The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a Netflix original series written and created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, has more in common with the phenomenally popular podcast Serial than it might seem at first glance. Though the two shows differ in medium, mode, and genre, they both have an abiding interest in crimes committed against women.
Serial follows host Sarah Koenig’s epistemological journey to reinvestigate the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee. Unbreakable is a witty episodic comedy that uses the visual vocabulary of beloved proto-feminist sit-coms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Laverne & Shirley to tell the fish-out-of-water-and-into-the-big-city story of its titular heroine’s attempts to adjust not only to New York, but also the twenty-first century.
And that’s where the comparison comes in. Kimmy can be called “unbreakable” because a cult leader attempted to break her, by locking her and three other women in an underground bunker in Indiana for 15 years.
Let’s pause to consider the darkness of that premise. For 15 years, the lead character of this comedy was imprisoned underground by “Savior Rick,” forced to dress in nineteenth-century-era clothing to impose “modesty,” peform meaningless and endless labor, and participate in call-and-response sermons that blamed the apocalypse on the stupidity of women.
The leader’s inane name, Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, and his late-season portrayal by cameo-bait Jon Hamm, serves to somewhat undercut this disturbing backstory, but still: Holy crap, pun intended.
The show relies on 90s nostalgia and situational dissonance for its laughs. Kimmy must learn to negotiate a world unrecognizable from the one she was last a part of, both in time and space. 2015 is to 2000 as New York City is to rural Indiana in many ways.
Kimmy’s dogged optimism and endurance is both funny and deeply moving, especially in the face of the psychological trauma she has survived. She resists letting her past define her, though it does; it must, in profound ways.
Which brings us to the race question. Many commentators have addressed, and criticized, the show’s treatment of race, specifically Kimmy’s gay African American roommate, Titus; her employer, Jacqueline, a Native American woman passing as white; and her Vietnamese-American love interest, (sigh) Dong.
These criticisms are not unfounded. (These critiques are another point of comparison with Serial—Koenig was accused of a similar racial myopia on the Korean and Muslim immigrant communities she was exploring.) However, the sometimes reductive racial politics of the show seem to me to be an outgrowth of Kimmy herself. Her perspective has been limited not by choice, but by criminal misogynistic oppression.
The inspiration for The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt comes from two wildly variant sources. First, and most upsetting, the three women kidnapped and tortured by Ariel Castro for a decade or longer, who escaped in 2013. While watching Unbreakable, it’s difficult not to be reminded of the rescue and re-emergence of these women, especially considering that the interview from the man who assisted in their escape went viral. (A viral, auto-tuned interview with a man who witnessed the liberation of Kimmy and her fellow captives provides the theme song for the show.)
The other unavoidable reference is to the American musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown. The book was written by Meredith Wilson in 1960, and adapted into a film written by Helen Deutsch in 1964. The appellation “unsinkable” refers to Molly’s survival of the sinking of the Titanic—a disaster that is both natural and man-made: the hubris of the captain’s and shipbuilders’ claim that “God himself couldn’t sink this ship,” and their accompanying desire to cross the Atlantic in record time, are widely agreed to have contributed to the ship’s fatal collision with an iceberg.
Molly and Kimmy share a refusal to let their man-made disasters define them. Kimmy powerfully rejects the media-imposed label “Mole Woman” to define herself. She wants to tell her own story of her life, much as Molly Brown refuses to let her poverty-stricken background, with its attendant limited assumptions about women, define her potential.
The opening song of Unsinkable Molly Brown has Molly declaring: “I’m gonna learn to read and write! / I’m gonna see what there is to see!” And that’s precisely what she does. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schimidt provokes its audience to think about the bunkers that women create for themselves—the stories we internalize from a patriarchal culture that limit and reduce our promise.