Monday, 5 August 2019

Cult Cinema #15: Exiles Part 3

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015-2019)

(I'm looking at Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt today. I will spoil episodes, of course, because that's what I do, but the main thing is that this is a show about a woman who spent fifteen years trapped in a bunker by a man who did exactly what you would expect the sort of man who would imprison a woman in a bunker for fifteen years to do, and if reading about this sort of thing would really ruin your day, you really need to stop reading now, because I talk about this a lot.)

Is it surprising that this is here? Really? After all, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is four seasons of a sitcom ostensibly about a cult survivor adjusting to a world she missed out on for a couple of decades. Obviously. That’s just the setup; there’s more to it than that. Possibly less, too.

I’ll level with you, I’m not really at peace with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It has the occasional laugh, but its entire existence is predicated on it being a homage to my least favourite genre of television in my least favourite era, specifically the 1990s Prime Time American Sitcom. We’re talking about the era where Friends and Frasier and several other slightly less memorable comedies (hand up who else remembers Cybill? Yeah, I thought so) ruled television. My dislike of Friends in particular is intense, partly because I associate it with a truly miserable summer in the mid 90s, and primarily because if you know people who treat you the way these people treat each other, they are not your friends.

That's not as much a digression as it should be, since for much of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the whole cult survivor premise is there as a means to create a situation where a nineties sitcom character exists in the present day, so nearly all of the episode titles are framed "Kimmy (does a thing)!" which is not unlike the Friends convention of "The One With (x)". And there's an episode where Kimmy finds her absent, deadbeat mum, who turns out to be not just Lisa Kudrow, but Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe, goofy sociopathy and all (“Lori Ann Schmidt is not a woman who says sorry. Even when you’re supposed to, like in a board game scenario.”)

In the first couple minutes of the 2015 first episode, Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) emerges from an Indiana bunker, having been there since she was kidnapped by apocalyptic cult leader Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm), AKA DJ Slizzard, Indiana's worst wedding DJ. Although briefly an Internet sensation as one of the Indiana Mole Women (the show's theme song is a songified version of an eyewitness interview), Kimmy sets off for New York and a new life. In New York she moves into a basement flat with flamboyantly gay and catastrophically selfish struggling actor Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), which they rent from cheerfully criminal eccentric Lillian (Carol Kane). Kimmy gets various jobs with the parodically wealthy and entitled Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski). These four characters are central to every episode; occasional recurring characters include love interests for all four principals, the villainous cult leader, some annoying MRAs and the other Mole Women. Also, Tina Fey, the principal writer, in more than one guest role.
Is it funny? I'm going to be honest, I'm the wrong person to ask. It's really not made for me. It raises a smile occasionally, I guess, but it is not the comedy I really enjoy, and vast tranches of it set my teeth right on edge. Opinions from the people I know range across the gamut, from it being a scourge upon the earth with about as much comic value as Boris being prime minister to it being a work of comic genius. I can't vouch for either. I think it's probably better if you pick up the ways it's metafictional, that is, if you get how it's a riff on Friends etc. you'll probably enjoy it more. But you also have to have liked Friends, and that's a bridge I can't cross. Well, that and the whole thing where it makes jokes about 90s sitcom racism by doing stuff that’s a bit racist, and I’m about 75% sure it’s intended to make you go “hah, wasn’t 90s TV racism cringy?” except that it’s kind of cringy anyway, and I think it’s just a little bit too complex to really land as a critique of TV racism (case in point: the running gag about how Jane Krakowski’s character is really Native American).

For me, the most interesting parts aren't really to do with the central point – i.e. what if a turn of the millennium sitcom character wound up in a modern sitcom? – but with the way in which the premise gets there – that is, she missed the last fifteen years because she was locked in a bunker by a cult leader who convinced her the world had ended. While I’m not terribly taken with the comedy, I can’t fault the fact that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt at least has the principles and the stones to carry through that secondary thread properly.

Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Hamm), the cult leader who bundled Kimmy into a van and kept her imprisoned in a bunker for fifteen years, appears on the show as a basic charlatan. Dick's behaviour is transparently, obviously fraudulent, and the laughs he brings – Hamm is responsible for most of the laughs in any episode he's in – come from the way he talks complete a-kid-could-see-through-this bullshit all the time with the absolute confidence he's going to be believed, even when he's caught out. And people believe him.
Now this, although played for laughs, isn't untrue. I'm in the middle right now of writing about a psychic who in the 1970s successfully managed to convince audiences that he'd made ectoplasmic manifestations of spirits to appear. He did this by – and I swear to God I am not making this up – putting a sheet over his head and pretending to be a ghost. An apparently nice man with some charisma can get people to believe almost anything, no matter how stupid, and even cling to it, desperately. This is a thing that happens. There are certain people who other people just want to believe. A lot of them are sociopaths.

The main thing that isn't true, I think, is that Dick doesn't believe his own lies. Most abusers, the worst ones especially, believe what they're saying to some extent. And this applies to cult leaders most of all. You can fake conviction, but the one most susceptible of all to being fooled is yourself.

Dick has to be just a basic liar though – this is a retro-themed sitcom, not a profound psychological drama. If he believed his own lies, there'd be an element of tragedy to him, a temptation to feel a sneaking sympathy. But he's a comic monster, and I mean that very specifically in the sense that in the real world, there are no monsters, just people who do banal and terrible things, and who do not deserve the romantic distinction of being called a monster. Dick as a character is irredeemable and vile. He has no positive qualities. He is a classic narcissistic abuser. He gaslights, and he gets away with things, even when he doesn't – he wins over the prosecution lawyers at his own trial ("I’m not a fancy lawyer. Heck, the only book I ever read is the Good Book – The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton”). He manages to get a guy to make a Netflix documentary about his innocence. And he gets the woman who runs prison creative writing sessions to fall in love with him and agree to marry him.

And probably the most important episode in the terms of this strand is one in which Dick doesn't actually appear. This is the third season episode "Kimmy Can't Help You!", which is the one where that creative writing teacher, Wendy (Laura Dern), turns up on Kimmy's doorstep with divorce papers. While in the bunker, Kimmy had been forced to marry Wayne (it would have been a sham, if Wayne hadn't used his marital status to get a discount on a jet ski). Wendy is a professional woman with two graduate degrees and no self esteem, who falls utterly under the cult leader's spell, even while he's in prison serving a life sentence.
Wendy: It's kind of sophisticated if you think about it. An evening in Manhattan with my lover's wife! Sounds like a Noel Coward play!
Kimmy: If Noel Coward really was a coward who rapes everybody.
("Kimmy Can't Help You!")
The mask drops here. This is the first time that the show addresses this explicitly. But it has always been obvious. A man locks one adult woman and three teenagers, one of whom is a girl of 14 he pulled off the street, and one a child he groomed on the Internet, in a bunker. He keeps them there by means physical (locked doors) and psychological (horrific gaslighting and abuse). For what other reason would he go to the effort of doing that? It's not rocket science. He used them for sex. He raped them repeatedly for fifteen years. Of course he did. How could he not have? The comic monster isn't so comic after all, I suppose.
In "Kimmy Can't Help You!" we find that Kimmy agreed to marry Dick, to save Donna from that fate. Having the Reverend fuck her was a bullet she took for the other woman. This is not a thing you get over easily.

Reference has been made before to this, most prominently in a running gag about Kimmy's extreme fight or flight reaction to physical contact (for example, her boyfriend touches her and she gives him a right hook; he's arrested, and she observes that "Seeing you in handcuffs makes my brain calm"). She has post-traumatic stress disorder. There is no question of it. All the signifiers are there.

Dick is a rapist. A child rapist, in fact (yes, Kimmy at least was a child for only four or five of those years, but that only makes it worse, frankly). And so Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt makes comedy from the experience of someone who survived this. Now, a lot of comedy is predicated on things that aren't funny. A lot of that comedy is tasteless. And sometimes things that are tasteless are funny and true. Take that line I quoted above. In words, it doesn't look like much, but I can tell you it's the funniest line in the episode, precisely because it's extreme, precisely because it's unexpected, and because it's the sort of tasteless that comes from being true. This is a thing that comedy and horror have in common, why they go so neatly together. It's why black comedy is a thing. Beneath its late 90s candy coloured facade, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the blackest of comedies.

Kimmy's new life in Manhattan then, and her eventual reinvention and success as a writer of inspirational young adult fantasy fiction, is predicated around her dealing with trauma; a lot of the grounds of the comedy is based around that trauma or the causes of it. For instance, Kimmy is, emotionally, stuck at the age of 14. Now, characters who are adult children are a staple of TV comedy, particularly in the Friends era, and hell, arrested development is so fundamental in early 2000s comedy that, well, Arrested Development exists. But Kimmy's arrested development has a reason: she's still a 1999 teenager because in the intervening years where most people her age were growing up, she was locked in a bunker being lied to and raped. So yes, she's a kid in an adult body, but she has a right to be, a reason to be. Because the chance to grow up was forcibly stolen from her.

The first thing she buys in New York is framed as a simple gag: she stares entranced at the window of a stylish boutique; she walks in, and walks out with a pair of spangly light-up sneakers. And that's funny because it's utterly tragic. She doesn't know how to be 29. Because she spent the last fifteen years in a bunker being raped. When that's the punchline it doesn't seem quite so comfortable a joke.
How do you rebuild after something like that? The various Indiana Mole Women rebuild in different ways. Donna Maria Nuñez makes herself a celebrity. Cyndee Pokorny tries to go back to normality in Durnsville, but also gets engaged to marry an openly gay man (the subtext being: so she won't have to have sex with him). And then there's Gretchen (Lauren Adams), the girl who Dick groomed online.
Gretchen: I'm proud to be brainwashed. I've got a clean brain. You can eat off it.
("Kimmy Makes Waffles!")
Gretchen starts out as a loyal, enthusiastic believer. At the trial, she brings a group of acolytes, protesting the Reverend's, well not exactly innocence, more his rightness. When she is faced with proof that Dick was lying about the Apocalypse happening on 6th June 2006 (they find his audition tape for the 2006-7 season of The Apprentice, and my, that's a gag that's aged well), Gretchen, disconsolate, immediately goes off and gets a job at an Apple store, because it feels reassuringly like being in a cult, and then when that doesn't work out, she joins another cult. In "Kimmy Kidnaps Gretchen!" Kimmy finds that the only way she can save Gretchen from being continually exploited is to explain to her that she's better off starting a cult of her own. So she does.

The show has a fairly honest idea of how we communicate with people who were abused alongside us, and how friendships based upon mutual suffering might not last, or be healthy, or even be friendships at all. In "Kimmy Meets an Old Friend!" Kimmy finds that Donna Maria is in town, and hasn't come to see her, and of course it never occurs to her that Donna might not actually want to be friends with someone who reminds her of a years long ordeal.
Kimmy: I don’t want pity. It’s like, I’m more than this one terrible thing that happened to me.
(“Kimmy Finds Her Mom!”)
Kimmy refuses to be defined by her abuse. But over and over again, finds herself at risk of being exploited and abused. And maybe she's susceptible to this, and everyone else is. In "Sliding Van Doors", an alternative version of Kimmy who never got in the van gets recruited into a cult by Titus, already a hopeless dupe.
Titus: ...After that, one thing led to another and here I am. All because I willed it, using the power of Cosmetology. The only thing stopping you from actuating your potentiality is the sun using the moon to bounce aliens into your brain.
Kimmy: So it’s not my fault!
Titus: Nothing is! Except when you succeed, and that’s ‘cause you’re amazing. With enough money, Cosmetology can kill all aliens on contact.
("Sliding Van Doors")
And it’s ridiculous, but it’s also seductive. Cults are. That's how they get you.
In "Kimmy Rides a Bike!" she and Jacqueline fall under the sway of a faddish workout guru, and begin to engage in the behaviours of cultists. They compete for the man's favour. They betray each other. But realising that this guy is just another asshole charlatan is the impetus that gives her the strength to testify at Dick Wayne's trial. In "Kimmy Goes to Court!" Titus winds up just as charmed by Dick as everyone else. When Titus tries out for Cats, he enters a weird feline cosplay cult. We are constantly being reminded we're all occasionally in danger of joining a cult from time to time.

And in the middle of this here is Kimmy. And Kimmy is Unbreakable. It's the title of the show. She has survived with her hope intact. But she's Unbreakable because she's already a bit broken.

The most caring people you know are often traumatised. One model of trauma therapy describes the Drama Triangle, the way in which survivors of long term abuse gravitate to three different ways they respond to it, and any given person might be any of them at any given time. Most people recognise that there are those who perpetuate the cycle of abuse by perpetrating more abuse and those who remain continual victims. The third, less well known, category covers the rescuers, the survivors of abuse who find meaning in self-sacrificial service for others, who make it their mission to save people. And well, I recognise that in myself. It's the hardest one to get past because it's the one that looks healthy, heroic even; you tell yourself it's altruistic and even morally mandated, and you use it as a way to avoid dealing with your pain, because other people's pain is more important than yours. And of course you can't rescue some people. Some people don't need to be rescued. Some people are only ever going to get better if they're shown how to rescue themselves.

Donna moves on by making cash out of the situation, and you get the impression that she's the most together of them all. Cyndee, too processes it in her way. Gretchen swerves wildly from victim to abuser. And Kimmy is a rescuer. Her flashbacks to the bunker are mostly about her trying to take the fall for her companions, with varying success. When in "Kimmy Makes Waffles!" she winds up trapped with the others in the bunker again, it's entirely because she is trying to find evidence herself that no one else has to convict Dick Wayne.

And she's got a long way to go, even at the end when she finds success and a sort of closure.

Look, I don't particularly enjoy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It deliberately cleaves to a particularly strict sort of formula that really grates on me, and many of the storylines bother me in ways that I'm not really prepared to go into. But the primary thing the show does do right is that it shows in an honest, direct way how we process trauma. It at least tries, over and over, to work through what being unbreakable really means.