Reviews — From the June 2015 issue

New Television

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With the arrival of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix), we finally have a major sitcom heroine whom we definitely don’t want to dress like. Kimmy Schmidt wears bright pinks, purples, and yellows. She looks, one character observes, like the wrapping of a Wendy’s old-fashioned hamburger. Albeit in a cute way. Sort of. She is a thirty-year-old woman who wears the clothes of a fifteen-year-old girl, and not a fifteen-year-old girl on television — there is a teenage character on Unbreakable, a Manhattan kid who wears black and flannel — but a fifteen-year-old girl from a small town in the Midwest. She looks like something out of the mail-order children’s-clothing catalogues of my Oklahoma childhood.

Kimmy is one of four Indiana women who have recently been freed after spending fifteen years imprisoned in an underground bunker by the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. (The show’s ingenious opening-credit sequence — made to resemble a viral video — underlines the allusion to the Castro brothers in Ohio.) Kimmy, alone among the former captives, decides to leave Indiana, moving to New York to escape her notoriety as one of the “mole women.” (One of the other mole women, a Mexican immigrant, ends up making a living selling mole sauce.) The bunker concept usefully exaggerates the classic naïf-comes-to-the-big-city story line, but more importantly, and more unusually, it draws attention to Kimmy’s arrested development: she doesn’t just dress like a teenager; she is, emotionally and intellectually, still fifteen years old.

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

We are accustomed to seeing adult men act like boys — in an early episode, Kimmy’s love interest is shown in the middle of a video-game marathon, and this does not seem eccentrically juvenile. Meanwhile, one of the teenage girls on the show is having an affair with a married ophthalmologist, which seems maybe lamentable, but not remarkable. Kimmy, however, an adult with glitter sneakers and a backpack; Kimmy, an adult with the walls of her room painted lavender; Kimmy, an adult asking her boyfriend, “But what would the Care Bears say?” — this is straightforwardly repellent, funny, and disturbing. Comedy’s convex mirror makes visible the way that modern American teenage boys’ progress toward adulthood resembles Zeno’s paradox, while teenage girls are brought to adulthood abruptly, as if by jump cut; television, among its other powers, teaches them to want that.

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