Six episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
I stand by my praise of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s peerlessly bizarre freshman season. Co-creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock crafted a world that not only felt weirdly truthful as its characters ran rampant through satisfying emotional beats, but was just plain weird. Robot maids were killed off, Don Draper was a maniacal cult leader, and ATMs gave out negative dollar bills. To put it plainly, Netflix saved a show that undoubtedly would never have seen its due on NBC. The cherry on top was a central theme of individuality, polished to a shine thanks to some welcomely diverse personalities that could have veered into grating stereotypes in lesser hands.
Now that Fey and Carlock have the canvas to run rampant with Netflix’s nebulous time restraints, not to mention a newly devout fanbase that knows the ins and outs of every Peeno Noir and Daddy’s Boy by heart, it’s tempting to say some drastic changes were made to Kimmy and the gang this go-around. But, in all honesty, not much has changed. That’s a good and bad thing (it’s mostly good). The show’s second year is comparably weird and its stars are as reliably brilliant as ever but, if anything, Fey and Carlock simply never manage to outdo their opening salvo.
A lot of that stems from some inconsistent, and lamely ordinary, character arcs that are spread out across the first six episodes. The season opens back in New York, with Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) dealing with the fallout of her imploding relationship with Dong (Ki Hong Lee), and a spiraling Jacqueline
Voorhees White (Jane Krakowski), who might need to move into her and Titus’ (Tituss Burgess) crappy apartment. That’s all on top of a new job Kimmy has netted at a year-round Christmas store, which requires extra plate-spinning once Ms. White steps back into the upper-crust of the NYC elite.
It’s a cliché, but I don’t think it’s ever been more apt to use than for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kemper was born to play Kimmy. The propulsive kernel of joy and effusive energy she generates in the decrepit pits of the show’s truly awful vision of Manhattan is the reason Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt works, repeatedly, and exhaustively. Season 2 makes some subtext from season 1 a bit more pointed – “Mississippi was my bunker,” Titus confesses to Kimmy early on – but it works because of how hard we’ve seen Kimmy strain to stay afloat on her positivity, and not succumb to the malaise and cynicism of her new basement-dwelling friend group. It’s her resilience that makes her endearing, far more than her never-ending sprightliness.
She’s also aware of her flaws, unlike fellow bunker dweller and repeat cult follower Gretchen (Lauren Adams), whom Kimmy decides to teach how to be her own woman in one of the season’s best, pummeling, long-winded gags that wrings in everything from Apple fandom to the final shot of Mad Men. “I’m like a lollipop with a question mark on its wrapper,” Kimmy admits early in the season, to a stranger-slash-her future boss. “I don’t know what’s going on inside!” That’s a not-half-bad summation of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as a whole.
Now that introductions are long gone, the best part of season two is a show that’s already found its groove and can lean into it from the get-go. Burgess milks that for all its worth, netting some big plots focused on the mysterious marriage mentioned last year and the out-of-nowhere return of that tasty little Bob the Builder, Mikey (Mike Carlsen).
Burgess is worth every second of screen time, navigating through the ridiculous dialogue thrown at him as swiftly as he lines up nicknames for his new best friend (Kim-Blake Nelson, Justin Kimberlake, K-Pax, etc.) And, yeah, he sings again; the impact of the new song’s cultural devastation in the wake of Peeno Noir is something only the internet will be able to decide. It’s not quite as meme-worthy, but it’s gleefully subversive Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt through-and-through.
Actually, it’s also a good metaphor for a problem Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has in its sophomore run: its funniest, most memorable moments are built on callbacks to last year. Some work far better than others, especially in a sweet bonding scene between Mikey and Titus that recalls the latter’s one-man rendition of The Lion King. But others feel lame and lazy, twisting previous catch-phrases with easily noticeable additions, failing to craft something as instantly quotable as season 1.
A few downright run-of-the-mill subplots compound the retread issue into the worst (and thankfully minuscule) parts of season 2: little laughs, and frustrating stories. An episode midway through the season, with pedestrian dramatic crises (Titus is sad because he’s too happy, Kimmy is still obsessed with Dong) and particularly egregious retread humor, is thankfully the crescendo of the show’s new problems.
Jacqueline’s storyline mostly combats that, providing the new season with a through-line nearly as clear as Kimmy’s in season 1, and ending with a nice payoff in the sixth episode. It all starts with her return to her Native American roots (here again, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt leans into its groove, even if some lambasted its racial inaccuracies last year), and discovering that her true place might actually be where she ran away from. Krakowski is as heightened as ever, but once things slow down for her and tiny terror Buckley (Tanner Flood), there’s a sweetness unearthed in Jacqueline that we rarely got to see in season 1, or in most of seven seasons of 30 Rock.
Don’t get too excited for the dizzying potential between a buddy pairing of her and Lillian (Carol Kane), hinted at during last year’s finale, because its nowhere to be seen in the first six episodes. Still, Jacqueline evolves nicely – and believably – in season 2, navigating the world of her prickly friend group (Anna Camp joins the cast in a funny, bitchy cameo) and discovering that maybe what she should be learning to navigate is motherhood.
Kimmy herself doesn’t have as much a clear goal yet in season 2 (besides that resurgence of Dong), and it befits the scattered overview of the season as a whole. She balances her two jobs (Jacqueline’s non-paying, of course), with a pop-in presence to other stories that let the show’s ensemble shine. This year the cast extends to a larger presence from Mimi Kanasis (Amy Sedaris), whose facial contortions, and a bipolar friendship with Jacqueline, fuel abundant belly laughs. Lillian still feels like a bit of an extraneous third wheel of weirdness, but her budding relationship with Robert Durst (yes, that Robert Durst, and I won’t spoil who he’s played by) is subtly superb.
Technically, it’s hard to criticize Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s hysterical nonsense for being more, or less, nonsensical in comparison to a season where a guy gifted Kimmy with a live dolphin. There are applicably idiosyncratic oddities in season 2 (try to keep an eye out for Jacqueline’s new furniture), but they’re just less special, less refined, this time around.
“The real you is full of crazy nonsense,” Kimmy tells a distraught, confused Gretchen at one point, trying to help her realize that the only cult leader she needs is herself. The great part of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is when it uses such enthusiastic, individualistic ideas as fist-pumping messages of personal empowerment, and the giddiest part is when it does so absolutely neck-deep in its own intrinsic strangeness. The show’s maniacal co-creators have crafted a series that’s rising head-and-shoulders above its peers, and there are a lot of great parts of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt season 2. But, at the same time, there is an ever-so-slightly lesser amount of giddily inventive ones.
There's a rehash quality to some jokes and stories in season 2, but Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is still peerlessly peculiar, packing the same wicked sense of smart silliness that audiences loved in its freshman run.