The bifurcated fourth season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt begins with an homage to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as Kimmy (Ellie Kemper)—still getting her feet wet at a parodic tech giant called Giztoob—tosses her cap straight into a tree. Compared to Mary Richards’ earnest celebration of her new life in Minneapolis, it’s a playful goof on a traditional sitcom’s title sequence, which Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt already auto-tuned to earworm perfection (“They alive, damnit!”) when it debuted in 2015. At the same time, though, it’s a rather forlorn signal that Robert Carlock and Tina Fey’s once-brilliant confection, which I described at the time as a “bright, zippy, absolutely hilarious depiction of loneliness, human frailty, and abject failure,” has lost sight of what it is, or was. “Little girl, big city!” Kemper’s co-star, Jane Krakowski, sings on both ends of the new season’s first half. “This is the show now.”
TV series evolve over time, of course, and Kimmy—one of four women held captive in an underground bunker by wedding DJ, doomsday cultist, and serial rapist Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) for 15 years—has always been a heroine ripe for transformation. Much of Kimmy’s arc, including a terrific Season Two subplot guest-starring Fey as an alcoholic therapist, has focused, and rightly so, on trauma’s long reach; from re-introducing herself to the world to confronting the “men’s rights activist” (Bobby Moynihan) justifying Wayne’s criminal history, Kimmy continues to reckon honestly, haltingly, with an almost unimaginable experience—and this on the same program responsible for the iconic musical numbers “Peeno Noir” (“an ode to black penis”) and “Daddy’s Boy” (an ode to old penis or young ass, depending on your point of view). On the face of it, then, the fourth season should be a coup, bringing Kimmy’s repeated sexual assault at the hands of the reverend to bear on its brutal treatment of the real-world men already attempting to “make a comeback” months after being accused of widespread misconduct, or worse.
But it’s not.
I should stipulate here that even the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt I praised for its awfully funny acknowledgement that “life beats you up” had its glaring blind spots. Its promiscuous approach to issues of race and racism—wealthy society wife Jacqueline Voorhees’ (Krakowski) secret Native American heritage; aspiring actor Titus Andromedon’s (Tituss Burgess) one-man show about his past life as a geisha; a bridge-to-nowhere plot about re-naming the Washington Redskins—has been so uniformly clumsy for so long I couldn’t even muster surprise at the new season’s iffy (and fast-scuttled) examination of white privilege, set inside a Korean nail salon. (Race is the central bugbear of the Fey/Carlock fictional universe, their insurmountable Everest.) Still, for all its foibles, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt felt like an ambitious new frontier for its creators, applying 30 Rock’s madcap sensibilities to more forbidding subject matter, and unearthing in the process a sort of apocalyptic comedy: How do you maintain a modicum of optimism, the series asked, when your world has already fallen apart?
In the past, the series often succeeded in integrating its pop-cultural comedy and the serious topic of men’s violence against women, most memorably in an admirably screwy arc from the second season in which Kimmy’s landlord, Lillian (Carol Kane), starts dating Robert Durst (Fred Armisen). And to an extent, that still holds. There’s a smart critique of the manipulations of true crime in the new season’s much-lauded (if profoundly derivative) spoof of the genre, Party Monster; an entire episode is built around a high-school production of Beauty and the Beast, through which Kimmy learns that fairy tales are “not a model for how to treat girls.” (If Netflix fails to give Burgess a spinoff in which Titus works as a School of Rock-style substitute drama teacher, I’m canceling my subscription.)
But on the whole—or the half, as it were, given the befuddling decision to hold the series’ final six episodes until 2019—Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is no longer the same sunny comedy about the terrors of living, singing in tune with The Mary Tyler Moore Show (“We’re gonna make it after all!”), albeit in minor key. It’s become another Fey/Carlock meta-sitcom, one in which most of the gags worth commenting on have a distinctly “insider baseball” air. True crime, binge-watching, a Sex and the City-style series with the tagline, “Forty is the new flirty”; a September issue-sized TV Guide, a fake cable procedural (The Capist) not starring Greg Kinnear, “gritty dramas and women unwrapping crinkly packages.” Maybe the (half-) season’s funniest line belongs to Titus, who describes being papered over with posters for Showtime’s Liev Schreiber vehicle, Ray Donovan, which he mellifluously mispronounces before exclaiming, “Who or what?!”
Though I can’t say this is an entirely unwelcome development—self-aware humor of this sort is catnip to me, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has always had a firmer grip on the modern Hollywood machine than “identity politics”—it’s hard not to feel as though the series’ long goodbye is also a slow retreat. (Indeed, a number of Season Four’s frustrations, including its dreadful plotting, are holdovers from Season Three: That shit was harder to follow than one of Lillian’s stories.) Kimmy’s transformation from “Mole Woman” to career woman was always going to be the most difficult plate to keep spinning, if only because the childlike enthusiasm of the first season was bound to dissipate as time wore on. I suppose if I believed this were the question Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is now asking—not only whether it’s possible to retain a modicum of optimism in a world run by cynics, sycophants, criminals, and con men, but also whether it’s wise—I’d be willing to forgive its foibles, as I did at the start.
But I don’t.
Because, in the end—and here is the second bugbear of the Fey/Carlock fictional universe—it’s not clear that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s self-aware streak extends to, well, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The midseason finale, for instance, finds Kimmy under pressure to pen a “super sad” memoir about her experiences, rather than the YA allegory for “the monster inside you” she’d prefer to write: “People see you as a Mole Woman,” her publisher says, in one of the season’s more lacerating moments. “And it’s my job to keep you in that box.” The concern I’m expressing, ultimately, is that there’s now something box-like about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, placing the reserves of sorrow and rage that have always threatened to consume our heroine at further and further removes. It’s become a thought experiment, an abstraction, a careful exaggeration, slowly but surely whittling away the emotional messiness of the earlier seasons until the very thing that made it such a creative risk—that part about loneliness, frailty, abject failure—is harder and harder to pin down. There’s nothing wrong with imitating 30 Rock, of course, or goofing good-naturedly on Mary Tyler Moore, but it’s not the series I found myself rooting for. I guess this is the show now, and that’s quite a shame.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.