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Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt deftly takes on #MeToo and terrible men in season 4

The zany Netflix comedy centers on an abuse survivor, making it well-positioned for this cultural moment.

Ellie Kemper plays the ever-buoyant Kimmy in another season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Ellie Kemper plays the ever-buoyant Kimmy in another season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Since last fall, the inboxes of culture journalists have been full of publicity pitches for TV shows and movies that are “responding to the #MeToo moment.” Which is more or less BS.

Sexual harassment and assault aren’t new cultural obsessions that only sprang up after recent revelations about abusive, powerful men in show business. They’re longstanding problems. That’s exactly why these shows and films were, in most cases, already in production when the Harvey Weinstein story hit headlines.

That said, Netflix’s sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was impeccably poised to take on the #MeToo moment.

The Netflix show’s fourth and final season is split into two parts, with the first six episodes dropping May 30. It started as a funny but sometimes scattered fish-out-of-water tale about a girl who was in a literal bunker for 15 years and is just now discovering the world. But it’s gathered steam over the past three seasons to become a poignant and surprisingly dark look at abuse, assault, PTSD, shame, and the most noxious varieties of masculinity run amok.

And in season four, it leans all the way in.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt uses hyperbolic satire to turn up the heat on cultural debates

Kimmy has a job!
Kimmy has a job!
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

The Tina Fey/Robert Carlock brand of comedy is predicated on creating larger-than-life caricatures and throwing them all into a universe that’s a lot like ours — same pop culture references, same matters of concern — but with the volume knob cranked up to 11.

That’s a time-honored method of satire. The most famous example might be Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which the writer blithely suggested the problem of the poor might best be solved by eating babies, a wackadoodle idea that was meant to show how ludicrously awful cultural attitudes toward the poor in his time had become. It’s hyperbole that reveals the truth.

That worked great in 30 Rock, which often lobbed politically and socially satirical barbs, in its skewering of both rich white Republican politics (via Jack Donaghy) and well-off white liberal guilt (via Liz Lemon). The show always felt of the moment, able to drop one-liners and cook up satirical storylines that blew the lid off cultural debates and exposed how dumb they often were.

But over its past three seasons, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has often managed to make 30 Rock look like sober realism. The show is populated by a truly loony cast of characters, most of whom come from very different worlds than the relatively privileged producers and flacks who populated 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

Everyone in the core cast — former “mole woman” Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), drama queen Titus (Tituss Burgess), wacky and vaguely dangerous Lillian (Carol Kane), and intensely vain Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) — have slowly revealed the one thing they have in common: a mutual drive to escape and outrun their pasts.

Those pasts they’re so desperate to hide have always lent Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt a much darker undercurrent than 30 Rock, which was at its core a workplace comedy. The show has gradually revealed that Kimmy wasn’t just imprisoned in the bunker by a harmless kook, the “Reverend” Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm); Wayne sexually abused her and the other women, and Kimmy discovered in season two that she was legally married to him as well.

Season three spent a lot of time exploring the fallout that Kimmy’s abuse and accompanying shame have had in her life. It turns out her unflagging cheerfulness was at times a way to repress what had happened, to try to move on. But reality wouldn’t let her do so.

The show’s bright, zany peppiness has always been laid over this very dark core, and that means that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has long been set up to address “the #MeToo moment.” Kimmy, after all, has the ultimate #MeToo story.

This season hits its stride in the first episode by focusing on #MeToo and sexual harassment

Titus and Jacqueline are back.
Titus and Jacqueline are back.
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

Season four of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt hits this angle hard. It’s set in early 2018, and each of its episodes either explores another part of Kimmy’s background or takes up a matter that’s been part of American cultural conversations — particularly about sexual harassment and assault — since last fall.

This could have been catastrophic. The show has been criticized in the past for having an impulse to criticize things, such as the rhetoric around political correctness and cultural appropriation, without having anything in particular to say. (Remember Titus’s “yellowface” debacle?)

But this time, it knows just what it’s on about. In fact, watching this first half of season four, it seems as if this critique is where the show has been headed all along. It was there from the start.

The fourth season opens with a cheery framing, repositioning itself as a kind of working girl comedy, Kimmy having left Columbia and taken a job at a tech startup at the end of the last season. “Little girl, big city / this is the show now!” Jacqueline sings in the theme song within the show. (Don’t worry, though: The show’s delightful real theme song hasn’t gone away. Females are still strong as hell.)

Kimmy is working as the head of HR, and everyone else is spinning their wheels trying to overcome their latest problems: Lillian needs to get over her last love interest, Jacqueline needs to find a way to make money in the wake of her divorce and a subsequent breakup, Titus needs to get Mikey back and find something to do for money. But for once, Kimmy kind of has it all together.

Except she doesn’t. Her abuse still haunts her. She still balks at the idea of talking about it in front of people.

She is still peppy, overly friendly Kimmy, though. In the first episode, she gets in trouble at work because her co-workers interpret her innocent friendliness as sexual harassment and file a complaint against her.

Kimmy tries a little too hard to comfort an employee.
Kimmy tries a little too hard to comfort an employee.
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

If that seems like it’s making light of workplace sexual harassment, well, that’s because it is. But in the context of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, that works perfectly. The show’s lightness and Kimmy’s innocence are always a foil for something dark bubbling underneath. In this case, Kimmy’s (legitimate) protestations that she was just being friendly and didn’t mean it are echoes of real-world protests from some men (Charlie Rose, for instance, or Morgan Freeman) that they did nothing wrong, and that their attempts at humor were merely “misinterpreted” by their colleagues.

The joke here is that, of course, Kimmy’s protestations are true — but none of those men are Kimmy Schmidt. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine anyone as unfailingly innocent as Kimmy. Unless you are Kimmy Schmidt, the show suggests, the idea that huge numbers of people simply “misinterpreted” your “humor” seems pretty likely to be a fat whopper.

One episode departs from the usual format to launch a storyline examining masculinity turned putrid

But season four moves well beyond workplace sexual harassment. Most of the episodes look at the ways that interactions between people with power and people without it can get twisted and confused. In one, Kimmy gets uncomfortable at a nail salon when it seems as if the workers are getting mistreated; it turns out to be a valuable lesson about white feminism. In another, Titus learns via an acting gig about how “nerds” get bullied in school and faces some uncomfortable truths about his own past as a bully.

Importantly, the show also throws a wrench into the works, departing from its normal format in episode three for a fake documentary episode modeled on Netflix documentaries (and directed by Rhys Thomas, known for his work on the satirical IFC series Documentary Now). And this episode serves as a springboard for an ongoing storyline that takes on some of the darkest aspects of masculinity gone horribly, horribly wrong.

The doc-within-the-show is called Party Monster: Scratching the Surface. It’s “directed and stuff” by “DJ Fingablast,” a boneheaded DJ dude who goes looking for his idol, DJ Slizzard, so he can deejay his upcoming wedding to Hello Hadid, “the third Hadid sister.”

DJ Slizzard, of course, is Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, and he’s in jail. But he manipulates Fingablast into making a documentary about him that’s purchased by HouseFlix — a Netflix parody whose telephone hold music proclaims that they are “bringing you the best of what’s left in entertainment.” (That’s in line with 30 Rock’s love of relentlessly skewering its home network, NBC.)

Kimmy sees Party Monster, of course, and is horrified, especially since it paints her as an upstanding and long-suffering woman who has stood by her man while he’s in prison, rather than a victim who’s been trying to get free from a monster.

Fran Dodd is, among other things, kind of a weakling.
Fran Dodd is, among other things, kind of a weakling.
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

The documentary also introduces Fran Dodd (Bobby Moynihan), who works at a wedding dress store and runs an organization called the Innocence Broject, which “fights back in the war on men.” He has a signed poster of the original Ghostbusters on the wall (no lady Ghostbusters here, please) and a “Harvey Weinstein” folder in his drawer of cases he’s investigating, and he’s indignant that Richard Wayne Gary Wayne is being held in a “men’s prison. Not a people’s prison! A men’s prison.”

After she sees Party Monster, Kimmy sets out on a mission to set the record straight, believing that the people who made it are merely misguided about Wayne. But no: They love him. Dodd especially loves him, because he stands for everything that Dodd believes. Wayne was just willing to do something about it.

“Masculinity is being criminalized in this country,” Dodd says, “and I want something done did about it.” A textbook incel, Dodd is livid at women for causing all of his problems, and livid at Kimmy when she suggests that’s what he does. “That’s whose fault it is!” he says. “Society used to make sense! Nuclear families, straight marriages, white quarterbacks. That’s the world the Reverend” — meaning Wayne — “was trying to get back to. The bunker was a return to traditional values.” Wayne, it turns out, hates women too, tracing his own anger back to a dating game show he went on in his 20s in which he didn’t get chosen.

It’s over the top, except it really isn’t; a quick dive into the darker corners of the internet will dig up any number of radicalized angry young men saying the same things, verbatim, and some of them are willing to kill for their beliefs. And when Wayne protests that of course he didn’t molest the women in the bunker, because just look at how unattractive they are, it sounds awfully familiar — something the show underlines by showing clips of President Donald Trump at rallies saying exactly the same thing about the women who accuse him of sexual harassment and assault.

It turns out the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne used to be DJ Slizzard.
It turns out the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne used to be DJ Slizzard.
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

This season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is still full of zingers but darker than the previous seasons

Clearly, the darkness that’s always been present in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is finally breaking through in this fourth season, even though it’s also loaded with the same hysterical one-liners and fast-paced humor of the other seasons. But real life feels a little darker in 2018 than it did in 2015, and the darkness that’s always been bubbling beneath the show’s surface can’t help but rise to the top.

The season concludes at the midpoint, without much resolved except that everyone in the main cast has been forced to grow up a bit by their brush with harsh realities. (When the show stumbles, it’s because some of those characters’ storylines — particularly for Jacqueline, who seems less and less necessary as the show goes on — feel pale and sort of silly next to the larger arc.)

But there is a seed of hope: Kimmy comes to realize that though the kind of grown men who believe Harvey Weinstein is being framed and are angry at women’s prisons for keeping men out probably will never change, there may be some hope for boys to learn how to live respectfully alongside women. “Each boy is born with the key inside him to tame his own monster,” she tells one, and hatches a plan to help them learn.

The monsters that lurk inside individuals and in the world around them have always been part of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But for most of the show, they lurked on the edges. In this first half of season four, they’re not hiding anymore — and that’s where the show has been driving all along.

You couldn’t call it luck, exactly, that the show’s main themes turned out to be so well-timed. But beneath all the zingers and zany situations, Kimmy’s story feels especially urgent and necessary — right here, right now.

The first half of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s fourth season premieres on Netflix on May 30.

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