[Editor’s Note: This review is meant to be read after watching the second season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” Season 2, now streaming on Netflix. It contains spoilers through to the season finale, including casting and plot information. For a spoiler-free review of the season, click here.]
One of the most enjoyable things about sinking into a new season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is how the show has built out a little universe for itself, one with its own unique rules and approaches. People still listen to tapes, read newspapers and send letters via the mail. There’s no questioning when a character really does remember a past life (to the point of being able to speak fluent Japanese). The soundtrack consists of an entire alternate universe of Broadway musicals and knock-off pop tunes. And no matter how gross or weird or scary things might get, Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) will offer a positive spin.
Season 2 puts that to the test in a new, almost existential way, as it continues to track Kimmy’s recovery from 15 years trapped in a bunker by her kidnapper. Last season, “Kimmy Schmidt” was anchored by the trial of Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne, a major plotline that stretched across three episodes and wrapped with a powerhouse conclusion. But the point that the show makes is that there’s no easy fix for trauma, and Season 2 doubles down on that thesis.
However, this means a lack of big events to power the action. Sure, Season 2 serves as one long therapy session for Kimmy, ending on a definitive moment of growth and change for her that’s inspiring. But it’s a long journey to get there, and the momentum lags along the way.
“I just want to go fast, straight to the breakthrough point,” Kimmy says at one point. Specifically, in Episode 10. It takes a little more time than that.
That’s due to some odd deviations, like “Kimmy Goes to a Play!” In the third episode, Titus (Tituss Burgess) creates a one-man show about his past life as a geisha, leading to Internet outrage over the his yellowface performance. There’s no better way to describe it than as an extreme overreaction to critiques “Kimmy Schmidt’s” Season 1 received over its depiction of race, painting those who dare challenge the show as an unruly mob that just needs to understand what’s being said.
Also, when I say that much of the season plays like a therapy session, I mean that literally, thanks to co-creator Tina Fey’s extended appearance in the back half of the season. It’s always great to see Fey on screen, especially when she stretches beyond the echoes of “30 Rock’s” Liz Lemon. But her character, Andrea the alcoholic therapist, is a bit one note at times, especially given the number of episodes in which she appears. Plus, her primary function is to lead Kimmy to a conclusion so obvious that it’s been a running joke all season long.
That revelation, of course, is that Kimmy won’t get over her trauma until she’s able to confront her long-absent mother. Given the mystery surrounding who might be cast as Kimmy’s mom, my hope was that Fey and co-creator Robert Carlock had locked down someone worth the suspense. Boy, did they ever deliver.
Lisa Kudrow hits the ground running as Lori-Ann, tonally perfect for the show and a powerful foil for Kimmy. This long-awaited mother-daughter confrontation would be memorable for viewers no matter what, but choosing to stage it on the Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster at Universal Studios Orlando made for an incredible scene. The only catch: Kudrow only appears in the season finale; hopefully, she’ll be back for a whole lot more in Season 3.
In general, “Kimmy Schmidt” brings together one of television’s odder but nonetheless hilarious comedic ensembles. The return of Jon Hamm was predictable, but nonetheless welcome if only in brief bursts. And there are a trio of vibrant love interests for the show’s regular cast: David Cross as Jacqueline’s new love interest deserves an A+, especially given the finale’s twist (he and his family own the Washington Redskins). Fred Armison as Lillian’s former flame Robert Durst is easily one of the best surprises of the season (even if you’re only vaguely familiar with the real life star of HBO’s “The Jinx”).
It’s worth highlighting Mike Carlsen as Mikey, who started on “Kimmy Schmidt” as part of a throwaway gag (the construction worker who confronts his own sexuality after Kimmy misinterprets his catcalling). The character is taken more seriously as Titus’s boyfriend and as a human being. He’s a genuinely good person who also manages to be really funny, a tricky thing to pull off, and he brings fantastic stuff out of Burgess.
But when you break down the season by character arcs, there’s a lack of cohesion. Lillian’s entire storyline devolves from her war against the neighborhood getting gentrified becomes the fact that no one pays attention to her, which is easy to read as the show mocking itself for not knowing what to do with Carol Kane. Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) also gets sidelined a little bit — her struggle to “lose the jerk and keep the perks” has a lot of momentum at first, but begins to drift by the wayside during the second half.
The chaotic energy that a group of misfits gives a show like this works within the “30 Rock” structure — because as a workplace comedy, there was something binding all of these people together. Meanwhile, “Kimmy Schmidt” is constantly struggling to figure out how to keep its scattered cast together beyond the characters’ individual relationships with Kimmy.
So much of the show works well. The jokes are as sharp as ever, the performances as nuanced, and the way the series makes a story about survival and self-discovery feel both human and hilarious keeps us invested. But after Kimmy’s progress this year, I hope Season 3 finds a new engine for its storytelling, a new direction that figures out the best way to optimize the show’s great, weird universe. Everyone and anyone is capable of changing and growing. Including “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.