Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Radical change is possible in an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that grounds its absurdity with character growth

Illustration for article titled Radical change is possible in an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that grounds its absurdity with character growth
Image: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

On sitcoms, characters tend not to change too much. If they evolve too much, then a lot of the foundation for the comedy goes away. Where does the story go if they just fix all their problems and flaws? But since Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is ending on its own terms, there’s room for genuine change, and “Kimmy Finds a Liar!” presents an explicit meditation on this notion of people evolving.


Kimmy has long made it her mission to make the world a better place, and writing her book was a big step in that direction. But it’s a lofty goal, and while both Titus and Jacqueline have made some steps toward becoming better people since Kimmy came into their lives, they’re still often self-obsessed and exploitive of Kimmy’s kindness. Jacqueline literally forgets Titus’ name in this episode. “Kimmy Finds a Liar!” actually focuses in on two different, peripheral characters to show that change is possible, even when it comes to the most one-note of people.

Busy Phillips returns as Sheba Goodman, Artie’s trainwreck daughter who Lillian has become a parental figure toward since Artie left her in charge of Sheba’s trust. She’s still up to her same ol’ bad business idea shenanigans. A runner of bad ideas is perfectly delivered by Phillips. She eventually settles on a year-round Halloween store that she confusingly calls Halloween 360 and scams Lillian into forking up the money. Shebe Goodman is one of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s many bit characters. The jokes around her tend to fall in pretty clear categories about her stupidity as well as jokes about millennials (as part of her grift, she tells Lillian she was arrested while attending Burning They, a gender-neutral version of Burning Man). If there’s anyone who really doesn’t change on sitcoms, it’s the bit characters. Because their very existence depends on the bit; change that and what are they?

And yet, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt delivers a surprisingly insightful and sweet storyline between Sheba and Lillian that does result in some genuine growth for Sheba. And it does so within the show’s usual weird voice. Lillian uses Artie’s past mistakes (causing the mullet trend in the 70s) to teach Sheba to take responsibility for her actions and then stages an elaborate fake trial in order to test the lesson on her. Lillian gets through to her, actually is able to convince a pathological liar to look within herself and make a change. She isn’t a new person entirely, as evidenced by her new idea to teach yoga to ISIS, but for the first time ever, she’s thinking about how her actions impact others and taking responsibility. It’s absurd but grounded, too, that sweet spot that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt pulls off surprisingly well.

The same can be said of the return of Fran Dodd (Bobby Moynihan), who Kimmy confronts for pretending to have authored her book. It turns out he got a girlfriend out of the lie but also was so inspired by Kimmy’s book that he has given up his life as a men’s rights activist and commits to changing himself. Kimmy wants to believe it’s possible, that people can change. But it’s rightfully perplexing. Fran represented the worst of violent patriarchy and misogyny. He was as evil as the reverend though, if it’s possible, dumber. How much can a person like that really change? Kimmy Schmidt sharply answers that it’s possible but doesn’t happen overnight.

Even Kimmy, who is so committed to getting better, has had to make very gradual progress and still sometimes slips back into old ways. She sees a pumpkin in Halloween 360 and immediately flashbacks to the bunker—a flashback made more disturbing by the fact that we aren’t actually shown it but just watch it unfold on Kimmy’s face and in her actions. She literally quotes the reverend. It’s tough to watch, but Ellie Kemper plays it effectively, tapping into that dark place that Kimmy is sometimes pulled into. “People don’t change that fast,” she says. “This is me after two years of therapy.”


Now admittedly, it’s not really a great parallel to draw between Kimmy’s inability to change and Fran’s. Kimmy was tormented for years by an abuser. Fran was radicalized by men’s rights activists. It’s far from the same experience, and it’s much easier to empathize with Kimmy’s struggles than with Fran’s. At the end of the episode, Kimmy finds him attending a men’s rights rally, but he insists it’s just so he can see his old friends. In some ways, the episode is overly sympathetic toward Fran, but that’s countered a bit by continuing to make him the butt of the joke. But the ultimate conclusion—that people can change over time is convincingly shown through the storyline. And Kimmy takes him to task in the end, telling him that he can’t just be good when Monica is watching. It’s another classic Kimmy lesson in how to be good.

Titus, meanwhile, is up to a lot of his usual shenanigans. He apparently still hasn’t fully learned his lesson about not playing games to win Mikey back. So when an opportunity to serve as a straight man’s eyebrows (the show’s hilarious name for the opposite of a bear) presents itself, he jumps at it because it also means an opportunity to make Mikey jealous. The plan backfires spectacularly, as Titus plans tend to do, and Mikey actually proposes to Andrew (or Blandrew, as Titus “accidentally” says). It’s not necessarily unpredictable, but it is a much more compelling direction for the story to go in rather than just having Mikey fall for the jealousy trap. Titus is going to need to have a comeuppance for his behavior soon, because he keeps getting in his own way. Someone else needs to learn a lesson about lying.


Stray observations

  • Seeing everyone making changes in their lives convinces Kimmy to go to London like she has always wanted to do. But the trip will have to wait, because the cliffhanger reveals that everyone at Giztoob are about to become millionaires.
  • Rob Huebel’s line reading of everything as if he’s hosting a TV show is a great runner.
  • The lesbians chanting “come out Eleanor” at the Eleanor Roosevelt statue is one of my favorite weirdo jokes of the episode.
  • In some ways, it’ll end up being more interesting if Mikey and Titus don’t end up together. But the show is still kind of treating them like end game, so I doubt that’ll happen.
  • The headlines for Titus and Tad’s relationship: “Eat, Gay, Love!” and “Thai Beau”
  • I’m including this screencap of the newspaper, because you should really read the entire J.Lo/A-Rod article:

  • Image: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)