Getting more serious made Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt even funnier in season two

Last year’s inaugural season of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was incredible, earning the top spot in our 15 Best New TV Shows of 2015 list and picking up accolades such as “the funniest show on television.”

Co-creators and executive producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock not only delivered a worthy successor to 30 Rock (which it frequently references), but created a show that was both incredibly dark (Schmidt, played by Ellie Kemper, moved to New York after 15 years in captivity in a bunker) and incredibly light and cartoony (featuring a whole song called “Peeno Noir”).

In season two, which was released last week, they’ve managed to top themselves, making the show a little more grounded and serious and using that to somehow make it even funnier as a result.

One of the few criticisms our discussion of the first season had was that many of the non-Kimmy characters (Tituss Burgess’ Titus Andromedon and Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline Voorhees, in particular) were so absurd that it occasionally detracted from the show. Moreover, while Kimmy’s relentless positivity despite her horrifying past was crucial to the show’s overall upbeat vibe, and made it work despite its very dark setting, there were some times when it stretched the bounds of credibility.

Both of those issues have been addressed quite well in the second season. There’s still plenty of absurdity with fun and light jokes to be found, but Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is also able to make its characters more well-rounded, adding interesting dimensions and dilemmas to Titus and Jacqueline, while having Kimmy be not just the mostly-grounded center of the show, but also address her own trauma. At first glance, you’d expect that approach to make the show less outrageously funny, but the skillful way Fey and Carlock do this produces even more humor.

An interesting element in this shift is the change in the show’s circumstances. Season one was initially created for NBC, but their executives got worried about the show’s tone and sold it to Netflix instead. Season two was specifically created for Netflix, and while the show wasn’t dramatically reworked as a result, that did alter some things. Fey told critics at the TCA press tour in January that they didn’t want to make the material any more explicit, thanks to feedback from those who watched with 12- and 13-year-old kids, “even if we went toward more difficult ideas.”

That’s an excellent summation of season two, particularly the latter half of it. Kimmy Schmidt is a show that’s still firing off a huge number of jokes per minute, and still upbeat and positive and hilarious. But it’s also exploring the issues these characters face in a much deeper and more thorough way, while finding ways to generate comedy from that. It’s going beyond Kimmyfying the world and bringing Kimmy and her friends more fully into the real world.

The best example here might come from Fey herself, who plays Dr. Andrea Bayden, an alcoholic psychiatrist (“It’s called compartmentalizing, and it’s not a problem because I know the words to describe it”) who Kimmy first picks up as a very drunk Uber fare. At first, the Kimmy-Andrea dynamic follows the pattern of the first season, with Kimmy helping the people who come into her life, but it becomes more nuanced than that.

Talking with “Night Andrea” helps Kimmy realize she still has plenty of issues from her time in the bunker and more, and while her journey into therapy is a very funny one (complete with “Night Andrea” blackmailing “Day Andrea,” an envelope full of farts, and a compulsive need for reward stickers), it helps to realize her character more fully. Kimmy’s time with Andrea and the ways they help each other also is a huge part of the character growth we see this season, and as in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, that growth creates new and fascinating comedic dimensions to explore.

For Kimmy, those dimensions involve her realizing just how her time in the bunker has affected her, and they also involve her realizing that some of her issues go back to the relationship she had with her mother before the bunker. This is worked out in some very funny ways, including Kimmy-Andrea conversations, animated trips to Kimmy’s Disneyesque (but much more violent) happy place, and her roller-coaster (literally) reunion with her mother (Lisa Kudrow) in the finale.

The growth feels very real, though also provides a source of laughs, and helps us understand her character better. We also see some of the negative sides of Kimmy’s personality and her desire to improve things for others against their will, particularly in her interactions with Jacqueline’s stepdaughter Xanthippe Lannister Voorhees (Dylan Gelula) and fellow bunker survivor Gretchen (Lauren Adams), who’s sucked into a new cult by a bunny and kitty video:

Those moments of outside perspective are impressive, as this is a show that usually presents Kimmy’s point of view and is usually incredibly positive about her. That positivity is generally for good reason: She’s remarkable, and can sincerely utter lines like “Giving up isn’t my jam; my jams are grape, Jock and Space.” Illustrating the occasional downsides of her approach is a smart decision, though, and one that helps ground the show more than what we saw in the first season.

What’s also strong is that the show is able to make those downsides apparent to the character as well as the audience, and Kimmy changes over time as a result of seeing them. This is shown in moments like fellow cult survivor Cyndee’s wedding (on a TV therapy show, no less) despite her concerns, and in her reunion with her mother. Kemper’s work in this season is phenomenal. She keeps the charm and upbeat nature of Season 1 Kimmy, but brings in some doubts and struggles, and the character grows substantially by the end as a result.

We also see the rest of the characters grow here, and that’s worth noting as well. Season 1 Kimmy was the most well-rounded of the bunch, with fellow main characters Titus, Jacqueline, and landlord Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane) behaving generally as exaggerated cartoons.

There’s still some of that, but each of those characters gets storylines which help them develop further, from Titus’ reunion with the wife he abandoned (Pernell Walker) and relationship with construction worker Mikey Politano (Mike Carlsen) to Lillian’s attempt to stop hipsters (“Are you now or have you ever been a member of Arcade Fire?”) and gentrification (“I chained myself to a bulldozer and nobody noticed!”), to Jacqueline’s rivalry with fellow society snob (“I’m so exhausted from gala season.” “Me too. Do you know that poor people don’t even do a gala season?”) Deirdre Robespierre (Anna Camp), attempts to raise her son Buckley (Tanner Flood), relationship with Russ Snyder (David Cross) and struggles with her Native American heritage (a much-criticized season one plotline that starts this season a bit weak as well, but pays off spectacularly in the end).

These characters are still outrageous and hilarious, but they’ve been given more depth and nuance, and in a way that opens up many new jokes for them.

Of course, there’s still plenty of great absurdity in this season, involving everything from mistress heists to raccoon-run hotels to latex allergies to Fake Christmas to garbage dump time machines. There are plenty of amazing cameos, too, from Joshua Jackson to Billy Eichner to Ice-T, and the wide variety of skillfully-utilized guest stars (including Amy Sedaris, Zosia Mamet, Josh Charles, Dean Winters and Will Arnett as voices of Bunny and Kitty, and Fred Armisen as Lillian’s boyfriend “Bobby Durst”) helps keep the show very funny.

The 90s references are terrific as well, both alone (“Frasier could fix people’s problems in one phone call!”) and in retrospect (“Can you just get back to telling me all my crushes are gay? Who’s next, Ricky Martin and Niles?”), and there’s an incredible array of one-liners, such as “I started a charity that goes around the country throwing roast beef sandwiches down wells” and “Hashtag #FrankLloydWrong.” Even without the deeper character development, this would be a worthwhile show. But with it, it’s even better.

There are a few things here that deserve a little criticism and may not be for everyone. The season one storyline of Kimmy’s love interest Dong Nguyen (Ki Hong Lee) took criticism for the caricaturish way he was presented, and that isn’t much better in season two (although it does have some good moments). Titus’ one-man play in the third episode channeling a Japanese geisha he was in a former life, and the way he engages with internet detractors, also has taken some flack. The storyline has funny moments, but feels a little off tonally, especially with how it’s resolved and especially in light of the cultural-appropriation conversations currently going on. The episode one scenes with Jacqueline and her Lakota parents also feel off at the time, even if that thread eventually pays off in the season finale. Still, while some of these threads and jokes miss the mark, it’s amazing how many do land.

The last crucial element of this show that stands out is the way it works in music. Two episodes (five and nine) have extensive song parodies from composer Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband), and they’re fantastic.

Episode five (“Kimmy Gives Up!”) hilariously focuses on further exploring the fake musical world we saw some of in season one, including “the black version of ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘Alabama,'”  “Gangly Orphan Jeff,” the “Helen Keller-inspired — but unauthorized — musical ‘Feels Like Love,” “Croon, Crone, Croon” (eventually worked into The Sound of Music), and “Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Pinocchio.’” Episode nine (“Kimmy Meets A Drunk Lady!”) is perhaps even better, touching on Columbia House and a tape of song parodies called “Now That Sounds Like Music! 3,” “Music Inspired by But Legally Different From the Music You Love.” It includes phenomenal standards used in montages throughout the episode such as Dusk Mountie’s “Brother Baptist” (a knockoff of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian”), Art Smelly’s “I’m Convinced I Can Swim” (a knockoff of R.Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” “from the soundtrack to the movie Earth Jelly”), and Kartuna and the Wigs’ “I’m Hiking On Sunlight” (a knockoff of Katrina and the Waves’ “I’m Walking on Sunshine”).

This absolutely needs to be a full album. And that’s before you get to perhaps one of the most catchy theme songs ever, which will again be playing on a loop in your head for months. Having this show stuck in your head may be serious, but season two of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt showed that being serious can be a very good thing indeed.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.