season’s best episodes at balancing lunacy with genuine emotion, particularly in the subplot about Mikey coming out to his parents. On the one hand, the dinner includes something horrible called “veal face,” Mikey’s grandmother has a puppet head and speaks in subtitles, and Titus’ inspirational speech is an extreme parody of such (“The game Pictionary defines ‘bigotry’ as two different-sized stick men…”). On the other, the story threads the needle of letting Titus be envious of Mikey for his moment while also being happy for him, and in turn of Mikey wanting to give Titus a similar experience. In moments like Mikey confronting Titus on the porch, or Andrea giving Kimmy stickers to encourage her to keep coming, I found myself surprised at just how seriously invested I’d become in these stories.
EPISODE 11: KIMMY MEETS A CELEBRITY!
One episode after putting Kimmy into something resembling a real therapeutic relationship, the show gives us the phony kind in Jeff Goldblum(*) as Dr. Dave, whose daytime talk show features one bizarre victim of tragedy after another, including the twins who used to be conjoined at the crotch, and the woman who was eaten and pooped out by an orca (and then gets chased around the set by an orca furry). Yet even in this more garish setting, Kimmy manages to have a breakthrough when she finally sheds tears over her inability to help Cyndee realize what a bad idea it is to marry Brandon (on TV or otherwise).
(*) I don’t know if it was intentional or not to put Goldblum in the same episode as the Geena Davis photo, since Goldblum and Davis did a trio of weird ’80s movies together, including The Fly and Earth Girls Are Easy. I was amused, anyway.
Titus’s drug trial briefly turning him into a middle-aged dad type was fun, as was Pizza Rat’s cameo during Lillian’s travails with the bulldozer.
EPISODE 12: KIMMY SEES A SUNSET!
The show starts pivoting nimbly towards the finale: Titus ponders quitting acting before Mikey convinces to take the cruise ship job for four months (“That’s, like, three Judd Apatow movies!”), Jacqueline realizes to her horror that she actually admires Russ for his altruism (and isn’t that grossed out by the third nipple on his foot), Lillian is dismayed to discover that all of her anti-hipster activism actually made things worse, and Andrea – in a scene that was simultaneously serious, a parody of Good Will Hunting, and an opportunity for Tina Fey to do her Oprah impression – gets Kimmy to fully appreciate her abandonment issues.
Yet in the midst of these various epiphanies, there were still the usual great jokes: Law & Order: Drifter Incineration Squad (“That’s the one where Liev Schreiber plays twins, right?”), followed by Ice-T presiding over Norman’s funeral; Jacqueline explaining that as a former flight attendant, she knows “how to catch Gerard Depardieu’s urine in an ice bucket” as well as first aid; a very drunk Andrea doing the Whip and Nae Nae after her big breakthrough with Kimmy; and Mikey finding Kimmy’s mom with a two-second Facebook search.
EPISODE 13: KIMMY FINDS HER MOM!
Even with all the emotional build-up of the previous episodes, I still wasn’t entirely prepared for how poignant Kimmy’s reunion with her mother would be. Kudrow was a perfect choice to play Lori-Ann: it’s not hard to imagine a younger version of her playing Kimmy, or, for that matter, a time-traveling Kemper playing Phoebe on Friends. Not identical characters, but walking that same knife edge of absurdity and tragedy in a way the show beautifully summed up by having their confrontation take place while mother and daughter rode a roller coaster together, with tough talk mixed in with screams of terror and squeals of delight. Just terrific.
The rest of the episode does a good job setting things up for a third season, with Jacqueline and Russ vowing to take down his family’s beloved but racist Washington Redskins, Lillian deciding to run for office, Titus (after a brief stop in Titusville, Fla, where he discovers that “space is like American Apparel,” because nobody’s been there since 2011) deciding to give the cruise a shot after all, and the Reverend calling from prison to reveal that he and Kimmy are somehow married. This season didn’t need much Hamm, because so many other parts of it were clicking, but I’m not going to complain if he’s gooning it up a lot more this time next year.
What did everybody else think? Did you like the more serious turn the season took in the second half? Did you have favorite stories, guest stars, or episodes? And did any of the new song parodies top “Daddy’s Boy”?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org