APRIL 6, 2015
THE “MAN OUT OF TIME” genre, wherein a character is somehow temporally displaced to comic and edifying effect, has proven one of the more lasting satirical forms. Aristophanes brought ancient playwrights back from Hades to mock Athenian ways in The Frogs, Cervantes was the progenitor of the idea in modern literature, and Rip Van Winkle represents the theme in Americana. One might even argue that Ignatius J. Reilly, himself redolent of Quixote, makes the cut as a bloviated medieval throwback amid an early 1960s New Orleans.
In each of these “man out of time” tales the characters’ displacement does more than just make them the butt of jokes. It makes us reconsider the eras in which they inhabit — more critically, but also more empathetically, more affectionately. The best of these stories become emblematic of the times and places in which they were written, much in the way Don Quixote can be read as a universal stand-in for Spain.
So perhaps one day when the critics of the future look back on 21st-century Manhattan (and boroughs such as Brooklyn and America), they’ll think fondly of Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), the “woman out of time” at the center of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Unlike Don Quixote or Ignatius J. Reilly, Kimmy’s temporal gap isn’t centuries wide, but just a decade or two. Yet the narrowness of that gap heightens our sense of how strange our world has become, and how quickly.
In the filmic versions of the “man out of time” comedy (think Blast from the Past, Encino Man) technological and cultural change conspire to make the protagonist the target of a decreasingly satisfying series of gags. In Kimmy, the “woman out of time” is also an object of fun, yet somehow by the end of the story, her responses to that condition make the world around her seem more absurd than she does.
Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, rejected by NBC, then resurrected by Netflix, Kimmy at first seems more like a send-up of Sister Wives than a time displacement tale. The premise: A Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne has variously swindled and seduced four Indiana women into an underground bunker, where he fools them into believing they are the only people who have survived Armageddon. A SWAT team pulls them out of the earth 15 years later.
Yet as the camera pulls away from the liberated Kimmy smiling into the sunshine, we realize that something is not right with this story. The audio loops as a bewildered bystander exclaims, “They alive, dammit!” We realize that we are not watching the rescue unmediated, but instead viewing it as part of an auto-tuned montage of news clips. Zooming further out, we see that Kimmy and her fellow “Indiana Mole Women” are being interviewed by Matt Lauer of the Today Show. He chats with them not about their ordeal, but the viral video it inspired. One of them is even lucky enough to receive an “ambush makeover” before her return to Indiana.
Kimmy, however, opts to remain in New York. And in the world in which she has emerged, morning shows are not the only form of cultural production that seems to have gone haywire. The hot new show on Broadway is “Spidermen Too: 2 Many Spidermen.” (Libretto: “And I will crush that Spider-Man. And then that other Spider-Man. And all the Spider-Men. ’Til I’m the Spider-Man!”) At one point Kimmy is stuck in a party, dubstep blaring. She asks if someone could put on some music with words; the tune that then plays is a rap song called “I Beat That Bitch with a Bat!” When she asks for a change again, the stereo plays an indie rock song with exactly the same lyrics. In such a world, Kimmy’s attachment to her Walkman and the Rain Man soundtrack seems like a win for civilization.
Similarly suspect in the world of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is technology, which is presented as, well, breakable. As Kimmy ventures forth into the working world, she is warned about the deleterious effects of a new iPhone release. Moments later, a smartphone spontaneously crumbles in its user’s hands. To avoid scandal at her new job, Kimmy invents a backstory where she hails from Middletown, Ohio, rather than Durnsville, Indiana. Her employer’s suspicious daughter flips out a phone to check the facts, but is crestfallen to discover that there really is a Middletown. “Of course there is!” Kimmy replies. “And phones have maps of Ohio, and I knew both of those things before now!” When the same character later accuses, “I have been googling you!” Kimmy replies, “I didn’t feel you do anything!”
Cultural and technological forces come together in a scene that I challenge anyone under 40 to watch without nervous laughter. Kimmy and a new friend are holed up in a Starbucks-like coffee shop where neither of them can afford anything. He advises her to just blend in, pulling out a cardboard laptop whose screen is illustrated with cutouts from tabloid magazines. He starts muttering in nonsense French; Kimmy joins in the act, grabbing a banana and pretending it’s a phone. When a barista comes around to see what they are doing, Kimmy condescendingly responds, “Beyoncé?” Meanwhile, the banana makes a text message sound.
In this moment and others throughout the show, it almost feels as if the force of Kimmy’s character has bent the time displacement premise back around herself. She sees the world’s absurdity and ups the ante. It’s this transcendent quality that makes Kimmy more like Don Quixote than, say, Kate & Leopold. The writers find a way for the “woman out of time” to speak back to ours. The effect on me (and likely anyone else who has attempted to spend a day writing cultural criticism in a Starbucks and calling it a job) is to prompt the question: Is this really the way we live now? Is that my phone or my breakfast that’s ringing?
But the characters of the Kimmy-verse somehow manage not to make us cynical, but hopeful. The guy helping Kimmy navigate the 21st century is Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), a gay black song-and-dance man who never realized his Broadway ambitions but stuck around New York anyway. (At least he still has his Barbie collection and his dreams.) Kimmy stumbles upon Titus as he’s being evicted from a basement apartment by his landlady, Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane). They decide to split the rent and the apartment — after all, compared to the bunker, it’s enormous.
In reality, Lillian is also barely getting by. In each episode, the trio confronts in one form or another a kind of comic privation (picture the Bucket family of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). When Titus goes to withdraw his last two dollars from an ATM, he’s informed there will be a $3 fee. He goes through with it anyway, and is rewarded for his efforts with a $-1 bill, complete with a picture of Warren G. Harding. The landlady, meanwhile, pines for “another Titanic” to wipe out the rich, and rages against the interlopers with “non-ethnic mustaches” who threaten to displace her from the neighborhood.
The way race shapes Kimmy’s world is even stranger than the way class does. Lillian is constantly railing against “the whites” in spite of her evident whiteness. When Titus starts working at a monster-themed restaurant and leaves on his costume, he discovers that it’s actually easier to make it in New York as a werewolf than as a black man. It’s a joke that implies that not only has no racial progress occurred since Kimmy went underground, but that efforts to combat or cope with it have grown absurd.
The character of Kimmy’s employer, Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski), takes these themes of absurdity and pushes self-repression to its logical extreme. Mrs. Voorhees initially takes on Kimmy for her supposed dog masseuse skills; she ends up as an all-purpose assistant. But like most people in Mrs. Voorhees’s life, Kimmy is really just another salaried companion. “All my friends are people I pay,” she eventually admits, “trainers and stylists and beauticians, and I doubt they say ‘Wow, your anus really responds to the laser’ because they want to.”
But we come to learn that Mrs. Voorhees is not all she seems. In actuality, she is Sioux, but as a young girl she developed a powerful desire to look like the women of the Sears catalog. Her careful study of the white woman’s ways helped her take on a career as a flight attendant and sleep her way into an elite Manhattan clan.
As they grow closer, Mrs. Voorhees begins to coach Kimmy on how she can secure a wealthy man away from his first wife (or at least work her way into an old codger’s will). But as her own marriage breaks down, she receives coping tips from our heroine. Kimmy advises Mrs. Voorhees that in the bunker, she used to jump up and down and sing to herself, “I’m not really here! I’m not really here!” Mrs. Voorhees is soon doing the same in her well-appointed home.
These are just a few of the ways Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt invokes race and class conflict, perhaps with a greater frequency than recent comedy. The show is keenly aware that the one thing that hasn’t changed since the 1990s is median family income, while the one percent … well, you know the rest. Yet these jests never quite add up to single-issue social criticism. As with the opening sketch of Saturday Night Live, you get the feeling that the show’s politics is simply whatever they had to work with (though Fey and Carlock work it with infinitely more finesse than SNL). It’s refreshing in a time when most shows are either completely apolitical or too self-serious to be taken seriously. Kimmy’s endurance in the face of an unbalanced world is more important than the forces that unbalanced it. And we too start to feel that if we can laugh at this stuff, we just might survive it.
In fact, the most significant “issues” addressed by Kimmy and her cohort are the ones that aren’t explicitly stated at all. Given her 15-year lacuna and her lack of education, Kimmy has no knowledge whatsoever of 9/11 — she may have no idea there was a World Trade Center in the first place. The daily outrages of a Boko Haram or an ISIS, by contrast, would seem completely normal to a woman held against her will for half her life by an Indiana zealot.
The real consequences of trauma are a part of Kimmy’s world, but sublimated. There are hints that she suffers from PTSD. When Titus asks her a question about the bunker, she fast-forwards the conversation, irritably insisting that yes, there was “weird sex stuff” down there. Kimmy eventually learns that one of the other “Mole Women,” Cyndee, went on to marry her middle-school crush, Brandon. Brandon, as it turns out, is gay, but Cyndee doesn’t mind — the arrangement is convenient for both of them, with Cyndee getting her teenage dream and Brandon getting the favors that come with abundant publicity. “Gay marriage is legal now,” Cyndee explains to Kimmy. “Read a newspaper!”
Yet oddly enough, by the time the Cyndee plot is through, we can nearly empathize with her decision. Because as with Confederacy of Dunces, the equally distributed absurdity of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt produces a kind of comic tolerance for any way of getting through the day. Kimmy suffered while missing out on the last 15 years; by the end of the first season, it seems certain that they haven’t been so great for any of the other characters either (not to mention Mr. and Mrs. America).
But as the show’s theme says, “They alive, dammit!” Through her sheer improbability and pluck, the woman out of time turns all those she meets from marginalized remainders into redeemed remnants. They’re all outcasts, but by the end we’re laughing with them, not at them.
Maybe some people will always be kept apart (whether in a bunker or a crappy apartment or a Spanish library) to save us. More often than not it’s been women. As the auto-tuned video in the pilot pronounces, “White dudes hold the record for creepy crimes, but females are strong as hell.” The absurdity they live with is not of their own making, yet in the Kimmy-verse, they can use it to remake the world as they wish. Like Don Quixote, their adaptation to social exclusion yields its own form of resilient grace.
Edith Grossman, who produced a new English translation in 2003, said Cervantes invested Don Quixote with this mercurial nature on purpose, never letting the reader settle on one idea about what the novel or its protagonist really is. “You are never certain that you truly got it,” she said, “Because as soon as you think you understand something, Cervantes introduces something that contradicts your premise.” The focus of Kimmy is not technology or culture or inequality or cults, but that people can change in response to any of these things. Perhaps that mutability is what really makes us unbreakable.