The world of television, much like the real, meat world we live in, is populated almost entirely with unlikeable people. And television, especially modern television, is built on the back of unlikeable, odious characters. Now, this is not to say these characters are not likeable as characters. It is to say that, were they to be real people, they would be worthy of contempt and scorn, if not outright hatred. Instead, because they are on TV, we love them.
This is not just a matter of dramas, what with all their “difficult men” and, occasionally, “difficult women.” Sitcoms work within the same parameters. And this is not a bad thing either, mind you. Homer Simpson is the greatest character in the history of pop culture. He’s also an unrepentant alcoholic, prone to raging violence. Not all shows that are filled with unlikeable characters are willing to steer into that curve either. Seinfeld wore the awfulness of its characters on its sleeve, but Friends is really just Seinfeld without the courage of its convictions, and New Girl is a show that works much better as a Seinfeld than a Friends, even if it always seems to lean more toward the latter.
These are just a couple of examples, but watching television mostly means spending time with a lot of unlikeable folks. That can be a tremendous amount of fun, but variety is the spice of life, some (presumably unlikeable) person once said. Which is why something new and exciting happened when Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt plopped down into our world. It was a break from tradition, and not just as a sitcom streaming on Netflix. The titular Kimmy Schmidt is just about the most likeable damn character in the history of television. Perhaps even the most likeable.
It’s a big claim, sure—the kind that seems to be dripping with both hyperbole and recency bias, the two ogres of internet commentary. However, it stands up to some deeper introspection. Kimmy Schmidt is a great character; funny and weird and charming and, yes, very likeable. If television gave out a Miss Congeniality award, Kimmy would win, hands down. (Also, this would just be a very weird thing to actually happen.)
Obviously, Kimmy’s plight to make it on her own, Mary Richards-style, makes her struggle something worth rooting for. It’s hard not to be on Kimmy’s side, to some degree. However, she’s more than just a woman who was rescued from a doomsday cult that was living in a hole in the ground. She’s an incredibly nice person, eternally helpful and is, generally speaking, a warm presence. She did punch a dude in the face, but in her defense, she’s just had her backpack (and ALL of her cash!) stolen, and was approached by two strange men in the club.
One reason so many TV characters are unlikeable is because it’s so easy to mine both drama and comedy out of people behaving poorly. If Basil Fawlty was a chill dude, where would the humor be derived from?
But the other tentpole comedy is built upon is stupidity, and that’s where a lot of the humor from Kimmy comes. Her life has left her ignorant to many things, making her the classic fish out of water. It’s tremendously funny to watch her navigate life, but, all the while, she has that positive energy that makes her a delightful presence on the computer screen. Plus, the fact that her ignorance is so excusable, given the circumstances, she’s not an object of ridicule and derision like, say, Andy on Parks and Recreation was.
And speaking of Parks and Recreation, a lot of people would probably proffer up Leslie Knope for the title of most likeable character on television. Yes, the exceedingly warm and positive world of Parks and Rec did offer up some fairly likable folks. However, Leslie’s intensity, while often justified, also pushed her over the edge, occasionally into an unlikeable realm. This is fine, and necessary from a storytelling perspective—and you could also argue that it is more believable. Certainly, verisimilitude is not the goal of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. If it was, it would be a very horrifying show, instead of a very funny one. Leslie Knope is frequently charming in her own right, but Kimmy Schmidt takes it to another level of likeability.
It’s also important to note that having a very likeable main character does not necessarily make the character good, or even all that interesting. Kimmy is a great character because Tine Fey and company wrote her in a complex, fantastic way, and because Ellie Kemper is awesome and should probably win the Emmy (even though Amy Poehler will be getting her final crack at it, and even though Julia Louis-Dreyfus is unlikely to stop being amazing in this upcoming season of Veep). Still, if nothing else, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has created a character whose warmth and innocence is as delightful as the show’s supremely catchy theme song. Likability is hard to come by, although it should also be said that Titus is not without his positive traits, and, you know, that Reverend Richard doesn’t seem like that bad of a guy, either. But Kimmy Schmidt has it in spades. Hopefully that won’t change in the second season.
Chris Morgan is an Internet gadabout who writes on a variety of topics and in a variety of mediums. If he had to select one thing to promote, however, it would be his ’90s blog/podcast, Existential Parachute Pants. (You can also follow him on Twitter.)