SPOILER ALERT: You might not want to read this post until you’ve watched the entire series.
It’s terribly difficult to write a comedy about something as traumatic as kidnapping, sexual exploitation, and brainwashing. Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock) tries to do just that. Does it work? Is there a message within the lighthearted bandying about of these serious topics? As a psychologist, I don’t see one.
Kimmy’s (Ellie Kemper) story: kidnapped in eighth grade by a preacher who claimed to be saving her and 3 other women from the apocalypse. Held in an underground bunker for 15 years, tortured with demeaning name-calling (“you’re garbage”, “you’re a dumb dumb”) and “weird sexual stuff.” This situation is all too close to recently released and similarly kidnapped women in Ohio and Utah.
These realities and their aftermaths are not funny. So, to tackle a series like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt takes a considerable amount of psychological acumen if it’s to be done at all. What’s required is some important revelation, something real that overrides any risk of insensitivity. Each time I thought we were close; the series veered off and ended up nowhere. Nowhere except to reproduce Kimmy’s original problems, ones she had even before she was kidnapped.
Let’s take a look at what five of those problems are:
Kimmy grins and bears it
“Smile ‘til you feel better.” That’s been Kimmy’s motto her whole life. The supposed optimism in which Kimmy re-enters the world and takes back her life turns out not to be optimism at all. It’s a repetition of what she’s always done with her troubles. Pretend her feelings don’t exist. Here’s an example: “When I used to get really sad in the place I used to live, I’d jump up and down and say: ‘I’m not really here. I’m not really here.’”
Psychologically, this never works. Feelings can’t be pushed into non-existence. They come back in one symptom or another. Unfortunately, the whole series supports, instead of refutes, the idea that they can – with such techniques as “Outside-In Living.” Its slogan: “It’s scientifically proven, if you look one way on the outside, you become that on the Inside.” This is decidedly not true.
Optimism Doesn’t Solve Trauma
These superficial techniques don’t resolve trauma. They reinforce the numbness that’s symptomatic of PTSD. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt caricatures and spoofs these techniques with the use of endearingly eccentric characters. But, it’s hard to laugh at something so terrifying and psychologically damaging as trauma.
There are signs of fear and panic in Kimmy. She has the expected symptoms of PTSD – flashbacks, sleep problems, unexplainable panics. All these hint at other feelings. There’s anger. Fear. Distrust. Shame. Guilt – was I bad? Am I stupid? Is this my fault? There is deep, deep grief. These are buried in Kimmy. She has no choice. There’s been no one, ever, to help her.
Kimmy must be unbreakable
What the series shows, psychologically, is what happens to a child without a mother to count on. Kimmy had a mother in mini skirts, more of a child than Kimmy herself, a mother who ran off again and again. Kimmy had no choice but to put a smile on her face. She had to be the strongest one around. She still does. Can’t afford to be “breakable.” That’s not healthy. But, there’s no one to turn to if she is.
Kimmy doesn’t trust help
Kimmy tells herself she doesn’t need to talk when first released from captivity. She thinks if she turns her back on the past, doesn’t think about anything – her fears and anger will be gone. She needs someone to help her with what she’s been through and all the feelings involved. But, the series never gets her that help.
And, worse yet, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt only makes therapists look untrustworthy, unethical, and unaffordable. Jacqueline’s (Jane Krakowski) couple’s therapist has a secret affair with Jacqueline’s husband. Another one of Jacqueline’s therapists charges an outrageous $500 per session. How is Kimmy supposed to trust a therapist – especially with her history of an untrustworthy mother? How are any viewers, who may need help, supposed to find therapy a viable option?
Repeating Kimmy’s Past
When Kimmy realizes she does need someone to talk to, the series repeats, instead, Kimmy’s worst beliefs. There is no one to trust. Everything is up to her. She’s the only one competent enough to find the evidence to put her kidnapper, the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) away. The lawyers, and her idiotic stepfather, are completely inane and incompetent.
The series becomes less funny as the episodes unfold, and, unfortunately, less redeemable. In fact, the end is disturbingly abrupt and cruel. The last shot shows a shocked and dismayed Kimmy Schmidt. She’s on the phone with Dong, an Asian fellow GED student who loves her. Yet, because she was busy, as always, saving everyone else, she didn’t answer his calls. Now, as they speak, he’s marrying someone else. Kimmy gets nothing. What’s Kimmy supposed to do now? Smile and bear it?