More than once, creators and stars have referred to making a season of television as running a marathon, and sometimes you can feel the exhaustion that comes with that statement. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” — the Netflix series that almost never was (the streaming service picked it up for two seasons in 2014, after NBC passed due to a lack of room in its schedule) — still looks great… but also, maybe it should lie down for a little while. And maybe it shouldn’t worry about getting back up again.
One of Netflix’s longest-running comedies, the story of a young woman (Ellie Kemper) rebuilding her life after 15 years underground as the prisoner of a cult leader has been rich with absurdity from the beginning. And as Kimmy’s world has gotten bigger, the characters who surround her have only gotten stranger over the seasons.
Season 4 begins right where Season 3 ended, with Kimmy getting a job at a tech start-up following her expulsion from Columbia University. (Don’t worry, she remains a Columbia Publishing House loyalist.) Like every season, the show has its eye on world events, but while there were reports that the #MeToo movement would dominate the action, it’s more subtly integrated than you might expect, at least on a thematic level.
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Previously announced guest star Bobby Moynihan, who plays a men’s rights activist in multiple episodes, doesn’t have an overly prominent role, and his character’s point of view is (rightly) held up as flat-out garbage. As opposed to when “Kimmy Schmidt” took on racial controversies with an overly defensive look at whitewashing, Season 4 acknowledges these issues without taking a controversial stance, perhaps because there’s no room for controversy when it comes to the basic question of respecting boundaries and being nice to people — all very Kimmy-ish attitudes.
However, as endearing as this show remains, it’s starting to show its age. When “Kimmy Schmidt” originally premiered, it was celebrated as an empathetic portrait of recovering from trauma that also still managed to find room for the funny. In 2018, that journey has started to feel stalled out, to the point where recent news that the fourth season would be the final one seems like a good thing. No one ever likes to say that their favorite anything should go away, but the end of “Kimmy Schmidt” will likely mean amazing things from all the talent involved. (Plus, it’s been evident since the end of Season 3 that the best thing that could happen to this show is a defined end date, which is now on the horizon.)
There are brilliant touches in these first six episodes, especially when it comes to the tossed-away quips which reference pop culture in unexpected ways. (An example: Titus (Tituss Burgess) yells to Kimmy that “Kimothy Olyphant, this is not ‘Justified!'”) After years of not just making this show but its predecessor “30 Rock,” Fey, Carlock, and their writers have become masters of the one-liner that, presuming you even hear it given the show’s breakneck pace, will drop you to the floor with laughter. (One of the best things about this show is when you watch an episode a second time, and after hearing a line that made you nearly pee with the giggles the first time, you hear a follow-up that’s even funnier.)
Plus, “Kimmy Schmidt” does take one of its boldest narrative swings yet with Season 4, a format-breaking homage to the insane popularity of true crime narratives that lacks the breadth and depth of other parody series like “American Vandal,” but still nails down its own spin, while also using the concept to add new insight into the characters.
And to be clear, the talent here can’t be underestimated. Ellie Kemper’s bold gameness has powered the show for so long that it’s almost easy to take it for granted; even though Kimmy has failed to grow all that much over the years, Kemper’s enthusiasm and dedication to the role remains engaging. Kimmy has never stopped being someone we want to root for, and it’s unlikely viewers will ever stop wishing her the best.
But the show’s ultimate flaw, overall, is the fact that while their circumstances might have been altered, the characters themselves haven’t really changed nearly as much as you might expect over the course of four seasons, and there’s a legitimate concern as to how much their quirks can prove sustainable. Which goes back, once again, to the fact that it might legitimately be a good thing that there’s an end date for this show in store.
Kimmy, at her core, is a deeply principled individual, determined to make things right however she can… and profoundly frustrated, when she can’t. Her journey has a singular goal: a healthy life, free of her past traumas — one which she has earned. It’s a tough thing for a comedy to pull off, and everyone’s hoping these writers can make it work. Kimmy deserves it, and so does her audience.
The first half of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” Season 4 premieres May 30 on Netflix.