Ellie Kemper and Carol Kane in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix Canada photo)
In late January, Netflix released the final episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. During its four baffling, brilliant seasons, the rapid-fire show, helmed by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, absurdly sent up Native Americans, Japanese people, Vietnamese people, Latinas, tech nerds, snooty millennials, cranky baby boomers, men’s rights activists, white supremacists, fans of the Washington Redskins and – of course! – Jews.
Not that it’s a particularly offensive show. If anything, Fey and Carlock created some of television history’s most optimistic characters, abjectly delusional in their utopian confidence.
The series begins with its title character (wonderfully played by the elastic-faced Ellie Kemper) being rescued from an underground bunker, after having been kidnapped and locked up for 15 years by a cult leader. Schmidt missed a lot: the Internet, Harry Potter movies, text messaging. Watching her catch up to modern life at the breakneck speed of the show’s tight script is as fun as you’d imagine.
Inherent to the premise is analyzing the emotional and psychological strength needed to survive incredible trauma. Kemper herself summarized the show’s ethos in a recent New York Times article: “How do you continue to move forward after experiencing a tragedy? And how on earth do you manage to make any of it funny?”
This should, theoretically, resonate deeply with Jewish viewers, especially those of us who marvel at the long years and quick wits of some Holocaust survivors. Turning tragedy to comedy has been a Jewish comic staple for decades.
But not all Jews see the show that way. While it isn’t a super Jewy show, it has its moments, mostly involving Lillian Kaushtupper (pronounced “cow shtupper”), the proudly impoverished landlady played with wistful sweetness and anger by Jewish Oscar nominee Carol Kane. Peter Riegert plays Artie Goodman, Lillian’s wealthy and kind-hearted Jewish boyfriend; Busy Phillips joins the final season as Artie’s entitled daughter, Sheba, who finds herself immediately at odds with Lillian.
Their conflict is generational, both as people and as Jews. When Lillian accuses Sheba of wearing a necklace filled with cocaine, Sheba replies earnestly, “No, this is the mezuzah from my grandparents’ home in Poland. They lived above the original B&H Photo Video in Krakow.”
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The show does veer toward classically anti-Semitic stereotypes and tosses in a few throwaway Holocaust jokes that are “beyond anything acceptable,” according to one critic in the Times of Israel. Similarly, a critic on Hey Alma, a Jewish feminist blog, was struck by the show’s regressive identity politics, as evidenced by the main black character being perplexed by the word “quidditch”: “That white nonsense is either Judaism or Scrabble.”
“I cringed,” the feminist critic continues. “Are the writers of the show, including Fey, really that unaware of the fact Jews of colour exist?”
Such critics must remember that this show insults and celebrates all people equally. Its foundational purpose is to detail ways in which disenfranchised minorities – a gay black man, a traumatized female survivor, an elderly landlady losing her neighbourhood to gentrification – overcome adversity no matter what’s thrown at them. In the world of Kimmy Schmidt, every group is as persecuted as they are unbreakable. For audiences to recoil from a throwaway joke is a face-palm at the thesis that trauma can be overcome through optimism, perseverance and comedy.
Fey herself dismissed these complaints in a 2015 magazine interview. “My new goal is not to explain jokes,” she said. “There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”
Good for her. It’s not the comedian’s job to ensure you are not offended by every joke, especially when the show is as obviously progressive, inclusive and cleverly thought-out as Kimmy Schmidt.