Watching any episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is always a frothy, fun delight.
Saturated in a cartoonish, often surreally colourful fashion, where the quirky and the everyday sit happily side-by-side, and populated by characters prone to pronouncements that make sense only to them (and yet somehow make sense to us even so), the sitcom, created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, and now in its third season on Netflix, is an Alice in Wonderland-ish joy to watch.
But even more than being a visually comedic confectionary wonder, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has managed here and there to create moments of real emotional resonance, proving that even over the top sitcom denizens can learn and grow and become better people.
And make you feel something for people that in lesser hands might never have evolved beyond their giddily cartoonish personas.
This rare ability to be both utterly, unstintingly goofy and just plain daffy and deeply meaningful has come together to a triumphant degree in season 3 where characters such as Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) and Lillian (Carol Kane) have grown in leaps and bounds, building on character development in season 2 that really pays off in the new season.
That’s not to say that Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) and Titus (Tituss Burgess) didn’t get their own arcs – Kimmy got her GED, went to Columbia (not the place that makes the tapes btw) and almost became a crossing guard; Titus ate his paychecks, had relationship issues and almost made it onto Sesame Street (damn that Muppet-strewn casting couch!) – but they ended the seasons largely as they began them with no massive leaps forward.
(That’s not say they didn’t grow but it wasn’t as dramatic, though no less entertaining, as some of the sitcom’s memorable supporting characters.)
Let’s look at Lillian for starters.
With her ex-husband’s body still in the wall of her tipped sideways tugboat house, Lillian decides that the only way to make her mark and fight for the preservation of down in the dumps East Dogmouth (long may it look like a pre-gentrification eyesore!) is to for district council under the slogan “The future is then!”
Surprisingly and largely thanks to Kimmy’s sole vote, she makes it in but discovers, to her horror, that politics is a messy business where high ideals – Lillian may seem daffy as hell and she is but her heart is most definitely (mostly) in the right place – don’t always win the day.
But while she can’t hold off the arrival of a Big Naturals big box supermarket in the neighbourhood, despite a valiant filibuster (undone by Kimmy bringing the wrong tea) – kinda necessary given that Titus actually gets scurvy, a product of buying their fruit and vegetables (read none at all) at a discount variety store – Lillian can open herself to love which she briefly does with Artie, the mogul behind the Big Naturals who it turns out is a pretty decent guy, having scrabbled his way up from poor roots.
He may be rich and technically everything Lillian abhors but his heart, like Lillian’s, is in the right place and the two lovebirds are a defining feature of the sitcom until Lillian decides that her man, who suffers from a congenital heart issue and won’t use his power and wealth to skip the queue for a donor heart, might die and leave her grieving and she can’t wait around for that.
Lillian’s arc is the season is notable not simply because she got way more screen time than you might have expected at the start of season 1 when she’s just the weird landlady, but because she came to understand that ideals and principles are one thing, living them out quite another, and that sometimes you have to be a little flexible with them to get things done.
That she would so fall for Artie that she’d consider going against everything she believes to save his life is indicative of how much she has grown; not that she’d abrogate her principles but rather that she comes to understand that life doesn’t always bow to your will and you must seek accommodation with it.
This realisation added some real pathos and emotional depth to her character, a woman who despite her shifts and bends still couldn’t abide dressing as Jacqueline for anything longer than one torturous shopping trip.
Jacqueline, on the other hand, found that shoes that actually fit your feet and loose-fitting dresses are the absolute bomb, even turning up to pick up Buckley one day in Lillian’s clothes (not her choice but she lived).
She had the biggest arc of everyone, genuinely moving from shallow, vapid golddigger who couldn’t imagine not suffused with wealth and propped up by a generous sugar daddy, to a woman prepared to lay it all on the line to change the name of the Washington Redskins and honour her oft-hidden but now rather haphazardly embraced Lakota Sioux heritage.
All this happened because of her marriage to Russ (David Cross), the black sheep of the Snyders who own the NFL team, who in lieu of being loved by his family, invests his time in fighting injustice all around the world.
Starting a relationship with him, Jacqueline found herself falling in love with him instead, drawn to his selflessness and willingness to give himself up for others; and even when he emerges from his coma (he gets flattened by an electric car in what is one of many hilariously silly scenes in this season) as a new studly handsome version of himself (hello to the luscious Billy Magnusson!) and effectively renounces who he was in favour of love from his family, triggering the end of their relatinship, Jacqueline is a woman transformed.
She decides to get a job, and stand on her own two feet, something that you couldn’t have imagined her doing when season 1 kicked off and Kimmy met a woman who thought nothing of throwing away full unopened bottles of water if they weren’t wanted, and it is an absolute delight to behold.
Both Lillian and Jacqueline are representative of what can happen when you keep the essential framework and feel of a show intact – Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt remains a bright sugary melange of visual slapstick and hilarious over the top silliness – but let its characters breathe and growth, adding substance and emotional to what is already a brilliantly-good sitcom and i the process, going very close to turning it into a classic.
For a full episode recap, go to Refinery 29.