“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” has attracted a lot of attention for its treatment of post-apocalyptic cults. But that’s not actually the most radical or unusual thing about “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Instead, it’s that this weird, lively little show that has the audacity to tell a story about surviving sexual trauma, is a comedy, rather than a competitive exercise in how far and how fast television can descend into the gritty darkness.
It’s fairly common for dramas to have rape plots, whether to explain aspects of a female character’s personality, or to draw her more directly into a cycle of violence and retribution. These stories can be done well, as with the reveal in “The Americans” that KGB spy Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) was raped during her training. Or they can be handled so poorly that showrunners aren’t even aware they’ve told us a story about a rape, as was the case on the last season of “Game of Thrones,” when the series’ creators seemed surprised that audiences saw an encounter between Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and her brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as a sexual assault.
It’s much rarer for comedies to take on rape as a subject. “All In the Family,” which had a strong focus on social issues, had two story arcs about the attempted rapes of Gloria (Sally Struthers) and her mother Edith (Jean Stapleton). In both storylines, punchlines yielded to the real fear and anger Gloria and Edith felt about being attacked. “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” an FX comedy with a sense of humor that’s as dark as the void of space, approaches the subject with its typical scabrousness. In the first season, Charlie Kelly’s (Charlie Day) friends become convinced that he was molested by a gym teacher; Charlie’s friend Mac (McElhenney) got jealous that he hadn’t been attacked as well; and the whole thing turns out to be a lie.
Unlike these other shows, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” conceals its bitter pills in sweet shark gummies.
In keeping with Kimmy’s own response to her trauma, the show is vague about what she actually experienced in captivity. “Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker,” she tells Titus irritably in the pilot. Kimmy goes out with Grant Belden (John McMartin) a wealthy, elderly veteran because he is so senile that she can confess all her secrets to him without fear of judgement. “Sometimes the reverend would braid our hair together,” she tells him with disgust. It’s possible that some of the “weird sex stuff in the bunker” happened between the women themselves. The younger girls made a fake boyfriend out of a can so they could practice kissing, and Kimmy pretended to be Cyndee’s (Sara Chase) boyfriend, chauffeuring her around on fake dates. Donna Maria (Sol Miranda) mentions making out with Gretchen (Lauren Adams).
But seeing her fellow Mole Women doesn’t seem to be what triggers Kimmy’s anxiety. There’s something else there, complicating Kimmy’s efforts to have the grown-up romantic life she so desperately wants, but may not be ready for. (She pronounces the idea of taking a lover “gross” and sends her co-worker Charles (Andrew Ridings) a picture of a penis because “I read that people text them to each other!”)
Kimmy attacks Charles when he puts his hands over her eyes, and whales on her friend Cyndee’s fiancé (Brandon Jones) when she mistakes him for a mugger. She chokes her roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess) in her sleep and wakes up cleaning a knife in the shower. “You yell in your sleep. You bite my nails. And we still don’t know why you’re afraid of Velcro,” Titus tells her, begging Kimmy to see a therapist she can’t afford. She has nightmares of dates that end back in the bunker. And later, when we see Kimmy hooking up with her boyfriend Logan (Adam Campbell), she’s got a hand over his face, pushing him a way. She plays it as sexual ignorance, but the gesture is too disturbing to be merely a goof.
“Within the show itself, we don’t physically see the things that went on during that time,” Kemper explained when I spoke to her in January. “The focus is, instead, on overcoming that, and how you move forward from something as traumatic as that. Because while this is certainly severe in its degree of intensity, everyone has horrible things that have happened…Whatever coping mechanisms she called on to get her through this terrible time, they were effective.”
I have mixed feelings about the decision “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” makes to elide Kimmy’s actual experiences in the bunker, a primness that seems like a potential holdover from the time when it seemed like the show would air on NBC rather than on Netflix. It’s a choice that saps some of the power from the trial of Kimmy’s kidnapper later in the season, making him seem charming and weird, but not truly malevolent. At the same time, it’s a choice that forces us to abide by Kimmy’s decisions about how she’ll see herself. We can’t define Kimmy by the abuse she experienced if we don’t know exactly what happened.
Some of the best jokes in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” grow out of the fact that Kimmy’s so naive that she doesn’t always recognize when she’s been harassed. In one episode, her sunny response to a construction worker who cat-calls her so befuddles the man that he ends up questioning his own sexual orientation. Later, when she’s saved from wandering into an unmarked van to buy alcohol, she tells her rescuer, “I finally have a bra that fits right, thanks to that bra salesman in the other van!”
These bits are simultaneously incredibly dark and utterly triumphant. Returning to the world doesn’t mean Kimmy will never be harassed or attacked again. But at least out in the free world, Kimmy’s optimism is a kind of superpower, the same force that lets her swing a full 360 degrees on a swing set. This isn’t just a matter of Kimmy toughening up to survive in New York: her outlook on the world transubstantiates sexist harassment into entertaining adventures.
“I was kept in a bunker for fifteen years by an insane preacher. I thought the world had ended. I thought I would die there,” Kimmy tells her boss, Jaqueline (Jane Krakowski), “But I survived, because that’s what women do.” By the end of the first season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Kimmy’s life is her own again, not the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne’s (Jon Hamm) and certainly not ours. No wonder she wants to spend her new found freedom looking for a guy who will bring her “the traditional meat and flowers of Indiana courtship” rather than slogging through television’s prescribed period of trauma and recovery. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is the rare show that recognizes you don’t have to break a heroine on-screen just to show strong she really is.