Season 3 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, is a rare demonstration of the way to extend a joke without strain or loss of humor. Kimmy, the creation of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, seemed initially like a Saturday Night Live sketch that got stretched and stretched to the breaking point. Kimmy, who was kidnapped by a cult leader and raised without access to the outside world, was a perfect vessel for Ellie Kemper’s already established comic persona — the plucky innocent. But in shifting from a co-star on The Office to the central figure here, Kemper’s character would have to become a more fully developed person, right?
Season 3 suggests: Ehhh, maybe not! True, things have moved along for Kimmy. In a kind of big development, she’s applying to college in the new season. And her cult leader-slash-husband, Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) wants a divorce. But basically, Kimmy is the same Kimmy, energetically literal-minded (she thinks “caffeine-free” means “you don’t have to pay extra for the caffeine”).
By now, Fey’s joke structure here (extended to other episode writers as well) is as formally distinctive as the gag writing of Woody Allen in his early, standup-comic career or Robert Benchley in his New Yorker essays. Fey’s primary method is to take a common phrase and push it one step further into absurdity, as when Kimmy says, “I signed up yesterday and I’ve been raking in cash … and leaves!” (She then pulls a few leaves out of her pockets, naturally.) Rather than seeming repetitive, the predictability of such joke construction is almost exciting — after the punch line, you get the added thrill of admiring the way Fey and company have pulled off yet another fine, not-at-all-dumb “dumb” joke. (“Rhino-poaching? Who cares how rhinos are cooked?”)
The new season contains an admirable parody of Beyoncé’s Lemonade via the slinky contortions of Kimmy’s pal Titus (Tituss Burgess), who also auditions for Sesame Street. (Burgess has become the show’s extravagantly talented gateway into just about any sort of pop-culture parody it wants to pursue.) Plus, there’s the welcome, increased presence of Carol Kane as landlady Lillian, who’s now entering politics.
Three seasons in, Kemper’s performance has become remarkably nuanced for such a slapsticky, cartoonish creation, and Kimmy Schmidt herself is starting to look like the indomitable figure that the title’s “unbreakable” was always meant to signify.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is streaming now on Netflix.
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