When Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was first announced, I remember feeling deeply nervous.
A show about a kidnapped and abused woman escaping the bunker she was held in for years would be hard to pull off even as a drama. Making the series a comedy would require a hell of a tightrope walk between making light of an awful thing and taking its scenario too seriously.
The first season (released in 2015) quickly made clear that Tina Fey and Robert Carlock's second series — their first was the much-loved NBC sitcom 30 Rock — was up to the challenge.
As played to defiantly sunny perfection by Ellie Kemper, Kimmy Schmidt is an effervescent heroine worth rooting for. As that first season continued, the supporting cast made Kimmy's bright new world even richer, with Tituss Burgess (as Kimmy's roommate Titus Andromedon) in particular turning out one hilarious line reading after another.
The second season takes Kimmy, Titus, their landlady Lillian (Carol Kane), and Kimmy's old boss Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) and throws them even further down the rabbit hole of the series' scrappy New York City.
Increased running times for each episode (more on this in a bit) make the second season feel longer than the first — I can't recommend bingeing this run of episodes.
But season two is so dense with jokes that finishing it doesn't mean you've necessarily caught all of the punchlines. They layer on top of each other and twist into something more bizarre and perverted than you could ever have hoped for. In fact, watching it all at once to file this review just made me wish I could go more slowly to catch them all.
Just like the first season, season two isn't flawless. It can drag on for the sake of cramming in another joke, and there are a few plots that lose their punch by being too on the nose. Most of it, though, is wonderfully weird — and even kind of poignant.
The best thing season two does is let its characters grow
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's best moments come when the characters take a step back from joking about their shortcomings and acknowledge their problems for real.
Kimmy's issues run deep, which makes sense. Again, she was kidnapped and held in an underground bunker for 15 years. But while the first season acknowledged her problems it didn't dissect them, and the second season's willingness to do so makes for some of the show's best moments.
To delve into Kimmy's issues, Fey joins the cast as Andrea, a therapist who swings between straitlaced professionalism and wreaking drunken havoc on Kimmy's life. It's hilarious, until it becomes clear that running marathons and eating shrimp salads by day can't erase the fact that Andrea is a raging alcoholic.
Fey and Kemper are excellent together, as Kimmy gets entangled in Andrea's life to the point that the two are basically giving each other therapy. Andrea's advice — drunk or not — even gets Kimmy to confront her own refusal to deal with what happened to her. It's a surprisingly poignant moment for a story that also features someone slurping vodka out of a Camelbak strapped to her body.
Then there's Deirdre, a seemingly perfect wife-slash-socialite who tries to make Jacqueline her nemesis. Deirdre fears she's wasting her smarts on throwing charity balls and desperately wants to feel something, anything. She's also played by the incredibly good Anna Camp, who gives the character a manic bloodlust that's so much fun to watch she often outshines the reliably great Krakowski.
Just as in the first season, there are so many other fun guest cameos that I wouldn't want to ruin other surprises for you. But trust: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has one of the deepest Rolodexes in comedy, and it continues to use it brilliantly.
But no matter how many great choices Kimmy Schmidt makes, it still could've used a sharper eye towards paring down some of its more scattered instincts.
Unfortunately, this season could have used more of an edit
Kimmy Schmidt was originally developed as an NBC sitcom (and, indeed, NBC is still the studio that produces the series). Thus, the first season is tightly edited, packing in jokes and only splitting stories when strictly necessary.
But the second season was completely developed for Netflix, where run times don't matter. Accordingly, most of the second season's episodes clock in around 30 minutes — and you can feel the weight of those extra minutes as plots drag on just for the sake of including yet another joke.
Even aside from jokes, though, the show's ballooning episode length also leaves room for a few tangential storylines that don't add much of anything at all.
For (the most egregious) example: You might have already heard about the season's third episode, which has Titus mount a one-man show as his alter ego from a past life, a Japanese geisha, and get a world of shit online from a petulant advocacy group. The ensuing back and forth between Titus and angry Asian bloggers is jarring, ugly, and confusing.
On the surface of it, "Kimmy Goes to a Play!" calls back to controversies surrounding all-white productions of The Mikado, but the whole storyline is impossible not to think of as a middle finger to the critical backlash Kimmy Schmidt got in its first season for revealing that Krakowski's character is supposed to be Native American.
It's never clear if the show considers all criticism to be mindless and pointlessly myopic, or if it's arguing that good intentions — in this case, Titus's — matter. Both, probably?
But with only lazy, "What do we do if we're not offended?!" jokes to go on, the episode doesn't have much to say outside of basic jokes about the internet, and you can tell it's trying so hard to make a larger point. There's absolutely material to be mined from circular internet debates and knee-jerk outrage culture, but "Kimmy Goes to a Play!" doesn't find it.
What's most frustrating about a botched storyline like this is that when Kimmy Schmidt is good, it's very often great.
Kimmy Schmidt's second season is at its best when it deals with its characters at their most insecure
Last season, it was all Kimmy could do to get through the day without revealing her secret past as a "mole woman." But now that her secret is officially out, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt isn't just about Kimmy surviving. It's about learning to thrive, in a more significant way than just getting through the day — and the same holds true for just about everyone else.
As Lillian, Carol Kane has always stuck out a little. She mostly just sat on Kimmy's stoop and yelled at passersby for the fun of it in season one, and Kane's slower delivery has never quite gelled with Kimmy Schmidt's lightning-fast repartee. But Kane at least gets more to do this season, as Lillian launches a doomed pushback against gentrification.
But as much as season two gives Kimmy and Lillian to do, it's Titus Andromedon who steals the show — again.
Titus is an incredibly rich character, thanks to Burgess's committed performance and the show giving him the room to be more than the usual flamboyantly gay punchline. This second season also gives Titus a boyfriend in Mikey, Mike Carlsen's earnest construction worker whose confused catcalls in season one quickly made him a fan favorite.
Titus and Mikey's relationship is genuine, sweet, and funny beyond what a more basic "look how different these two are!" approach would have allowed. Watching Titus grow as a person — at first reluctantly, and then (once he realizes how good it feels) wholeheartedly — is a true joy. Burgess's Titus is irreverent, prickly, and earnest all at once.
He is, in other words, the best encapsulation of Kimmy Schmidt's biggest strengths. The second season might be shaggy around the edges, but when it embraces that combination — and it very often does — it's hard not to fall for it anyway.
The second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is now available to stream on Netflix.