Television shows that begin with stellar pilots and first seasons seem to paradoxically be worse off than shows that struggle at first. Seinfeld and 30 Rock had rough first episodes before building up to the classics we know and love today, while Smash had one of the best pilots I’ve seen before being immediately reduced to garbage the next week. When Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt premiered, it was surprisingly good considering it was a comedy about a trauma victim trying to make a life for herself. However, things became extra crazy as Season 2 severely altered its course, trying to become the show that creator Tina Fey had envisioned before it was truncated for NBC. Season 2 relied heavily on Netflix’s binging platform and Fey’s meta-humor, and while it was also great, it was decidedly different from the first season, in a bit of a jarring way. So, using the previously established law of first seasons, it would be safe to assume that Season 3 would be a step down. That’s what makes it so surprising when it ends up as the best season of the show yet, and one of the best of the year.
This is the year where Fey’s vision has really come into its own. The self-referential humor is as sharp as it has ever been, the characters are fully realized, and the jokes fly by at a mile a minute. From Mara Mara, the lost Mara sister to terrible rapping to the greatest twist on the sassy gay friend I’ve ever seen, there isn’t one episode where you won’t be gasping for air at least once. Jokes that were introduced in the first season, such as the character of Xanthippe and robots that appear as background characters, are finally paying off in a major way. What’s more, you also get to see how Fey handles major world issues with her own scathing wit. Two come to mind in the way the show deals with feminism and the current behavior of college campuses. As a concept, feminism has grown and morphed, been embraced and vilified since Kimmy went into the bunker in the 90s. What’s great about Kimmy being such a strong female character is that it allows the show to take some shots at the changes that may seem to make little sense (“They’re called sex workers, and they’re heroes”), take a lot of shots at the sexists of the world (pretty much any scene involving the Snyder men), and ultimately settle on the universal truth in life: that females are strong as hell. Kimmy may be flawed, and she may be suffering from traumas from her time as a victim of kidnapping (and possibly more, based on insinuations throughout the season), but she’s developed strong (almost superhuman) upper body strength, she’s independent, and she has a desire to help those around her, as can be seen with her struggle over the famous Trolley Problem. The portrayal of feminism is perhaps the most important one on TV, because it treats it like a statement of fact. The show’s brilliance can also be seen in how it handles the Millennial Issue. Many shows and films have been attempting to satirize the behavior of the current generation, and yet all have fallen on their face. Kimmy Schmidt is the first one to actively solve this problem, because it is the only one that bothers to dig deeper into why this current wave acts the way it does. While it’s easy to just poke fun and mock “safe spaces” and “fourth wave feminism” (which I honestly cannot determine if it is a joke or not, and I recently went to college) and other buzzwords, to do so ignores the good-hearted, albeit likely misguided intentions behind their actions. Schmidt acknowledges the pros while mocking the extremes that these things are often taken to, and realizing that many of these extremes are the folly of youth. It’s sharp insight, and for once doesn’t come across as ham-fisted.
One of the best aspects of this past season is the way we see the show’s vision finally coming together in the performances of the cast. In the first two seasons of the show, Jane Krakowski and especially Carol Kane were wasted on parts they’d played before or terrible subplots. Here, they finally have material worthy of their talents. Krakowski’s Jacqueline has matured from a Jenna Maroney knockoff into a problematic but sympathetic joke/plot point into a fully-realized character. Now that the shock of the Native American heritage has worn off, the audience can now begin to see Krakowski lovingly embrace this part of herself while still throwing herself into physical comedy feats and hilarious wordplay. The way she delivers lines is a joy to watch, and I still giggle whenever I think of her announcing “Everybody leave!” when she is reunited with her now-attractive fiancée. Meanwhile, Kane is finally allowed to be funny, with her Lilith finally going from wacky side character to fully realized lead, receiving major story arcs and delivering killer jokes along the way. She can be anything the showrunners need her to be, from Trump-ian stand-in to far-left hippie. And her blossoming relationship with Peter Riegert is one of the show’s sweetest arcs.
As for Kimmy herself, Ellie Kemper is an impossible-to-hate ray of sunshine. Any measurement of logic should dictate that Kimmy Schmidt would be one of television’s most annoying characters by this point, but somehow Kemper only gets better with each episode. Her earnestness to please, genuine desire to find the goodness in humanity, and her childlike wonder (the way Titus dresses her before she leaves in the morning is so adorable, and the way she declares “Well it’s never a good thing!” when she over-guesses on modern slang is so hilariously angry) force a smile to your face whether you want one or not. However, more importantly, she nails the dramatic arcs that go along with the character. The first two seasons save big dramatic moments for the end of their run so that Kimmy can have a major breakthrough, but season three flips that on its head: while the season ends without any sense of major payoff (one of the few flaws with this season, in my opinion), it allows Kemper to subtly show off these emotions throughout, such as painful encounters with the Reverend, her horror at being outed as a trauma victim by her professor (a great Rachel Dratch) and Xan, and her mixed emotions over the Reverend’s relationship with the good-hearted Wendy Hebert (I have no idea why Laura Dern is on this show, or why her character is so weird, but I never want her to leave). I think Kemper gave better performances in episodes from seasons one and two, but this is certainly the most consistent her performance has been, and the most consistently good.
The guest actors this season are all at the top of their game, from Fey regulars Scott Adsit and Judah Friedlander to guest stars Josh Charles and Daveed Diggs. However, if anyone deserves a pat on the back for this past season, it’s the actor behind the indelible Titus Andromedon. What Tituss Burgess does this season is nothing short of astonishing. It is the performance of the year, and demonstrates his skill as a singer and actor, providing emotional moments alongside his comedic tour-de-force. His skill is seen in a hilarious moment involving the casting couch and a Muppet, as well as a monologue involving the potential death of Dionne Warwick (played by the always great Maya Rudolph). However, if there’s one episode that stands out amongst Burgess’ best, it’s his astonishing work in the episode “Kimmy’s Roommate Lemonades!” Upon learning his lover may have cheated on him, Tituss opts to pull a Beyoncé and recreate Lemonade. That statement alone is hilarious, and the episode would have been incredibly funny if he had simply appeared in the Beyoncé outfits and performed short homages to the original masterpiece. But this is no ordinary show, instead, music director Jeff Richmond creates entire spoofs of songs “Hold Up,” “Sorry,” and “All Night.” And they’re good. And Tituss sings the hell out of each and every one of them. This isn’t simply your average great episode of a sitcom. This is the type of performance that stands the test of time, like Lucille Ball drinking the Vitameatavegimen, Mary Tyler Moore laughing at Chuckles the Clown’s funeral, or when Will Arnett did the Chicken Impression. This is the performance that, in a just world, earns people Emmys, and I hope they give Tituss all the awards he’s earned this year.
I won’t lie: I really wish the season had ended with a more finite result. It sort of continues and continues before just sort of ending without the sense of journey we witnessed in the show’s other runs. However, perhaps that’s exactly how Tina Fey envisioned this show going. Everything else has been improved by the culmination of her vision. Maybe I should just learn to trust her and embrace the greatness she’s given us. It’s such a minor quibble for what ends up being a phenomenal season of television.