‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Is a Rare Contemporary Comedy That’s All About the Jokes

If the jury’s still out on precisely what those “New York values” Ted Cruz is always complaining about are, the Netflix original Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is as good an embodiment as any other. The Tina Fey/Robert Carlock comedy approaches even the filthiest corners of the city with wide-eyed wonder, finding humor and pathos in the quest to live an independent life even as it pumps out a staggering volume of whip-smart jokes.

In the first half of Season 2, available in its entirety on Friday, Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) struggles to get over her feelings for Dong (Ki Hong Lee), who married an older woman from his GED class so he wouldn’t get deported. Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess, the show’s breakout star) has to face his past when his estranged wife returns — and he also gets a love interest, construction worker Mikey Politano (Mike Carlsen). Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) tries to integrate back into her community in North Dakota with her parents, but quickly realizes that New York is her home now. Newly divorced, she moves into an apartment with her son and actually — gasp — spends time with him. There are also cameos galore, from Zosia Mamet to Fred Armisen to Anna Camp to Fey herself.

Not every plot totally gels — everything having to do with Jacqueline’s Native American heritage still feels woefully clumsy, and the first episode, which opens with a deliberately disorienting sequence set three months in the future, threatens to tip over from charming to confusing. Season 2 includes some tired (if not totally unfounded) jokes about millennials, and a plot about Kimmy’s neighborhood starting to gentrify feels similarly played out (if, again, pretty accurate). But Kimmy Schmidt is still far and away one of the funniest shows on TV, and an increasingly rare comedy that is dedicated to the art of the joke.

A lot of the most buzzed-about comedies of the past few years have been based more on story and character than on jokes, from HBO’s Veep, Silicon Valley, and Girls to cable and streaming series like You’re the Worst, Louie, and BoJack Horseman. Two of the best hour-long network shows on the air right now, the CW’s Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, are consistently funny, but critical praise tends to focus on their bold and creative storytelling methods. Many of these shows (You’re the Worst, BoJack Horseman, Girls, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) have been praised for the way they handle depression and mental health without sacrificing humor; others, like Catastrophe and Love, are lauded for their gritty, honest depiction of adult relationships.

Of course, those programs also showcase wonderful, funny writing. But the new episodes of Kimmy Schmidt feel refreshing for the frequency and quality of their one-liners. Usually when I’m reviewing a show, I take notes on interesting plot twists or telling lines; with Kimmy, I basically just transcribe jokes. Season 2 doesn’t disappoint on this front — there are so many laugh-out-loud funny lines in the first six episodes that they warrant a second viewing just to make sure you’ve caught them all. The volume of jokes makes Kimmy the perfect Netflix series; you’ll want to pause and rewind to catch certain lines that are even funnier for their tossed-off, barely audible delivery.

This season also features multiple running gags, like one in which characters misuse clichéd phrases or another where people keep surprising themselves with their comprehensive knowledge of the goings on of the Kardashians (“Why do I know that?”). Last season, Jacqueline’s housekeeper said Kimmy looked like “Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers”; this season, Jacqueline’s friend Mimi (Amy Sedaris) mistakes Kimmy for “a Jeff Koons sculpture of Ronald McDonald.” For the Daddy’s Boy fans, there’s a whole new original song, and as usual there are plenty of pop culture references (Lillian periodically name-drops her ex-boyfriend, “Bobby Durst”) and meta-jokes; one Don Draper reference that is too delightful to spoil here is a little bit of both.

It’s a delight to be back in the madcap world of Kimmy Schmidt’s New York, which blends the oft-glamorized seediness of the city with its post-911 Disneyfication. New York is Kimmy’s playground, and while her patch of the city may be as lackluster as a McDonald’s Play Place, to her eyes, it holds endless promise. Despite its outward silliness, Kimmy is a dark show — this is a comedy about a survivor of kidnapping and sexual abuse. Broad City is often praised for its portrayal of New York as a hellscape for the young and underemployed, but beneath Kimmy’s cartoonish surface, it’s a much scarier depiction of scraping by in the big city.

Kimmy’s support system is a raggedy group of rejects living in subterranean apartments in the outer boroughs, hoarding precious supplies of silverfish poison (another running gag). She has no biological family — although apparently we’ll meet a member of her family later in the season — and she struggles not just to make a living but to learn how to live outside the bunker where she was held captive for 15 years.

In one new episode, Kimmy tries to help her former bunkermate Gretchen (the hilarious Lauren Adams), who’s had a hard time living on her own since the escape. First, she got a job at the Apple store in Indiana: “It was white and clean and we all dressed the same,” she gushes. “Every day we would meet in a giant glass cube and I gave the geniuses all my money in exchange for this magic watch.” But when Gretchen is “excommunicated,” she joins another kind of cult — the “Church of Cosmetology.” Now, she declares in a promotional video, “My life has purpose, my eyebrows have definition, and I can control things with my mind!”

Kimmy Schmidt may be all about the jokes, but it does espouse a message: “If you need to believe in something,” Kimmy tells Gretchen, “believe in yourself.” The show is an ode to independent living, to survival, which is why it takes place in a world that feels like so much fun even as it doesn’t deny the difficulty and discomfort of living in it. Kimmy demonstrates that it’s worth the risk: The benefit of self-reliance is nothing less than total freedom. The world is Kimmy’s McDonald’s PlayPlace, and it suits her just fine.