Reviews, Television
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TV Review: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

If House of Cards is boring you this season (is that just me?), don’t give up on binge watching Netflix just yet.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, follows the transition of Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), who moves to New York City after her rescue from the bunker in Indiana where she has been held captive for fifteen years in a cult by a deranged apocalyptic minister. Arriving in New York City with no job, no money, and no friends, Kimmy decides to stay and finds herself a sketchy pad with roommate Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) and a shaky job working for trophy wife Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski). Oh but don’t worry – this is a comedy.

And it’s not a dark comedy, either. Kimmy is a bright, snarky sitcom in the brilliant tradition of 30 Rock. Ellie Kemper is adorably hilarious (you may remember her as Erin from The Office or Becca from Bridesmaids). You can occasionally see the Tina Fey etched into her face as she performs, but Kemper is a talented comedic actor in her own right, and as the show progresses, she reveals her own branding more and more. Tituss Burgess is marvelous as Kimmy’s gay, black roommate, and Jane Krakowski makes her triumphant return as Jacqueline, in a role that reads like an SOB version of Krakowski herself, if those orange juice commercials are anything to go by.

The plot spins like cartwheels in the fantasy funland of Fey’s mind, gleefully unleashed from the bunker of television patriarchy. Kimmy is pure fun, and the show doesn’t need Alec Baldwin to appeal to (get this) both men and women. My husband and I were laughing from the first five seconds in. When the patriarchy does show up, they are peripheral and occasionally downright evil characters, including Jacqueline’s never-at-home rich husband and the no-good girl-kidnapping doomsday minister Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm). That name’s not a typo, by the way, it’s just awesome.

The writers play with racial, gender, and sexual identity tropes with abandon, free from the supervision of the networks and the structures of traditional plot lines. Such comedic devices, of course, run the risk of crashing hard, but the writers are well aware they’re playing with fire. Kimmy revels in turning overripe tropes on their heads time and again, setting the viewer up with all the usual dominos before smashing the pieces and running away cackling.

The greatest, of course, is the trope-smashing arc I’m calling The Redemption of the Dong, featuring Kimmy’s GED classmate and eventual love interest, an undocumented Vietnamese immigrant named Dong Nguyen. The original Dong trope was, of course, the infamous Long Duk Dong from John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, and there have been many since, right up to today’s Han from the CBS sitcom 2 Broke Girls. So naturally, as a diversity in media writer particularly sensitive to this trope, I hated the character and physically winced every time he was onscreen (which takes some acting on the part of Ki Hong Lee, who’s not exactly naturally wince-inducing).

Well. He certainly showed me.

People are not tropes. All people, including optimistic gingers, rich socialites, fabulous roommates, and guys named Dong will naturally resist categorization and will constantly surprise you. If there was ever a great theme for a sitcom, this is it, and I believe it’s going places next season. Hell, if the redemption of the Dong is possible, anything is.

The first season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is now streaming on Netflix

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9 Comments

  1. I honestly have no idea what to do with this show, especially since your glowing review clashes so harshly with the one I read on The Daily Beast [http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/03/09/the-dong-problem-how-unbreakable-kimmy-schmidt-deals-with-race.html]. I’m going to have to do a lot more research, but the conflict right now is so real.

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    • Watch and see for yourself! I’d be curious to see what you think.

      I actually read that article, and I agree 100% with it: “While depictions of Dong and Jacqueline might be problematic, they are definitely in there for a reason, even if they’re eliciting mixed messages and raised eyebrows.All of Fey’s comedies skewer tropes in order to critique them.”

      Dong is set up (intentionally) as a trope, but the joke is never on him. Rather, the joke is on our own expectations of what we expect from the Dong trope, and when the character moves outside those expected boundaries, we’re the ones with egg on our faces. What’s interesting about this particular approach is it impacts both people who are actual racists (and create characters like Han) as well as the more “enlightened” among us (who spurn the Han characters because they’re offensive tropes). Dong subverts all of our expectations by simply being a person.

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      • I also came across a tumblr post [http://stopwhitewashing.tumblr.com/post/113419647220/baobanh-i-have-never-watched-uks-but-i-honestly] before I read that article, and it certainly raised my eyebrows. It goes a few steps too far, I think [their remarks towards Tina Fey were a bit much], but they do make some points about the casting of minorities and actual linguistic authenticity [the meaning of her name in Vietnamese, etc].

        All that being said, I think I will probably try it out given your response. I am all about media that presents Asian American men as being attractive or romantically appealing, and would like to judge for myself whether or not Dong escapes being a trope or not.

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      • Yeah, see what you think. However, at the risk of repeating myself – Dong is most definitely and intentionally a trope. He’s just one that subverts expectations.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Evan,

    I read your link and I completely disagree with the person who wrote it, and I don’t think they made a good point. Yes, Hollywood cast Korean/Japanese/Chinese as other East-Asians, but they do the same thing to white people. They cast Danes, Swedes, Finnish people as Norwegian or Norwegian as Russians or Germans too. Now, if you don’t live in Norway, you might just think one white person is just like another, but as someone who grew up in Norway, I can tell the difference.
    (and many mistake me for Chinese even though I’m Vietnamese…). I think representation is more important that who is actually playing the part.

    As to Kimmie’s name, Kim actually sounds like chim, which is a bird in Vietnamese, which is also a slang for the private parts: https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20071104134147AAaFVqv

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I do believe much of the criticism of Dong character is missing the point, but I hadn’t been able to wrap my head around what my own problem with the Dong character until I read this review:
    http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/television/2015/03/race_in_unbreakable_kimmy_schmidt_how_critics_are_missing_the_point.html

    “Every single other important character on the show—Lillian, her boss Jacqueline, her roommate Titus, her fellow captives, her teenage frenemy Xanthippe, Kimmy herself—is a grotesque cartoon who is lovable despite the fact that in real life they’d be intolerable for all kinds of reasons. This only makes Dong, who would be a bland character on a “normal” sitcom, even more of a misstep.”

    It’s like they took the trope and the only subversion they did was making Kimmy seeing him as a romantic interest. Which would have been revolutionary if it hadn’t been for Selfie’s Henry being a much more rounded and groundbreaking romantic interest than Dong six months earlier.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah I feel you on that account. But the show’s not over, and I’m hoping they’ll take it farther next season. I joked on Twitter that maybe they’ll have Dong lose the accent, and it’ll come out that he’s really a US spy who was forced to fake an identity after he’d been burned. Humorous, and it would completely obliterate the trope!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I just ripped through watching the entire 13-ep run over two evenings. There’s a beautiful vulnerability to Kimmy which kept me coming back for more. The thing with Dong seemed a little forced at the end. I can see the beginning of something happening between Kimmy and Dong, but I’m not completely sold. I admit that may solely be my problem because I’m completely invested in the Eliza and Henry with their short 13-ep “Selfie” run. And yes, I’m still talking and referring to ‘Heliza’ in the present tense …

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s Unbelievable Dong Nguyen | Culture War Reporters

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