Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt exemplifies the best of what a show can be, and it perhaps is only capable of doing so because it’s ending. This fourth season is also the final one despite losing none of its steam from its prodigious premiere in 2015; it’s more a sign that, in full self-awareness, it is closing in on discovering what it was meant to be all along. And that is a dark, funny, and important lens through which we must peer.
It hasn’t veered off into wayward territory, mind you. It’s still a madcap and zany equivalent of a live-action cartoon. But it’s fully leaning into all the vital but underdeveloped undercurrents of past seasons. The first outing poked and prodded at the glorification of trauma by society with little purpose other than a winking awareness for laughs. But it took those little layers of dire humanity and shot for the goddamn moon.
Season two tore into the way time and humor normalizes something wholly evil; this was a bunker of kidnapped women psychologically and sexually abused by an uncaring man. And Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) carried that with her every day and into a broader public scrutiny when it’s revealed she was still married to “Reverend” Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm). And then season three took it a step further and explored these scars in the context of our contemporary society, filled with shame, repression, and stunted growth.
This final season (the first half, anyway, as the second half is scheduled to release early next year) goes all in, turning and staring into darker corners than before. Not to say Kimmy’s story isn’t challenging on its own, but as this season explores issues that are actively affecting the entire world on a large and depressing and deadly scale, it’s hard to not find this vibrant and bubbly reflection of our reality a sobering appropriation.
It most prominently addresses the #MeToo movement, looking directly at the dominance of sexual attackers in the entertainment industry, and it does so in a way only it can do it. We find Kimmy working at a startup following her departure from Columbia University, and she’s given her first dour task of having to fire someone as the head of HR. But in her attempt to turn a traditionally bummer of a task into a trademark Kimmy interaction, she falls into gaping pit of problems.
Short story shorter, Kimmy ends up with a sexual harassment complaint filed against her and has to investigate herself for sexual misconduct. And from our perspective of knowing Kimmy’s genuinely innocent intentions, our brains engage with the best sort of satire—the kind that seeps into your mind with a revelatory explosion. Because we’ve heard this all before: they misunderstood, I read the signals wrong, this is a fabrication, etc. And with Kimmy, it’s true.
But we’re not Kimmy. No one is. Not Morgan Freeman, not Charlie Rose, not anyone. It’s an incisive commentary that is both funny and grave, pointing at this joke before gesturing to the world around us. And the show keeps piling it on by building on its Mr. Frumpus thread and surgical one-liners.
That alone is normally an accomplishment for most shows, but this season also manages to explore facets that media has so far failed to address. It, for example, also tackles shades of privilege and feminism as Kimmy takes on a fight in a Korean nail salon. And it looks at how modern racism can appear light and casual on the surface as she shops for clothes with Titus (Tituss Burgess).
But none of it stacks up to the mold-breaking episode “Party Monster: Scratching the Surface,” a true crime documentary that features DJ Fingablast (Derek Klena) looking for a DJ worthy of spinning his wedding. Directed by Rhys Thomas of Documentary Now! fame, it is a mockumentary treasure that skewers the “white lady porn” sensation littering podcasts and, well, all of Netflix. It includes two of the best jokes of the entire series, let alone this season.
As Fingablast tries to track down his childhood idol DJ Slizzard, it’s revealed that Slizzard is actually the Reverend, and it turns into Fingablast trying to clear the Reverend’s name along the lines of Making a Murderer or Evil Genius. But along the way, he picks up support from Fran Dodd (Bobby Moynihan), a men’s rights activist that heads the Innocence Broject. As the camera pans over his case files, you can see names like Lord Voldemort and Harvey Weinstein all in one go.
And at the surface, it’s laughable. Here’s a charming idiot of a DJ trying to get his dream wedding and accidentally gets caught up in the machinations of two even bigger idiots. But the truth is that they’re not just make-believe dummies; they’re very real monsters. Fran is a textbook incel, blaming women for anything and everything disagreeable in his life, including his lack of sexual gratification. And the Reverend is rewriting the truth simply by yelling louder than the women.
“Society used to make sense! Nuclear families, straight marriages, white quarterbacks.” “Masculinity is being criminalized in this country.” “A men’s prison. Not a people’s prison! A men’s prison.” These are the sorts of things Fran spouts nonstop, ridiculous notions of inequality disenfranchising and vilifying straight white men. But ridiculous as they are, they are beliefs some people are willing to die for, and more recently, to kill for in our very real lives.
It sticks the landing extra hard with a potent dose of reality, too, by mirroring the Reverend’s claims of innocence with President Donald Trump’s own words. He couldn’t have assaulted or harassed or kidnapped or molested those women. Why? Because look at them. He has standards. It is verbatim things that the person supposedly representing the free world has said on camera. It’s enough to make you want to bury yourself in the dirt and never get back up.
But as the half-season wraps up, it turns hopeful. It’s aware that hope lies in the next generation, that we can bring children into a world where the fight is already and always being fought and not simply struggling for validation—that we can teach what it means to be respectful of others and accountable of ourselves. But gosh if Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt isn’t going to make you laugh along the way.
Final Score: 9 out of 10