At its best, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt can create an almost dizzying comedic high with its rapid fire jokes and skewed worldbuilding. The laughter just engulfs you and doesn’t settle until the credits roll. When the really profound moments of love and self-realization hit, you’re both caught by surprise and more open to a real emotional engagement. When it’s great, Kimmy Schmidt breaks down every cynical barrier you have until you are helpless against its warmth.
That greatness seemed to peak at the end of the show’s second season, when each of the four main characters embraced a powerful truth about themselves and opened up to new directions. Titus (Tituss Burgess) and Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) found love and new confidence, Lillian (Carol Kane) found a new purpose and Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) found a renewed sense of self-sufficiency and drive. Season 2’s ability to weave those individual arcs amid tyically bonkers subplots was nothing short of brilliant. The season concluded in such a satisfying way that it was difficult to see where many of the show’s conflicts would go in Season 3. That means the latest batch of episodes get the slowest start so far, but when Kimmy Schmidt really gets going again, it proves it’s still unbreakable.
The first and most obvious major story thread Season 3 picks up on is last season’s reveal that Kimmy is apparently married to her jailed former captor, Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm). Kimmy wants to put the drama behind her and head to college but Jacqueline and her odd friend Mimi (Amy Sedaris) have a few ideas about that. Meanwhile Titus is back from his cruise and going through new personal and professional trials, Lillian has taken up politics and Jacqueline–in what is still the show’s weakest link–is trying to stick up for her Native American heritage by making the owners of the Washington Redskins (who just happen to be her boyfriend’s family) change the team name.
These four plots compete for attention early in the season with almost equal fervor. To a certain extent, they all get the spotlight. We see things like Lillian’s appropriately cheap campaign shirts, Jacqueline’s overly complex schemes and a massive portion of an episode devoted to Titus’ Lemonade parody. Even the worst Kimmy Schmidt subplots still have a sense of fun about them and the joke-a-second pace never falters.
But there are some missteps here. Jacqueline’s plans just aren’t as compelling in the early going, through Krakowski proves she is still one of the most fearless comediennes alive with her performance. And as for Titus, while the Lemonade bit is very well-crafted and leads to the first real emotional payoff of the season, the parody itself feels a little stale. Fun as it is to watch Burgess go full Beyonce, the Lemonade spoofs may have peaked with SNL seven months ago.
Fortunately, the season doesn’t take long to hit its stride. As with last season, there’s still a lot of mileage to get out of sending Kimmy off on her own to fulfill some new goal while the other characters team up in unexpected ways. So, Kimmy heads off to give college a try and guest star Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) injects an effortless nerdy cool into that subplot. While that’s going on, Lillian and Jacqueline butt heads, Titus and Lillian have more demented adventures and Jacqueline and Titus team with Josh Charles for one of the strangest date nights the series has ever given us. It’s a testament to how deep the show’s comedic bench is that the characters cross-pollinate so well, and any staleness the stories had as the season began is quickly smoothed over.
By the fifth and sixth episodes of the new season, Kimmy Schmidt has gone from decent to full-on great once again, thanks to a pair of episodes that take it places it’s never been before. First, the show enjoys some of its most overtly feminist comedy ever as Kimmy runs into one of her old cult sisters again. Then, Kimmy reconnects with Xan (Dylan Gelula) at college, where she must navigate the minefield that is the coded language of progressive co-eds. It’s a chance for creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock to play with language while introducing many subtle and not-so-subtle new ideas into the series. Gags that start here could pay off in a big way later.
Season 3 also continues to use the show’s oldest and most rewarding gag – that Kimmy, for all her cheerful naievete, is often the wisest person in the room – in new and effective ways. We’ve already seen her be a surrogate family member for Jacqueline and a kind of big sister to Titus. Now, as advanced education takes its place as a major theme on the show, we get to see Kimmy the teacher. She may only understand philosophical concepts in terms of pizza and cupcakes, but she picks them up and adapts them to her life quickly. Her outward simplicity remains as endearing as ever, but the intellectual complexities that come with each new experience just keep finding ways to pay off. Kimmy Schmidt, for all of her silliness, continues to evolve as one of the richest characters in the sitcom world, played with depth and vulnerability by Kemper.
So, while it may take an episode or two to climb out of the hole left by last season, the third year of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt quickly begins another ascent, and greatness is on the horizon again. As the title character continues to grow, Netflix’s premiere sitcom is still one of the smartest and funniest shows you can hope to get lost in.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt returns May 19 on Netflix.