We All Have Our Own Bunkers: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Law, and Grace

Warning: some spoilers ahead, but no major plot developments, I don’t think. It’s hard to […]

Carl L. / 3.19.15

Warning: some spoilers ahead, but no major plot developments, I don’t think. It’s hard to tell with sitcoms, especially one in the 30 Rock vein.

Netflix’s newest “original” show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, very quickly won me over with its blend of goofy characters and cultural commentary. From the mind of Tina Fey, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt feels a lot like 30 Rock, but has a slightly different, more optimistic tone, mainly due to Ellie Kemper’s portrayal of the titular character. Kimmy’s demeanor is reminiscent of Leslie Knope, so it’s nice see another solid female character step in to fill the void left by Parks and Recreation’s conclusion.

rs_634x1024-150107062827-634.Unbreakable-Kimmy-Schmidt-JR1-1715Unbreakable begins after Kimmy and three other women are rescued from an underground bunker, where they have been living as part of a doomsday cult, run by a fundamentalist preacher. From there, Kimmy decides to move to New York and experience the life she missed out on while imprisoned underground. That premise alone would have been enough for me to give the show a chance, but Unbreakable thankfully plays it for much more than cheap shots against religion, commenting instead on the myriad fundamentalisms that structure our everyday lives. In fact, Unbreakable seems deeply attuned to the similarly absurd “cults” that shape our daily lives, often showing them in such a way that makes the religious one look downright sane. I’m going to touch on two of these “cults” in the remainder of this post.

The first comes when Kimmy accompanies her boss, Mrs. Vorhees (Jane Krawkowski), to the plastic surgeon. Mrs. Voorhees, by way of marriage, is very wealthy, and, being wealthy, feels she must look a certain way or risk the gossip of her peers. In her circle, exterior beauty and youth reign supreme—they are a standard that must be attained and maintained. The plastic surgeon (one could call him the “preacher” in this cult of beauty), Dr. Franff, convinces Kimmy that she needs a new face, as hers is beginning to age. The show, however, ruthlessly satirizes Dr. Franff, his own face an unmoving mask, rendered unpliable by years of plastic surgery, most likely undergone to keep pace with his clients. Dr. Franff represents the law of beauty taken to its ugliest extreme, which Kimmy finally realizes when she escapes from this form of fundamentalism by the end of the episode.

Later on in the season, as Kimmy is going through some rough emotional times, Mrs. Voorhees invites her to her spin class, aptly named Spirit Cycle. The class is led by an engaging, up-tempo man (played by Nick Kroll), who encourages the women in the class to relax and find their “inner beach”. For all this talk of relaxation, Spirit Cycle operates on a strict, law-based system, where the students that the leader deems to be doing the best to free their minds get to move to the front of the class. Kimmy soon supplants Mrs. Voorhees at the top of the pile, but her problems still haunt her–all she’s done is trade one form of legalism (the bunker) for another (the strict exercise class). The episode highlights how Kimmy becomes consumed with Spirit Cycle, deriving her worth from her performance. Yet, as tends to happen with legalistic systems, Kimmy eventually can’t take it anymore, and her response stands out as a moment of pure grace in the series.


She storms back to the gym and interrupts the class, delivering an impassioned speech before unmasking the leader for the imposter that he has been all along. To preserve the comedy of the scene, I won’t go into specific details, but let’s just say that the instructor has literally been sitting on a throne of lies. Kimmy’s sermon has a certain feminist bent (this is a Tina Fey show after all), but as she speaks about how women should stop seeking a man’s approval, the weight of her past experiences brings the issue to bear upon all of us. We all look for approval in systems that reward (and punish) our performance, just like Spirit Cycle. We all fall prey to leaders who promise us peace and relaxation, as long as we perform the requisite actions at the right time with the right attitude.

We’re all Kimmy–I know I am–ready to replace one “bunker” with another, seeking approval from arbiters of the law, whoever they may be. As she discovers, this way of life is exhausting and drains us of joy. There’s only one escape hatch from the bunker of the law, and it has to do with a love that is exempt from requirement—from parents, friends, a spouse, or God. The kind of love that is, you guessed it, truly unbreakable.