For as much as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a live-action cartoon, it always had a strange sense of ambition. The first season flirted with the darkness of trauma and victimization. The second played with a season-long mystery that started from the first minute. Now the anticipated third season has the odd audacity to simply do less but with a surprising amount of refinement.
You can tell from the first shot of Titus (Tituss Burgess) washing up on a beach Inception-style, fully clothed with zero context. It first off sets up the overall arc of Titus returning from working on a cruise ship at the behest of his boyfriend Mikey (Mike Carlsen), but it also lays out the season’s show-wide crux that each character becomes their own focus. Almost immediately, romances lingering from past seasons fall to the wayside so that everyone can start with a single goal and grow with it.
This is across the board, though some stories find more success than others. Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) herself is the weakest of them all despite this being the strongest and most in-control she’s ever been. Save for a few choice moments—including the categorically insane scene where her naive and twisted understanding of philosophy allows her to simultaneously defeat the future and become a crossing guard—things continue to just happen at her while she somehow also manages to fix other people’s problems.
It’s nice seeing, however, that Kimmy’s story has stopped revolving so much around both being a Mole Woman and trying to make dating work. There are still a few episodes that touch on those, but they’ve ceased to identify her character. Even with the inclusion of Hamilton star Daveed Diggs as blossoming collegiate philosopher Perry, their relationship is mostly about providing avenues for goofs and jokes. (Honestly, a sad waste of Diggs’ potential, but they eventually find the exact right use towards the end.)
Through the collective absurdity of Kimmy and her friends—let’s be honest: even her enemies are her friends—we are treated to a cavalcade of cameos that are *chef kiss* impeccable. (Including an amazing amount of returning 30 Rock favorites.) The opening attempt to divorce the Reverend (Jon Hamm) from Kimmy gives us the amazing performance of Laura Dern as his soon-to-be wife Wendy. She plays the character with an eerie but beautiful sense of ignorance until she lays into an unprecedented amount of gravitas and drama with her reason why.
Ray Liotta also gets his hand on the ball with Paulie, a dedicated gas station owner and even more dedicated boat enthusiast. His episode “Kimmy Pulls Off a Heist!” gives him a chance to channel shades of Goodfellas while Kimmy and Titus indulge in a new level of vaudevillian ridiculousness. It is easily the best episode of the season where this entire New York pocket universe devolves into a crime drama.
That episode is also the greatest culmination of Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) and her continuing endeavour to both grow beyond and embrace her Native American heritage. She may also be the only character that persists through her relationship for the entire season, but her story is no longer defined by it as it was with Julian. It’s sad that this results in less David Cross as Russ Snyder, but giving Jacqueline greater agency in figuring out what she wants from her life is pretty great.
Perhaps the only person to actually pick up a significant other is Lillian (Carol Kane), but it still gives her a sense of focus and independence since it drives her out of the unsettling arms of Bobby Durst (Fred Armisen) and into the perfectly foiled casual nature of Artie Goodman (Peter Riegert). It pushes her past her dwelling on her last long love Roland (who you do finally get to see) as well as into a reckoning of her entrenched position against gentrification.
Xanthippe (Dylan Gelula) also gets her fair share of development and growth in this season as she endures her first year of college, but her and everyone else’s story pales in comparison to Titus’ tale. He comes to terms with his desire to be in a relationship while exploring an incredible breadth of career options including Sesame Street‘s Gordon, pop singer with a hit about West Coast breasts, and secretly straight but double secretly gay wet blanket. If you thought you could not become more obsessed with Titus, you are wrong.
Unfortunately for all this narrative ambition and maturity, these characters and the show’s format are all still ill equipped to handle this emotionality. It often results in some of the jokes feeling more miss than hit as an overwrought spectre hangs over the scene. The show’s stellar capacity for wringing jokes out of otherwise dry social commentary—ranging from millennial wokeness to America’s unending and overflowing stores of vitriol—is still there, but the goofs come across more as an errant shotgun blast than ever.
If that’s the sacrifice demanded, though, for grander narrative goals, then that’s fine by me. After taking these first few seasons in establishing this colorful gallery of misfits, I’d much rather see them become interesting people instead of dead cork boards on which to hang jokes about the Internet. As a result, this third season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is far from effortless and a bit less charming, but it still has enough wit and personality to make up for it.
Final Score: 8 out of 10