She Can Fly: Stronger Than Ever

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt once seemed like the show was broken: with its weird, dark premise (a woman decides to live in New York City after being rescued from the underground bunker of a doomsday cult), off-kilter comedic cast (Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane), and peculiar pedigree (30 Rock), it seemed like there was too much to live up to and not enough to back it up. So when NBC decided the show didn’t have a great chance for success in their current line up, Universal, Tina Fey, and Robert Carlock were eager to have it make the jump to Netflix.

This happened almost entirely after the show was filmed, during post-production, so Kimmy Schmidt, in a lot of ways, really lucked out. Other Netflix original content is made specifically to expand beyond the restrains of traditional cable shows–a limited run time (usually 22 or 40-some minute long shows), network censorship. While some shows, like House of Cards, seem to adapt well to the lack of structure, other shows are not helped by the freer formatting. Look at Arrested Development’s fourth season, which stretched itself so far beyond the bonds of network influence that the awkwardly long episodes were specifically designed to be binged on and then rewatched multiple times before their humor could be fully comprehended. Because of Kimmy Schmidt’s airing uncertainty, it avoided a lot of the pitfalls that Arrested succumbed to.

Much like Flight of the Conchords on HBO, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does not relish in the gory glory of being picked up by a “network” that offers fare which frequently features cursing, nudity, and sex. Instead, Unbreakable gleefully teases at cut off curses and lacks nudity in a way that only a show which traces its roots to a love of network sitcoms could do.

This sort of joyful attitude is refreshing, especially as the show is set in New York City, a place synonymous with high cost of living, disgusting surroundings, and perpetually angry inhabitants.The upbeat tone is even more shocking when you consider that the Fey/Carlock duo’s last big hit was about as sarcastically sour late-night showrunner, also living in the Big Apple.

While it shares an urban setting and a female lead, that’s essentially where the similarities end; Kimmy Schmidt has little in common with 30 Rock. While 30 Rock was about a show-within-a-show and lampooning current pop culture, Kimmy Schmidt is a coming of age story (albeit, that age is 30) with a sweetly nostalgic fondness for the 90’s. Both shows tap into the current cultural zeitgeist, but in vastly different ways.

Kimmy Schmidt is analogous to that awkward pseudo-generation between Generation X-ers and millennials–Kimmy herself is not a girl, but not yet a woman. All the characters, from Carol Kane’s inspirationally goofy landlady to Tituss Burgess’ lovingly acerbic gay roommate, are in a state of arrested development, and the show is about them growing out of, and into, themselves. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt shares the same sense of 90s nostalgia that you find on tumblr and Buzzfeed, but it also lacks the inherent need to be “plugged in.” After all, the titular character (dubbed a “mole woman” in the first episode by the Matt Lauer in one of the show’s best cameos) has been living under a rock (almost literally) for 15 years. The last internet she knew was AOL dial-up was the internet, cell phones were camera-less bricks, and Moesha is her hippest frame of cultural reference.

Jeff Richmond’s compositions are lighthearted and jovial, but they often feel to derivative of his work on 30 Rock, where the mix of frenetic and energetic soundtrack suited the show, and often offered a humorously optimistic-sounding counterpoint to the show’s staunchly pessimistic lead. That said, the opening theme for the show is some of Richmond’s (and The Gregory Brother’s) best work, perfectly pop-referential, while being both sincere and empowering.

 

The show’s biggest fault lies in the fact that it is 30 Rock’s little sister. It will never be able to break away from the shadow of its big sister. Certain characters feel like vague call-backs to 30 Rock: I can’t help but wish that Chloe Grace Moretz played Kimmy’s sister Kymmi (but Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka makes the caustic teen her own, and provides a wonderful foil to Kimmy’s sunny nature). Martin Short’s Dr. Franff feels (and looks) quite a bit like Prince Gerhardt Hapsburg, but Short’s delivery falls…well, short, especially when compared to Paul Reubens. And John Hamm, while great in his cameo, seems to have become a pre-requisite for all Fey and Poehler productions (so, next up: Broad City?), which makes his role seem slightly less special.

But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt isn’t trying to be 30 Rock, and that is also the show’s greatest strength. It’s obviously going to follow in the same weird footsteps, but it has different goals in mind.

At its core, Unbreakable is a story about women (and, to a lesser extent, men) breaking free from the bonds that have been forced on them; literally (in Kimmy’s case), self-imposed (the kept wife Jacqueline, Titus’ fear of rejection), or socially enforced (Dong versus U.S. Immigration). Every character is deeper than they initially appear, and while the first season had some slip-ups in dealing with the presentation of race (with one especially odd, but almost justifiable narrative choice presented in the third episode), because of Netflix’s guarantee of at least two seasons for the show–and likely more to come, due to the critical acclaim the show has received thus far–there’s a great likelihood that everyone will get their shining moment and plots that seem awkward in the first season will find more nuanced resolution.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is an anthem to empowerment. In what sometimes seems like the darkest timeline, this show is a ray of light that proves television can still be fun, uplifting, and exciting, even for the most cynical viewers.

She Can Fly: The Starfire/Raven Dichotomy

I grew up consuming pop media rabidly; the 90s and early 00s was a great time to love cartoons and comics. Anime had started its journey into the mainstream, classic cartoons were easy to find on repeat, and new shows seemed to debut all the time on venues like ABC’s “One Saturday Morning” and Cartoon Network’s “Cartoon Cartoon” block.

Still, being a female fan was always difficult. Often women and girls were relegated to being side characters, mainly moms and love interests. Some shows featured a single female character surrounded by men. When we were really lucky, and media featured more than a single token female character, there were usually two female characters to every three male characters. When this happened, shows often relied on a dichotomy between the two characters that caused conflict because of how different the two women were.

TV shows and comics often still follow these rules.

Look to Archie comics: Betty is the sweet, smart, athletic girl next door while Veronica is rich, snooty, and did I mention really rich? Scooby Doo has the beautiful, but dull Daphne and the smart, but tragic looking Velma (a dichotomy that has, in recent years, been subverted by newer iterations of the franchise). The Snorks relied not on competition between kind Casey Kelp and fashionable Daffney Gillfin, who were shown as good friends, but still instinctually pitted the tomboy against the girly girl. Kimberly and Trini in Power Rangers were essentially pallet swaps of one another in terms of how they were written, their most defining characteristics were that the Pink Ranger was a slightly girlier gymnast Pink Ranger and the Yellow Ranger was a slightly more tomboyish martial artist. Batgirl was a smart, good girl; Catwoman was a pretty, bad girl. X-Men Evolution had goth Rogue and her polar opposite, valley girl Kitty Pryde. The Powerpuff Girls, a show widely lauded for being  female friendly and featuring well-defined characters with depth, relied on stereotypes to characterize the main characters, which put them at odds with one another. A friendship is implied between Honey Lemon and Gogo Tamago in Big Hero 6, despite the fact the two never say a word to one another (but at least a subplot about the two girls competing for the attention of the same guy was dropped pre-production). Princess Bubblegum is smart and girly, Marceline is tough and cool. Even Katara and Toph in Avatar: the Last Airbender exhibit the stereotypes of the pretty, kind girl and the tough tomboy.

While stereotypes and broad generalizations can be helpful in creating the outline of a character, media seems over-reliant on the two female characters being polar opposites: pretty girl versus tomboy; optimist versus goth girl; smart one versus rich one, and so on.

The first time I really noticed this dichotomy was with the Teen Titans cartoon that debuted in 2003. The show is fondly remembered, and for good reason; one of the first American-produced shows to really adapt an anime-referential style, while still retaining its Western-based roots, the DC Comics cartoon told complex, layered stories that went beyond the classic definitions of good and evil, and tackled topics like character motivation, the origin of true strength, and the power of friendship. The show also used the classic 2:3 ratio, opting to initially feature Robin, Cyborg, Beast Boy, Raven, and Starfire as the core cast (sorry Wonder Girl, Flash, Aqualad, and Speedy).

Every girl I knew who watched the show was either a Starfire or a Raven—which is to say, they preferred and identified with one character, and the other struck them as kind of a mystery. “Starfires” were bubbly, optimistic, outgoing, and liked having fun, while “Ravens” were private, smart, brooding, realists with a tendency to be pessimistic.

I was a Starfire. I liked Raven’s intelligence, but the rest of her character seemed foreign to me. While the show was focused on explaining why Raven was the way she was (and why Starfire acted the way she did), sometimes that was lost in the bustle of the other characters and plot lines. I didn’t actively dislike Raven, but I honestly didn’t care about her, which is actually probably worse—indifference is the opposite of love, after all.

But Teen Titans combated the idea that women always had to be at odds with one another. Switched, which was the 7th episode of the show, did something really unexpected; Beast Boy, Cyborg, and Robin were essentially non-players in the episode, and it focused on a body switching trope which is often a cliché used with dichotomous characters. But, instead of being about the two characters just getting back to their own bodies, it became about the two of them understanding one another on a deeper level.

After seeing that episode, it started to click with me that disliking Raven made no sense. I shared attributes with both Raven and Starfire. Who I was could not be summed up with one generalized character.

Girls are often forced to choose who they are from one of two characters, instead of being allowed to see themselves in all characters. Part of it is societal, emphasis on competition between women that can be seen in media from the Bachelor to Taylor Swift, but another part of it is that media plays into the trope of girl on girl violence. Many of these duos are shown in competition with each other (for boys, grades, a role in a drama club production) in a way that is never truly resolved.

This dichotomy and simplification of female characters (really, of all characters) is a necessity for storytelling, but it needs to be done well. Princess Bubblegum and Marceline’s initial strife in Adventure Time came not from their differences, but from their similarities: they are both confident, powerful rulers and that put them at odds with one another. It’s not to say that the characters always have to understand each other, but their differences can’t be the only cause of conflict within the story.

The best thing that can be done with dichotomous characters is to show them as friends, and many of the examples I’ve posed do just that. The dichotomy is used as a place to derive conflict from, but also as a story telling gateway to greater understanding. Subversion of the dichotomy trope is a beautiful thing. When it turns out Daphne is not only pretty, but also smart and capable, or that Velma is smart, but also a romantic, it creates complex, well-rounded characters that anyone can relate to. A character is only the sum of the parts she is written with, so don’t make those parts all come from clichés.

She Can Fly: Broad City Review

Slackers have always been popular topic for nerd media. With comics like Scott Pilgrim and the newly reinvigorated Eltingville Club, TV shows like Workaholics and the League, and pretty much any movie starring Seth Rogan, slackers are a character type that a lot of nerds relate to. But there’s one thing about all the slacker content out there, from webcomics to studio produced shows, that bothers me: the lack of female slackers.

Women traditionally play the stooge to the antics of male characters, ultimately holding their hand, preventing them from harm, and looking on as the men coordinate bombastic antics and pointedly avoid work. April Ludgate in Parks and Rec originally started off as a rare example of a female slacker character, but has since morphed into a responsible adult who enjoys working. The Mindy Show skirts the idea of a female slacker on occasion, but the main character is also a successful OB-GYN, meaning she has been through years of college and works every day at an unrelenting job. Even in Seth Rogan’s This is the End, the single female character with more than a minute of screen time, Emma Watson, is characterized as hardworking, determined, and a straight man to Rogan’s pointedly male crew of idiots.

BC1This is why Broad City is so revolutionary. Broad City, executive produced by Amy Pohler, stars comediennes Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson in an episodic, slice-of-life story about two twenty-something women who are wholly unmotivated and prefer smoking pot and talking about what kind of dog they would be to doing their taxes or actually working at their jobs.

That said, Abbi certainly plays second banana to Ilana’s blase attitude towards being an “adult.” Abbi is shown as motivated and driven, wanting to succeed at her job, but ultimately being blocked from her career goal (a personal trainer) and instead having to work janitorial duty. This is a smart move, though, that allows the show to have a straight man who is hijacked into being a slacker by her lack of upward mobility.

The ensemble cast also stars Hannibal Buress as Ilana’s lovelorn booty call. Buress takes on the role that women traditionally play in slacker media: his character, Lincoln, is the straight man of the show. A successful dentist, Lincoln just wants to please Ilana so much that she will decide to settle down and become his girlfriend. This beautiful role reversal (and Buress’ jovial delivery), brings the show full circle in terms of bucking a traditionally all-male trope.

The show also features comedy that could be called “female,” in that they aren’t afraid to use the word “vagina” (albeit in a funny accent) akin to how Judd Apatow movies use the word “dick.” However, the show isn’t alienating towards any particular gender in its comedy, as it features content that is relate-able to anyone who has ever been to New York City, struggled to make money, or maybe done some not-so-legal things.

Still finding its footing, Broad City plays a bit like a female version of Workaholics, with New York City as the setting for the illicit adventures of two women who are just trying to live their lives and have some fun doing it.

Broad City has been renewed by Comedy Central for a second season. The first season is available streaming and will be available on DVD in the fall.

 

She Can Fly is a featured article at the Acts of Geek Network. Exploring pop culture, comics and games from a geek girls perspective.