Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the Rise of Empathetic Comedy

​The show, in elevating its supporting characters, may also herald a new era for sitcoms.

Early on in Mean Girls, Janis gives Cady—a 16-year-old who, having just returned to the U.S. after 12 years in Africa, is unfamiliar with the workings of the typical American high school—a brief guide to the Darwinian jungle that is the lunchroom of North Shore High. “You got,” Janis explains, solemnly, “your freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, JV jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, varsity jocks, unfriendly black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don't eat anything, desperate wannabes, burnouts, sexually active band geeks …”

“Sexually active band geeks”! That—a category within a category within a category, winking in its regression—is classic Tina Fey: a small joke made big through a sweeping insight. We are, after all, taught to do with people exactly what Janis is teaching Cady to do: to classify them, instantly and thoughtlessly, according to their clothes and their hair and their size and the people they sit with in the cafeteria.

We’re also taught, of course, to respect the obvious: that appearances are not everything, that what people are and who they are are only very loosely connected. The tension those dueling messages create—our desire to fit in, straining against our desire to stand out—is why Louis Vuitton and Sephora and Soul Cycle and Facebook exist; it also, however, gives structure to our media. Movies and TV shows (not to mention comics and novels and other, more traditional forms of literature) have long relied on familiar categories—the wacky sidekick, the charming nerd—to telegraph characters’ motivations and statuses with economy. Fey’s own creations, from Mean Girls (the Plastics!) to 30 Rock (Jenna Maroney!), have themselves alternately mocked and made use of those archetypes.

So does Fey’s latest, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (released last Friday on Netflix), which is a delightful comedy with a dark premise: a girl, kidnapped at 14 and kept in an underground bunker for 15 years, getting on with her life—in New York City, no less—after being rescued. The show’s universe, a New York defined by tourists and hedge-funders, is populated by people who could be the grown-up versions of the kids in North Shore’s cafeteria: humans who might well, at first glance, be mistaken for archetypes.

There’s Titus Andromedon (Gay Best Friend), who loves musical theater, fluorescent accessories, and snappy one-liners. There’s Jacqueline Voorhees (Self-Obsessed Rich Lady), who treats spin classes as religious experiences and insists that her son’s birthday cake be paleo. There’s Xanthippe Voorhees (Self-Obsessed Rich Teenager), whose preferred method of communication is the eye-roll. There’s Lillian (Quirky Landlady), a life-long New Yorker with hippie hair. There’s Dong (Hard-Working Recent Immigrant), who is struggling as much with his new life as with his command of English. There’s Kimmy herself, who falls, both because of and despite her traumatic backstory, squarely into the expansive category of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

At its most basic, Unbreakable subscribes to the auto-tuned premise of its impossibly catchy intro song. These characters are, indeed, characters: They're people who are also media figures, people who are seen and consumed and then, for the most part, forgotten. (“Thank you, victims!” a Today Show producer chirps at Kimmy and her three fellow “Mole Women” as they leave the studio after an interview. “Thank you, victims,” he says again, impatiently, shoving them out the door, the time he has allotted to caring about them having expired.) For Fey and Unbreakable’s co-creator, Robert Carlock, it would have been easy to take the show’s premise—a fresh-from-the-bunker girl-woman, brushing elbows with New York’s one percent—and turn the whole thing into a kind of live-action cartoon. That strategy worked well for 30 Rock, allowing the pair to get away with jokes (about, among other things, gender politics and racial politics) that a more earnest narrative approach would have precluded. They could have easily plumbed their new show’s insta-themes—fish-out-of-water! time travel! self-reinvention! the aching absurdities of #diblasiosnewyork!—for sketch comedy’s superficial brand of humor.

To an extent, certainly, they did do that: Unbreakable might well have more jokes per capita, and per minute, than any sitcom ever made, 30 Rock very much included.

Unbreakable, though, doesn’t stop at sketch. Instead, it takes the easy categories of lunchroom and life and insistently complicates them, taking tropes and turning them, through comedy’s alchemy, into people. Kimmy, we quickly learn, is neither a victim nor a spectacle nor a 13-going-on-30 dreamgirl; she’s a smart, kind, principled, and resilient woman whose sing-song-y cheeriness, as my colleague Lenika Cruz put it, "is a necessary façade for her inner pain." Dong is making difficult choices between learning English—and, by extension, fitting into his new world—and earning the money that offers another kind of status. Lillian, Kimmy's hippie-haired landlady, is making stilted peace with the fact that the only home she has ever known—her New York neighborhood—is rapidly evolving away from her. Jacqueline is similarly struggling: with a crumbling marriage, a family she has abandoned, and a wealth-inflected strain of Friedanian ennui. Xanthippe is trying to find her place in the New York City of the youthful one percent, with all its Gossip Girlesque overtones, while dealing with the inconvenient fact that she is actually a good kid. Titus (né Ronald Wilkerson, in Chickasaw County, Mississippi) is doing what we all must, at one point or another: coming to terms with the death of a dream.

On the one hand, sure, Unbreakable's what-they-are versus who-they-are discrepancies are the stuff of sitcomic cliché: People are more than they seem, and books are more than their covers, and special snowflakes and unique butterflies and the containment of multitudes and all that. And the wacky humanity of the familiar stranger has, of course, been celebrated across TV’s history, from Ralph Kramden to Doug Heffernan to Mindy Lahiri. In that sense, Unbreakable is, despite its status as a "Netflix show," quite traditional.

In another sense, though, Unbreakable is productively innovative. This is Gatsby, in its way, for the age of Facebook and "The End of Men." Everyone has secrets. Everyone has pasts. Everyone is struggling and aching and wanting, trying to be, and also not be, normal; characters' wildly different interpretations of what that normalcy entails, however, suggest that monolithic fit-innery, the stuff of high school cafeterias, is finally outdated.

Unbreakable doesn’t simply flesh out its characters; it actively and insistently offers the limelight to characters who would, in so many other contexts, play merely supporting roles. Characters who would, in other words, otherwise be marginalized. “Black, gay, and old?” Titus laments as he walks down the street in a Cosby-esque sweater. “Oh, I'm not even going to know which box to check on the hate crime form.” Which is—classic Fey— a small joke made big through a sweeping insight. And yet we’re hearing it from Titus’ perspective, and, because we know him, we’re able to put it into the context of Titus’ experience as a struggler and a survivor. Same with Dong and Lillian and so many of the other inhabitants of Kimmy's world. Unbreakable isn’t just a show about underdogs; it’s a show about giving voice to the voiceless. It is a show that celebrates the people who are often, in life, made to live in the margins.

And that makes it particularly apt for the moment we’re in—a moment that, you could argue, is finding new platforms for empathy. We live in an age newly obsessed with otherness, an age in which “What It’s Like to Be X” is a common headline in news stories and “Ask Me Anything” is a popular rubric on reddit. We have Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Pinterest and the “Real Housewives” franchise, and those, on top of everything else, have given us new insights into the vast diversity of human experience. We have new platforms for curiosity and, within it, empathy. We have The Wire and Breaking Bad and Orange Is the New Black—shows told from the perspective of people who are, in important ways, far removed from the norm-happy collectives of sitcomic tradition.

And now we have Unbreakable, a show that has many ridiculous characters, but that saves the brunt of its ridicule for the ones who would normally find themselves above mockery—in the context of sitcoms, yes, but also in the context of life. As ThinkProgress’s Jessica Goldstein points out, there are precious few white men on the show; the ones who are there are pretty much there to be mocked. There’s Julian Voorhees, the smarmy hedge-funder; Logan Beekman, the Connecticut trust-funder so wealthy that his parents trained him to have a British accent; and, of course, Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, Kimmy’s kidnapper and the founder of Savior Rick’s Spooky Church of the Scary-pocalypse, who is given a ridiculous name and an even more ridiculous man-mullet, but even more importantly robbed of a backstory that puts his absurdity into context.

Unbreakable has come in for criticism about its treatment of characters like Titus and Dong and Kimmy’s fellow "Mole Woman," Donna Maria. (The show, as the Daily Dot’s Feliks Garcia summed it up, “has a race problem.”) And it’s true that the show features many cringe-worthy moments, among them jokes about Dong’s name, jokes about Dong’s command of English, and jokes about Jacqueline’s secret past as a Native American. And it’s true, too, as Garcia points out, that one of the characters who would seem ripe for fleshing out—Donna Maria—gets very little in the way of screen time. It's also true, however, that some of the show's race-related jokes land brilliantly. (“White Women Found,” runs the chyron of the Mole Women news story in the shows first episode. In smaller text: “Hispanic woman also found.”) And a second season will afford opportunities for more characters to get their due.

Unbreakable, for all its flaws, creates a universe in which the biggest disservice that can be done to characters is to rob them of their stories. And that’s a pretty good metaphor for the universe the rest of us inhabit—one that is newly defined by an awareness of the range of human experience and a respect for the power of diversity. The auto-tuned words of the show’s introduction—“they alive, dammit!”—are in that sense not just a statement, but a rallying cry. Because females, the show suggests—and all the other people who are revealing themselves after living, for so long, in the shadows—are strong as hell.