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Will ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Race Controversy Derail Jane Krakowski and Tituss Burgess’ Emmys Odds?

Will 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' Race Controversy Derail Jane Krakowski and Tituss Burgess' Emmys Odds?

When “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” made the move from NBC to Netflix, the streaming giant gave Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s first offering since “30 Rock” a two-season commitment. While such promises are becoming more and more popular in the age of binge-watching, it’s nothing to sneeze at — nor something to be taken for granted — and the stars know what kind of gold they’ve struck. 

“The day we got the call it was just like, not only do people like the show, but with this kind of reception we’ll definitely have another season and hopefully even longer,” Jane Krakowski said, speaking to Indiewire during a roundtable in January about what it was like when “Kimmy Schmidt” earned its first Emmy nominations.

“My dream was to be a series regular on a TV show [with] writing I respected,” Tituss Burgess added. “Awards season was not something I had factored into the realm of possibility. I’m still reeling from getting to go to this beautiful job and working with these wonderful people. […] A larger dream was dreamed for me outside of myself.”

But while Season 1 faced its fair share of hurdles before getting to the podium — voters are a bit fickle with comedies (even from Fey) and having your biggest star behind the camera isn’t as alluring as having her in front— Season 2 has doubled down on itself in ways that could keep these two nominees from returning in 2016.

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Most notably, the second season continued a plot point from the first that was met with some skepticism. It was revealed midway through Season 1 that Krakowski’s character, Jacqueline Voorhees, an upper-class member of the New York elite, was actually of Native American descent. Her colored contacts and dyed hair masked an indigenous person who was ashamed of her roots — literally and figuratively — but after her self-discovery in last year’s finale, she attempts to rediscover her heritage throughout Season 2.

“She really is dealing with not being Mrs. Voorhees anymore,” Krakowski said. “I’m thrilled we’ve spent a lot of time actually learning about her early years and childhood and her fighting for her family’s rights. It was a surprise to me that we would grow that storyline so fully this year — but we do.”

It was a surprise to some viewers, as well, considering most writers confronted with whitewashing accusations quickly shy away from the fight. Fey and Carlock didn’t do that, instead choosing to mock their critics in a Season 2 episode many have seen as a direct response to criticism over Krakowski’s character. Yet what makes it all the more fascinating is that their response isn’t voiced by Jacqueline, but by Titus. 

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The third episode of Season 2, titled “Kimmy Goes to a Play!,” finds Titus Andromedon trying to put on a one-man show chronicling his past life as a geisha. Once news hits the Internet, however, his play is slammed by vehement online protestors before he even has the chance to act it out. This leads to a confrontation on the day of the show in which the mob of online haters are put in their place for not understanding — or even trying to understand — what they were so eager to criticize, mainly by being forced to watch Titus perform the entirety of his production in white face.

Though the majority of real-life critics have stood by “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” — including yours truly — how will these touchy topics affect its stars’ ability to campaign? What’s interesting here is the separation of written word and performance. After all, Krakowski and Burgess didn’t write the parts or design their own arcs. They’re not creating the controversy even if they’re the face of it. They performed what was given them to the best of their abilities (which are obviously quite lofty) — even improv is limited in this tightly-scripted comedy.

“We say what they write,” Burgess said when asked about improv on set. “Most of what ends up in the edit is what was on the paper. They don’t need our help.”

But will TV Academy members be comfortable casting a vote for characters who are facing criticism? If they’re truly voting for performance — more than, say, likeability — the answer is clear.

“I’m very much an introvert,” Burgess said when asked about the difference between his character and himself. “I don’t enjoy attention as much as people may think I do. I think some people, when they meet me, are expecting him. But he’s fake. He’s not real life. I think the only things we share are a sense of humor and a love for musical theatre.”

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To create someone as instantly beloved and incomparable as Titus speaks to talent in front of and behind the camera, but Burgess’ contributions are truly huge. To slight him a nod simply because he’s been looped into a defense of something else would be shortsighted and wrong — just as it would for Krakowski. A five-time nominee already, her abilities are unchallenged even as her part becomes more and more challenging — considering the controversy or not.

“I actually think Season 2 is even richer than Season 1 for all the characters,” Krakowski said.

“I do, too,” Burgess added. “You go further down the rabbit hole of everyone’s journey and backstory. There are a lot of answered questions and a lot of new questions.”

“She really is dealing with not being Mrs. Voorhees anymore,” Krakowski said, laughing off the “rough times” her character faces “with her 12 million dollars.” “One of Jacqueline’s biggest ambitions this year is, instead of running away from her family roots and to change, is to help, to help them, and to make change if she can. […] I think she’s trying to stand on her own two feet this season, and not only have her own identity but use her identity to help others. I think in her humorous way, she succeeds in a few ways, and also fails with a little heartbreak. She tries, and I think that’s the biggest growth we can get.”

No matter how things shake out come July, it will be intriguing to see if and how the controversy affects a series on track to become an Emmys contender for years to come. 

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