Netflix has more eccentric original comedy series than any network in recent memory. For instance, Netflix produced Ashton Kutcher’s live audience, feel good, ranch-flavored, single camera sitcom — which sounds almost normal, except that it debuted in 2016, long after single-camera sitcoms went culturally extinct. It’s also got a thoughtful animated comedy about an occasionally vulgar talking horse. But “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” takes the cake. This is a comedy that centers around a protagonist whose entire life experience has been composed of the kind of violent and sexual trauma that is ordinarily reserved for “Law & Order: SVU.” As Emily Naussbum pointed out in an apt review of the show in The New Yorker, “This is rare material for a sitcom.”
Regardless of central content, “SVU” isn’t necessarily a good point for comparison. Rather, consider the indie Canadian film drama “Room” (the Oscar-nominated flick that apparently no one saw because it featured no Hollywood actors). “Room” tells the kind of grisly story modern audiences have become disturbingly used to. It’s about a woman kidnapped by a stranger as a teenager, and who seven years later still lives trapped in a 10-foot square room, but now with a 5-year-old son. This wouldn’t be all that interesting in our modern world, where mass murder and serial rape are frequently central themes in entertainment. The story is made more complicated (and interesting) because it is told from the perspective of the woman’s son — a wide-eyed, curious kid engaging with trauma he can’t understand.
Over the past several years, sexual violence on television has grown gratuitous. “Game of Thrones,” “Scandal,” “American Horror Story,” “Jessica Jones,” and plenty of other hugely successful network shows have gone into vivid detail around the subject rape. “Room” ignites the conversation around sexual violence not because storylines around trauma are unusual territory, but because it takes the sadly familiar content into a new context. That’s something “Kimmy Schmidt” has going for it, too — even if it is, on the surface, a bubblegum-flavored absurdist comedy composed of one-liners and pitch perfect character acting.
Created by the “30 Rock” comedy dream team Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, “Kimmy Schmidt” debuted last year to mostly good reviews. The first episode demands that its viewers suspend their disbelief. This world is a precise side-step outside of reality, but it resembles modern America enough for the satire to bite. The show’s second season came out on Netflix on April 14, and it felt more like “30 Rock” than it did last year. The jokes come fast and furious, and always delivered with startling deadpan. These are the kinds of lines that don’t hit your funny bone; they punch the shit out of it.
The jokes work partially because their writers are unafraid to explore topics people are terrified of making jokes about — especially in the modern context of politically correctness. Writing comedic television about material that is so obviously ripe for offending people does something more than attract a curious audience. It adds to a conversation. The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Daily Dot, and The New Yorker all published similar stories about the way trauma is dealt with on the show. They take note of the dark tinges around Kimmy’s candy-colored exterior (in one scene in the first season, for example, Kimmy’s doctor marvels at Kimmy’s face saying, “Absolutely no sun damage, but you’ve clearly experienced a tremendous amount of stress. Are you a coal miner? Submarine captain? Because you have very distinct scream lines. Where did those come from, I wonder.”) Critics mostly agree that the humor around trauma is done successfully, and in good taste. All four writers say that the underlying message of the show is that Kimmy’s trauma does not define her; she is bigger than her past. As Brigit Katz summarized in The New York Times’ “Women in the World” blog, “Kimmy is nice and she is tough. She is a victim and a survivor. She is unbreakable.”
The question of humor around trauma has always been contentious. Googling “Are rape jokes funny” yields hundreds of thousands of results, and the answer runs the gamut from “absolutely never,” to “if they’re made in order to empower women,” to “get over yourselves, feminists.” To be fair, “Kimmy Schmidt” never goes so far as to make an outright rape joke, but it regularly dips into the shady territory of what it might actually be like to be forced to live underground in a religious cult for the bulk of a person’s life. And that’s not an absurd concept — just ask Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, Katie Beers, and the three survivors of Ariel Castro’s abduction.
Heather Hall, a School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) graduate student, said that humor is actually essential in dealing with trauma. In terms of using humor around trauma in her own writing, Hall said that she does it all the time. “It’s important to avoid getting the sympathetic read; you don’t want to sound like too much of a baby about things. It’s easier to laugh at it; it makes your experience more human; more relatable.”
SAIC senior Hannah Chavez said that she thought humor could be a very helpful way to translate trauma. “Being able to shift one’s focus on their trauma is very empowering,” she said. “I also believe it can be healing for others who have similar histories. We can bond over things not many other people can. Like falling into a fire, for example.”
Chavez wasn’t sure, however, that “Kimmy Schmidt” is altogether appropriate. “To portray a survivor of such a traumatic event as someone who is just slightly more awkward than your average individual seems to be doing survivors a disservice.” At the same time, Chavez said it was complicated. “Tina Fey also portrays [the survivors on “Kimmy Schmidt”] as very competent, very strong women who don’t succumb to their captors’ brainwashing … I think Fey approaches the show with sensitivity and with a true love for her fellow woman, without an intent to harm or offend them.”
Sophomore Gabe Howell — who stated that they had not seen the show — doesn’t think having good intentions is enough to merit making mass-consumed content about deeply traumatic events. “I think people who have experienced trauma have the right to make any content about that specific said trauma,” they said. “At the same time, you must supply a trigger warning. You never know who will be exposed to your content and what [seeing a certain experience portrayed] could put them through.” They added that “Kimmy Schmidt” might be acceptable if it provided a trigger warning before every episode, but even then, the show probably crosses a line. “You cannot have an actor play a role they haven’t experienced and get away with it. That’s not acceptable and it has no role in the modern world,” they said.
Survivors of trauma around kidnapping and trauma have not so far come forward with complaints about the portrayal of those kinds of events in “Kimmy Schmidt,” but audiences are concerned with another issue the show takes on: race. The portrayal of Kimmy’s Asian-American boyfriend in particular has triggered several think-pieces, including a widely circulated essay in Slate by Arthur Chu, which speculated that Asian representation wasn’t “offensive enough.”
Fey and Carlock are obviously aware that they’re joke-writing in choppy waters; They make jokes about that too. In the third episode of the new season (“Kimmy Goes to a Play!”), Kimmy’s (fabulous, gay, black roommate slash best friend) Titus Andromedon puts on a one-man show about his former life as a Japanese geisha (called, perfectly, “Kimono You Didn’t”). Of course, he is named “number three” on an activist group’s “Top Ten Hitlers of All Time List” for his blatant racism. When the activists confront Titus about his show, one person says, “Why couldn’t she be a successful business woman or a college professor or a stay-at-home dad?” The same character gets flustered at the end of the episode and says, “I can’t breathe. Wait. I can’t say that! I’ve offended myself!” And then she evaporates into thin air. (Seriously.)
This is exactly the kind of satire that fires up conversation. When Titus says, “The internet talks like Chandler from ‘Friends,’” it cuts deep for anyone who has ever gotten red in the face over a Twitter post.
As far as awareness and conversation around sexual assault are concerned, it makes sense that this season of “Kimmy Schmidt” was released in April — which is also National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In an effort to increase awareness on campus around issues of sexual violence, SAIC’s Sexual Assault Awareness Committee and other student groups put together a series of events to help bolster the conversation. There will be a workshop on using apps to promote safety on the internet; a visiting artist talk from Mirabelle Jones, who created a set of artists’ books that share narratives from survivors of assault; a screening of the documentary “The Hunting Ground;” as well as several other events. A full list of programming is available here.