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TV Club: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a joke factory with heart

After the murky moralizing of “Kimmy Goes to a Play!,” Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt needed to bounce back with an episode playing more to its strengths. With “Kimmy Kidnaps Gretchen!,” it does just that. The sheer density of jokes in any given scene on this show is staggering. Every line presents an opportunity for a joke. “You know how I roll,” Titus says to Lillian of his tendency to kick men out of his life after sleeping with them. “And I’m not talking about the time I fell into a trash can on top of a hill.” The rapid one-liners are one thing, but Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt also packs in jokes that land on multiple levels, like when Cyndee Pokorny—Kimmy’s bunkermate who makes a brief return—greets Kimmy on the phone with “Hiya, Kimmy! It’s Cyndee Pokorny! We put a mad man in jail together!” Cyndee’s upbeat sincerity in her introduction is funny, but it’s also dressed up with a meta reference to Jon Hamm’s casting as the reverend. Then Kimmy Schmidt doubles down on the joke later when Kimmy rants about the reverend’s psycho-liar tendencies and says he “claimed he came up with the Buy The World A Coke commercial.” Hell, the episode even makes its Apple product placement funny without betraying the show’s voice.

Yep, Kimmy Schmidt is often a masterclass in joke writing in the same way 30 Rock was. But as “Kimmy Kidnaps Gretchen!” makes very clear, the characters aren’t just shouting one-liners into the abyss. The jokes live and breathe in a clearly defined world and act as embellishments for the stories the show tells. “Kimmy Kidnaps Gretchen!” moves the story forward and presents a lot of complex ideas about survival, change, identity, and vulnerability without ever letting up on the comedy pedal. Most notably, there’s a very grounded and touching love story presented in the episode through the burgeoning romance between Titus and Mikey. As over-the-top and theatrical as Titus is, he has never seemed like mere decoration for the show. He’s a real character with real feelings, and “Kimmy Kidnaps Gretchen!” puts those feelings centerstage during his first date with Mikey, the construction worker who resurfaced two episodes ago.

It’s the first time Mikey has gone out with a guy, and Mike Carlsen plays the character’s bewilderment with an adorable dose of wide-eyed sincerity. He does research on the different subcategories of gay men and decides he’s an otter, which got him “pretty into otters as a species.” Mikey doesn’t fall back on toxic internalized homophobia. He’s nervous about his new, open life, but he isn’t self-loathing. The only real side effects of his construction-worker life are seen in his attempts to flirt with a bouncer…which basically amounts to him cat-calling the bouncer. Mikey has the same kind of bright optimism in the face of difficulty that Kimmy possesses. And like her, that makes him the perfect counterbalance to Titus’s blithe cynicism. But even more so than Kimmy, Mikey’s personality has a palpable impact on Titus. He’s cute and emotionally honest and down-to-earth. He wants a life of sweaters and big dogs and cooking, which is all too cute to handle even though it’s undeniably not very Titus Andromedon. Titus breaks his stringent rule of never eating on a date to try some of Mikey’s falafel and ends up feezing (“that’s a food sneeze”) all over Mikey, who laughs. Titus can be whoever he wants around Mikey, who doesn’t mind seeing him in his “cocoon goo.”

But after bonding with Mikey over food and The Lion King, Titus decides ultimately to not sleep with him. It seems like personal growth for Titus who, we’re told by Lillian, tends to just have one-night stands and then move on to the next one. But Titus claims he wants nothing to do with Mikey because they’re too different. But Mikey comes back for the tool he left behind when fixing Titus and Kimmy’s oven before their date. “No one ever comes back,” Titus says. His version of an Xbox is actually an “ex-box”—a cardboard box filled with the treasures past lovers have left behind, like insulin and a fake arm. Mikey is the first guy to come back and claim something he left, and it makes an impression on Titus, just as the reaction to the feeze and the candid conversation about The Lion King did. It all adds up, and Titus finally lets his guard down, agrees to try things out with Mikey. It’s unironically, unapologetically touching. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has never shied away from levity. It’s characters are struggling to survive in the rough-and-tumble world of New York, but they aren’t completely hardened by their hardships.

Kimmy, meanwhile, tries to save Gretchen, another bunkermate who keeps falling into cults in her post-bunker life. Gretchen was always the most trusting of the mole women, easily falling for the reverend’s trickery. After he’s put away, she gets a job of Apple, and the writers don’t have to reach all that far to make her description of the job and her eventual “excommunication” from it sound exactly like another cult. After Apple, Gretchen is seduced by the Church Of Cosmetology, and Kimmy steps in to try to make Gretchen realize she can live life on her own terms instead of just doing whatever controlling men tell her to do. Kimmy gives Gretchen a choose-your-own-adventure evening, and the plan quickly backfires when Gretchen’s self-made choices get increasingly unsafe—eating six different ice cream cones leads to adopting an adult pitbull leads to stealing a gun from a cop leads to snorting cocaine with costumed people. Gretchen doesn’t know how to control her own life because she never has. Before the reverend, there was her strict gymnastics coach Sergei. It’s a sad and potent storyline. Yet again, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt paints a very complex picture of survivors. Gretchen handled the bunker and life outside of it much differently than Kimmy did. And Kimmy’s approach to post-bunker life doesn’t quite work for Gretchen. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to recovering from the kind of trauma they experienced. Kimmy instead has to teach Gretchen—through the help of a voice-changing app—to be her own cult leader. It’s a strangely poignant moment given how ridiculous it is, but that’s what Kimmy Schmidt is all about: finding the heart in its ridiculous and heightened world that feels cartoon and real all at once.

Stray observations

  • My favorite joke from the episode is when Titus pleads with Kimmy to not say what she thinks MILF stands for. “We already know it’s wrong!” he bellows over her emphatic “My Interesting Lady Friend!” Tituss Burgess and Ellie Kemper are wonderful comedic actors on their own, but there’s an extra special allure when they’re playing off each other.
  • After last episode’s “breakfast lunches” and this one’s “leakfast,” Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is taking a hard stance against brunch.
  • Lillian accidentally reveals that Titus and Kimmy are living in a modified tugboat.
  • “Let’s go to Red Hook with these poorpets and get pregnaaaaaant!”
  • The episode features several guest voice actors: Steve Buscemi, Kelsey Grammer, Patrick Stewart, and Dean Winters.
  • I want to watch an entire season of Bunny & Kitty.

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