Thursday, March 12, 2015

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Two Kinds of Victim

So Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt came out a couple of days ago and I have binge watched it through. So now I offer you, as a Joffre The Giant service, a review and some other thoughts inspired by the show.

The Tina Fey production was turned down by network TV, so Netflix picked up the ball and ran with it. I am sure someone in a network office is wringing his hands (yes, his hands, because I'm benevolently sexist or something) over this, but his loss in our gain, as the continuing exodus from network TV increases the quality of writing for all shows everywhere.

The show has received very good reviews across the internetosphere, i.e. at Grantland's Hollywood Prospectus. And it is good. It makes you happy.

I watched it in two nights, not because it's that compelling of a story, but because I could look at Ellie Kemper all day. So I did. She makes me happy. Kemper was in the American The Office, but she's new to me. Her smile is so cheery and bright that I smile just to see her, which I'm sure is why she was cast in the role of Kimmy.

Kimmy Schmidt, along with three other women, was kidnapped and held in a bunker by the leader of an apocalyptic cult. Fifteen years later Kimmy is almost thirty years old, and she (mostly) believes that the world outside is a still-flaming lake of nuclear fire. SUDDENLY! a psychic FBI pig leads a SWAT team to their rescue.



The show is upbeat and cheerful and bright, but is at its core about how Kimmy handles this real trauma. It's not cute or coy or disingenuous. She has real troubles and struggles, even in this sitcommy setting. The show is committed to being joyful, to being unbreakable, so it tackles the pain smiling as much as it can. Ten seconds at a time. I love that part of it, and Ellie Kemper plays it perfectly.

The show loses a little steam about halfway through the 13-episode season when it transitions out of episodic chapters showing Kimmy's adjustment to real life above ground. The second half of the season shifts toward resolving the bunker story line itself. In the beginning the bunker is the premise for the Kimmy story, now the bunker and the Reverend are the storyline itself. Will justice be served? Will our ladies be vindicated? Etc. In a way it feels like the story retrocesses at that point, but I hope there will be more seasons, and the idea that the Reverend might be dealt with and retreat into the landscape of Unbreakable is attractive. After all, I just want more Kimmy.

Tina Fey shows up in the last couple of episodes as a lawyer in the Reverend's trial, and her character is an absolute distracting mess who is written entirely unamusingly. And by that I mean, just not funny.

I have high hopes that the writing will tighten back up in season two. Hopefully the slide in writing was a result of being carried of by the plot, not of writing for Netflix instead of NBC.

So that's the review. I could continue with a more in-depth somethin'-somethin', but I'd rather go off and talk about one (the dominant) theme in the show. The end of the review is: if you're a grown-up, watch it. It's good and it will make you happy.

So...

The brilliant Tina Fey is a big macho feminist of the interesting sort. That is, she's seldom strident, and she seems more interested in what women can do for themselves than what the world can give them.

Kimmy Schmidt is a woman, and was a girl when she was kidnapped by the Reverend. The most important thing about Kimmy's character is not that she's a survivor, or even a certain type of survivor. It's that she's female.

I have always been fascinated by the strength of women. I'm a huge guy. 6'9" and 300 pounds. I'm almost always the biggest and strongest human in the room. By far. I'm so big that I warp reality itself wherever I go. No, really. My size changes the behavior of men and women around me. Fear is very often (sadly) a part of their interaction. More often than not, people like me, but I am always treated with either respect or fear, without having to earn it.

I'm not tooting my own horn. Although I'm used to it and I take advantage of it, I don't like it. But I want you to understand my perspective when I say this. The most unimaginable thing to me about being a woman is knowing that at least half the adults in the world are stronger than I am. I can't even wrap my mind around that. And I think men generally are uncomfortable with that idea. We have to come to terms with turning into ninety-pound weaklings as we age, but girls grow up knowing that every man will be stronger than they are. It's just a female reality, and it fascinates me.

The opening theme song makes my eyes water every time I watch it. And I went on YouTube to watch it again and again. Now you watch it. Enjoy.


The theme song, mirabile visu, lays out the theme: Kimmy Schmidt is unbreakably strong as hell. Yea, verily, and females themselves are strong as hell.

Regardless of what feminist metanarrative allegory of history might be happening in that bunker as the Reverend keeps four women prisoner through lies and manipulation, the set-up is believable. Things like this happen and have happened. Between three scenarios of a man keeping four women prisoner by manipulation, a man keeping four men prisoner, and a woman keeping four men prisoner, the first is most believable.

The strength of women is an amazing thing. Men are builders and breakers, but women are unbreakable. Relatively speaking. All people are breakable. But men are glass and women are polycarbonate. They endure. And I love it and I wish I had some more of that.

That's Kimmy. She may be a victim, but she's all woman. She's polycarbonate.

Kimmy has a sidekick, Titus Andromedon, played by Tituss Burgess. And I hate him. Although he's designed as a foil for Kimmy, he is always threatening to derail the show. The character is a failed New York actor, a black gay man who many years ago fled a marriage in Mississippi to pursue his dream of being a fabulous Broadway actor.

In the dominant narrative of our society, the three main classes of honored victim are: women, blacks, and gays. Titus is not a woman.

His principal role is to show off Kimmy's strength. He is defeated in life, but by irrepressible main strength she pulls him up with her on her path to recovery. The viewer can see his utility, but he ends up diluting the story, and I think it was inevitable. As soon as the writers made the decision to write a foil character who could also be classified as a victim, they were in trouble. They couldn't make his life actually traumatic, because he would compete with Kimmy. And in the show they make a point of this. We see in a flashback that Titus Andromedon, born Ronald Wilkerson, was prom king and a football star in high school. His great personal crisis was having to deflower cheerleaders.

It seems that Andromedon/Wilkerson, even though he did not grow up in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, had trouble figuring out who he was. We meet him as a man who has been defeated, but not, as the show wants you to believe, by circumstance. He is not defeated by how hard life as a black man, or a gay man, or a rejected actor is, although he could certainly have been written that way. His trouble is that he perceives himself as a victim. And I honestly don't know if this is because he was written to be lighter than Kimmy or because he was written to be someone the rest of us could empathize with.

Because that's who Andromedon is. He's the rest of us in our victim society. Life is so hard and woe is me and I'm a victim. Not only is Adromedon the sort of person, the autodenominated victim, who is becoming more and more normative in our society, he floats dangerously close to being the third, and most awful, kind of victim that our society acknowledges.

Kimmy Schmidt is the first kind of victim, the kind who is overwhelmed by a stronger agency and abused. Titus is mostly the second kind of victim, who I would say is not a victim at all, one who faced difficulties from within and without, and broke under them. This is a man with whom we can sympathize, even if we don't think he's a victim, because life is hard, and it breaks us, and there but for the grace of God go I. The third kind of victim is an insult to real victims everywhere, but it seems he is becoming more and more ubiquitous:

Our society now accepts that it does require abuse or trouble to make a victim. All you need are limitations. People who are limited are victims. People who want to do things they can't by nature do are victims. And so we are all victims.

This is why so many feminist women make themselves victims. They hate their limitations, so they take on victimhood. Interestingly, Tina Fey several times throughout the show calls out women for making themselves victims. Kimmy, who actually is one, is struggling to not allow herself to be defined by it. Fey wants women, and people, to be like the unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but she threatens to sabotage her own show in the person of Titus.

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.

Kimmy Schmidt is a true victim, kidnapped and coerced and abused, and, it is presumed, raped. But she's alive, dammit. She is a victim who decides not to stop being a victim, for she never can do that, but who decides to live a life of gratitude and joy. Titus Andromedon, on the other hand, is a troubled man who has had troubles. Troubles are real, and some take them harder than others. And some men are stronger than others. But troubles and difficulties don't make you a victim. If all you have are troubles, you have to decide to make yourself a victim.

Earlier on I encouraged you to watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I hope you do. I hope you don't let Titus Andromedon keep you away. It might help you to know that he's ably played/camped up by Burgess. So he's funny in a formulaic way. Just believe that Kimmy as played by Ellie Kemper is well worth your time. She is beautiful, and life can be beautiful, even in the middle of all this death and disease and disaster.

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