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Binge Mode: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 4)

For a series that only lasted 51 episodes, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt burns through an incredible amount of material, both comedic and dramatic. Ostensibly about characters constantly looking back on their past decisions, UKS‘s penchant for barreling through plot development, character explanation, and running gags always made it a comedy constantly at war with itself. Despite that, there was always a strong emotional undercurrent to the ridiculous antics of Kimmy, Titus, and the gang, grounding their outlandish stories and dialogues with a rather powerful portrayal of the difficult struggle to rebuild oneself in the wake of major traumas. At least, that’s what UKS was early on: by the time the twelfth and final episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt season four ends with a disappointing whimper, what was once a quirky, willingly off putting comedy has morphed into an unrecognizable monster of wasted potential.

In fact, much of the final run of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt lacks the punch the first two seasons harnessed to wonderful effect: too focused on rehashing old plot lines, the first six episodes can barely find any room to breathe. The high-concept episode, “Party Monster: Scratching the Surface” is an abject disaster, an absolutely pointless Netflix true crime documentary satire that is questionably from frame one, the living epitome of the “what’s up fellow kids?” meme of Steve Buscemi on 30 Rock. Ludicrously staged and pointless, “Party Monster” sums up much of the first half of the final season: though it doesn’t feature a moment of Titus’ endless re-pursuit of Mikey or Lillian’s equally endless hatred of New York’s changing culture, “Party Monster” is a perfect distillation of the miscalculations that make this final season feel so dissonant with the first two seasons of the series.

What was once a quirky, willingly off putting comedy has morphed into an unrecognizable monster of wasted potential.

Even more strange is how inconsequential the first six episodes (which aired in May 2018) are to the final six hours of the series; about the only shared element of the two halves of the final season are their shared desperation to feel relevant. Like so many times in the show’s past, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt ultimately found the fourth wall to be the most unbreakable: while I applaud the show relentlessly shitting on men’s right activists, the alt-right, and the endless parade of misogyny in Hollywood, there’s no indication UKS is telling these stories except for the purpose of self-importance.

For fuck’s sake, they bring in Ronan Farrow to play himself at one point, a cameo so utterly pointless it reveals the entire masturbatory nature of the exercise. It’s not surprising: most Tina Fey-led series have historically struggled to engage with real-world politics and social dynamics (remember those godawful North Korea bits on 30 Rock?), but the show’s seeming exploitation of these stories in the final season is wildly disappointing. Did I mention they frame a lot of this story around a rape-y Muppet, while mimicking the same sexual harassment arc seen in BoJack Horseman four years ago? It’s really not good.

The third episode of the final half-season, however, is where the show really begins to fall apart: “Sliding Van Doors” is a remarkably awful hour of television, and a disappointing final chapter to the internal traumas Kimmy’s been slowly dealing with for the life of the series. “Sliding Van Doors” is an hour-long episode into an alternate world, exploring the lives of every character in a reality where Kimmy never becomes a mole woman. What happens during the first 52 minutes is not really all that important (but yes, it takes that long to get there), because the episode ends on the one of the weirdest notes imaginable, underhandedly suggesting that Kimmy and the other Mole Women getting kidnapped for 15 years was actually a good thing, that none of the characters would’ve ever grown and learned their necessary life lessons if the Mole Women hadn’t shit in a Halloween bucket for over a decade.

Once the never-ending head scratch of “Sliding Van Doors” is over, though, UKS enjoys a mini resurgence, if only for the running time of “Kimmy Finds A Liar!”. Kimmy writing a young adult book is a natural progression for her character (if a little on-the-nose), and seeing Lillian and Jacqueline struggle to adapt to their new roles in life is a hit of the good stuff, the times when UKS had a better grip on using comedy to channel tragic, difficult stories about human nature, even briefly revitalizing Titus’s endlessly selfless, Mad Libs-esque pursuit of happiness.

It feels like somewhere between writing the end of “Kimmy Finds A Liar!” and the beginning of “Kimmy Is Rich!*” everyone suddenly realized there was only an hour left, because the final two episodes of the series are an absolute shit show. “Kimmy Is Rich!*” suddenly becomes obsessed with being plot driven, after the wandering first ten episodes of the season only had the thin connective tissue of Mikey’s engagement, Titus’s career pursuits, and Kimmy’s time working for a tech start up (once again proving UKS‘s reputation of its uncanny ability to be meta and relevant is wildly overrated). Out of nowhere, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt suddenly slams on the gas, leaving itself no room to give life to a series of lifeless resolutions (not to mention some seriously dated jokes about Cats. Yes, Cats the musical).

I could go through each and every plot of those final two episodes and why they feel so dissonant with the rest of the series, but they all suffer from the exact same problem: after a series of pushing characters to really, really search for the good in the shit piles life hands us, everyone is handed their lives on a golden platter. Kimmy gets rich and opens an amusement park, Jacqueline falls into success and starts fucking her rival (Zachary Quinto, in a role that is both mind numbingly unfunny and needlessly ignorant), and Titus turns Mikey into a self-serving, dramatic asshole like himself (I mean, who hires their ex-boyfriend to sing at their fucking wedding? Really, Mikey?).

In the last five minutes of the series, very single character sells the fuck out: Kimmy makes the grand gesture to get her mom to love her she always avoided (the final scene with her mother is just upsetting), Lillian sells out to become a branded NYC attraction (the new voice of the MTA), and Jacqueline… well, it’s pretty clear UKS has had no idea what to do with her character since Kimmy stopped working for her halfway through the series (even Jane Krakowski isn’t good enough to cover that up). For a series always putting its brash humor and big, optimistic heart on its sleeve, it’s strange how quiet and thoroughly inert “Kimmy Says Bye!” is. There isn’t even mention or appearance of any other Mole Women in the final episode (or most of the final half-season, save for the whole “maybe it was a good thing” subplot): to say the final half hour betrays the series before it is an understatement.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt ends with a whisper of a whimper, in one of the strangest final half-seasons I can remember in recent memory. Part a byproduct of becoming The Titus Show 20 episodes into the series, and part a puzzling regression into two-dimensional storytelling in its final hours, it’s amazing what a warped, nonsensical show the final six episodes are, save for most of “Kimmy Finds A Liar!” (the return of Xanthippe in the final episode is a nice moment, too, really the only time the show taps into any of the early potential it once held). Instead of trying to change the world, everyone on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt instead just shrugged its shoulders and embraced things they way they were, a surprisingly empty, passive commentary on life for a show that was once so colorful and vibrant, it felt like a blast of fresh air to the single-camera comedy genre.

For me, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was always about laughing through tragedy, being resilient through change, and the struggle to find peace: most importantly, it was primarily framed around the stories of women, and their inherent, unspoken ability to withstand the bullshit of the universe. In the end, UKS just says to embrace the bullshit the way it is, and it will all work out for the best – an existential simplification that is just unforgivable, and one that forever taints the beautifully frustrating series that preceded it.


Other thoughts/observations:

  • one highlight: Busy Phillips as the entitled daughter of Lillian’s dead boyfriend.
  • There’s a whole side story about Titus pretending to date a straight dude, which just feels like a rehash of the Asian sex pillow episode of 30 Rock. I would’ve rather seen a lot more of him flirting with Jon Bernthal’s Ilan, whose character isn’t around nearly long enough.
  • Bobby Moynihan’s alt-right character swings wildly between savage satire and toothless, late era-SNL political humor. On the whole, it’s not great, Bob!
  • Am I the only one who thinks Anthony Atamanuik’s Donald Trump impression sucks? It sucks.
  • Take out the “Sliding Van Doors” episode and replace it with a half hour following around C.H.E.R.Y./L.
  • Can anyone explain the point of Tripp and Eli? At all?
  • Greg Kinnear plays himself for a couple episodes, because why the hell not?
  • There are aspects of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt I’ll undoubtedly miss, but none I don’t think could’ve been served better on different, more consistent shows.
Written By

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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