Unlikable Kimmy Schmidt
She’s still great! But the second season of her Netflix show, fortunately, rejects something the first season took for granted: the charms of feminine niceness.
There is, technically, no villain in the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, Kimmy’s kidnapper, is safely behind bars. Jacqueline, Kimmy’s boss and friend, newly stripped of her blue-blooded last name and, with it, her money, is on a journey toward kindness and self-discovery. Titus, Kimmy’s roommate, though he remains as self-absorbed as ever, is just a few steps behind Jacqueline on the same path. Even Kimmy’s fellow kidnappees, the source of so much of her anxiety in season one, are getting on with their lives.
Kimmy Schmidt still has its micro-villains, to be sure: selfish society folk; shilltastic TV therapists; the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency; the Washington Redskins; Verizon Fios. For the most part, though, the people who plagued Kimmy during her first days and months post-rescue—the people who made her “uhhhh fascinating transition” to post-bunker life, all in all, extra-uhhhhfascinating—have now been sanded of their rough edges. They’ve learned. They’ve adapted. They’ve grown. And they’ve done that, in large part, because of Kimmy, and more specifically because of all the work Kimmy did to help them find their place. (Or, as in the reverend’s case, to put them in it.)
So it’s remarkable that, in Kimmy Schmidt’s second season, the primary villain, from Kimmy’s perspective, is not a person, but rather her own defining quality: niceness itself. Niceness, now, is no longer nice; it is instead downright pathological. It keeps Kimmy from coping, and by extension from fully living. While women, in particular, may be conditioned to see “niceness” as putting the needs of others before their own, Kimmy Schmidt—albeit with its characteristic cartoonishness—is challenging that assumption. It is glorifying feminine selfishness. You can’t do you, after all, if you think only of others.
And so, while Kimmy season one built up to the trial of the reverend who kidnapped her, Kimmy season two builds up to a trial of the other thing that has threatened to hold her captive: her insistence on helping, and indeed saving, other people. At one point, Gretchen comes to New York to join a Scientology-like cult; Kimmy drops everything to prevent her fellow Mole Woman from retreating to a new kind of bunker (in this case, a cruise ship). It takes a full episode for Kimmy to realize what the rest of us have known all along: that Gretchen likes the constraints of culthood. “I tried to make you the person I wanted you to be,” Kimmy tells her, finally. “But that’s not you. And that’s okay.”
Kimmy undergoes a similar realization with Cyndee and her dream to marry, and have kids with, a man who everyone—Cyndee included—knows would prefer to marry a guy. And with Andrea (Tina Fey), her Uber passenger-cum-therapist, who moonlights as a stumbling alcoholic. (“Guess what: I’m not two different people,” Andrea informs her would-be savior. “I’m just one big mess. And you can’t fix me, Kimmy. Sorry.”)
Kimmy Schmidt, in all this, isn’t necessarily celebrating weakness or sadness or compromise. It’s not a good thing that Andrea is beyond saving. It’s not a happy thing that Gretchen, having been given her freedom, is still drawn so powerfully to the Church of Cosmetology. But the new season’s insistent complication of kindness absolves Kimmy of her driving desire to fix everything—for everyone but herself. And it forces her, ultimately, to be honest about the ongoing effects of being a Mole Woman. In the new season, Kimmy bonds with a former Army Ranger over their shared PTSD. She freaks out at the sound of a cork popping at a party (“Eek! A sound!”). She has a psychotic break that ends with her riding a roller coaster—her mom, not for nothing, is a “coaster head”—at Coney Island.
These are, ultimately means to the same end that Kimmy’s fellow characters have found with her help: growth. Self-improvement. Self-discovery. Initially, Kimmy resists talking about her problems, insisting not just that she’s doing fine, but that she’s doing awesomely. Why would she need to think about herself? Why would she need therapy? (“I don’t need to be shrunk like some Rick Moranis kid,” she mutters to herself, early on in the season—“I’m blowing up like a Rick Moranis baby!”) Post-Cyclone, though, Kimmy realizes that she needs help—and she gets it from, yes, Andrea. And Andrea, tellingly, begins her therapy by fighting against the cheery niceness that has been such a default aspect of Kimmy’s character. After Kimmy takes an “Ohio shower” (she uses toilet wipes) because Titus wouldn’t let her use their shared bathroom (he needed a place to store his Barbies), Andrea asks why she let him get away with that.
“I guess I just did it ‘cuz I’m nice,” Kimmy replies.
“And that makes you happy?” Andrea presses.
“Yeah! Happy as a clam.”
“So, like, clenched up tight, full of grit, and if you get pried open you’ll die?”
That pretty much sums it up. In Kimmy’s world—one newly permeated with the language of therapy and self-love—niceness can fester. Niceness can chafe. Niceness can foreclose possibilities, rather than allow for them. As a drunken-but-still insightful Andrea slurs to Kimmy, “You put other people’s needs ahead of yours, because you’re niiiiice. You know what’s another word for ‘nice’? Enabler.”
It’s a very of-the-moment sentiment. We have, as a culture, an extremely complicated relationship with kindness. And we have an even more complicated relationship with the so-tiny-it’s-sometimes-invisible line between self-absorption and self-care. On the one hand, there’s “treat yo’self” and do you and selfies and status updates and, with them, an Internet-enabled strain of the culture of narcissism. On the other, though, there are all the ways that same Internet has given us to experience, and extend, empathy. We’re figuring out how to balance those things, how to balance selfishness and selflessness. Which is also to say: We’re doing what every culture has, throughout history: negotiating the tension between a healthy ego and an unhealthy one.
What Kimmy Schmidt is acknowledging through its new season, though, is that—for women, in particular—that line can be especially tricky to navigate. For women, in particular, it has been especially challenging to determine the appropriate balance between self-assertion and self-abnegation. And niceness—a personal quality, but also a social expectation—has been wrapped up in all that. “Nice” has long been a default assumption for women and girls, one that has been so default, in fact, that we only bother to acknowledge the expectation when it has been breached. (Think about how many terms we have for a guy who’s a jerk; think about how, for women, we have pretty much just one: “bitch.”)
In that sense, Kimmy Schmidt complicating its protagonist’s own kindness is not just a smart narrative move (“if you want a character with a built-in conflict machine,” Writers’ Digest advises, “you should go low-down and dirty”); it’s also something of a feminist statement. It’s celebrating selfishness as a form of self-confidence. Fey, who in addition to playing Andrea is Kimmy Schmidt’s creator, executive producer, and co-writer, is well-known for her impatience with kindness that insinuates, and downplays, and wants something in return—with niceness, in other words, that can double as passive aggression. In her memoir Bossypants, Fey tells the story of her IRL “life partner,” Amy Poehler, telling a joke in the Saturday Night Live writers’ room. The joke was dirty and uncouth and otherwise “unladylike.” Jimmy Fallon jokingly objected to it—on the grounds, Fey recalls, that “It’s not cute! I don’t like it.”
Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit.
With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it.”
This is the ethic that now permeates Kimmy Schmidt—the show, and, with it, the person. While Kimmy’s fellow characters are being redeemed by a new understanding of kindness—Jacqueline gives her Louboutins to a woman in need; Titus opens himself up to a steady, caring relationship—Kimmy, for her part, is being redeemed by her ability to fight against niceness. Which is also to say: her ability to stand up for herself. To be real. To get angry. And, most importantly, to not care if you like it.
It’s a welcome change, for Kimmy and for the rest of us. After all, as a drunken Andrea reminds Kimmy: “Happy people value their needs as much as otherses.”