How Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Uses Unbridled Optimism & Sunny Colors To Tell The Darkest Story On TV
Four women are kidnapped and kept in an underground bunker for 15 years. They're forced to participate in a cult religion led by an unhinged "reverend" and to engage in "weird sex stuff."
Exploring that premise on the small screen sounds like it would lead to a pretty dark drama. But it's not the storyline for a niche, brooding show at all. That is literally the plot of Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the candy-colored sitcom whose protagonist wears purple pants and says things like "Hashbrown, no filter."
So how, exactly, do creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock keep a show whose protagonist is a trauma survivor authentic, while still keeping the show so laugh-out-loud funny? It's a combination of color scheme, lighthearted B-plots, and knowing when it's okay to go dark.
Of course, there are plenty of dark comedies in the current TV landscape, and the often-theorized link between comedy and mental health issues is nothing new. But because of its bright colors and unerring optimism, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a warmth other dark comedies just don't have.
The show's color palette reflects Kimmy's (Ellie Kemper) unfailingly positive disposition. Kimmy refuses to be defined by her past trauma; she's determined to make herself "unbreakable." Because of her cheeriness, Kimmy is much more well-adjusted than her fellow mole women Gretchen (Lauren Adams) and Cyndee (Sara Chase). (We don't know if she's really better-adjusted than Donna Maria (Sol Miranda), since she hasn't really been featured that much post- rescue.) But while her coping mechanisms helped her survive life in the bunker, she's still working through her captivity's psychological effects.
In the pilot, we already see how Kimmy's cheerfulness influences how she sees the world. Kimmy rides New York's subway clad in a bright yellow sweater, while everyone else appears to be shrouded by a gray filter. She visits an impossibly verdant Central Park and explores the rainbow-filled wonderland of Dylan's Candy Bar. By the end, she and Titus (Tituss Burgess), clad in an equally bright off-brand Iron Man costume, are singing together in Times Square, sticking out like sore thumbs.
"We wanted her to stand out, because she was not of this place," Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt costume designer Tina Nigro says of the first episode. "And she definitely was new and shiny and bright — all the things that people think New York isn't."
Most New Yorkers wouldn't see having a rat on the bed as a Cinderella moment. But after living underground for a decade and a half, everything we take for granted really is that exciting to Kimmy. "Even though she came from a very dark place, that’s not her outlook on life," Nigro says of Kimmy.
The Vox video below takes a closer look at Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's color palette throughout the show's first season. And it's not a coincidence that Walter Bankston (Mike Britt), the neighbor who watches the survivors' SWAT rescue unfold — and gets the autotune treatment for the show's theme song — is also wearing yellow. "That was a little bit on purpose, in a duller version of Kimmy," Nigro says of Bankston's dull yellow T-shirt in the opening credits. His character represents the hope for the ladies' new lives, but its faded quality also alludes to the reality Kimmy isn't ready to accept.
Kimmy's bright and cheery attitude doesn't mean she's totally adjusted to her new life. In the second season, we learn why Kimmy has taken on a "savior complex," as Vulture's Flor Edwards describes it. Even in the bunker, Kimmy consistently put other people's needs before her own. Nigro also says that Kimmy's propensity for bright colors is a subconscious effort to "make other people feel good" when they see her outfits — the desire to help other people is embedded in everything she does.
And while there's nothing wrong with helping people, putting on a happy face and focusing on others is also a way for Kimmy to sidestep her own issues. Melinda Paige, PhD, a clinical mental health counselor who specializes in PTSD treatment, says that the "tend and befriend" coping strategy can be common of female trauma victims. Paige also says the survivalist behavior is linked to Stockholm syndrome, which we see hints of in Gretchen's response to the kidnapping, too.
As Kimmy starts attending therapy sessions with Andrea (Tina Fey), we see how her "tend and befriend" strategy is hindering her own recovery. We don't know exactly what Kimmy's suffering from — she's never formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or any other condition — but it's clear she has a lot of issues to work through. Kimmy reveals that when things get tough, she goes to her "happy place" — a colorful, cartoon-filled fantasy world, where her anger and sadness disappear. It's a coping mechanism that worked inside the bunker, but Andrea encourages her to actually experience those emotions now that she's in the real world.
"We can look at it as a form of avoidance," Joel Minden, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of the Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in California, says of Kimmy's propensity for focusing on others. "Rather than addressing one's own concerns, it might feel easier and safer to focus more on helping other people."
Minden says that while Andrea has problems of her own, and Kimmy does see her as someone else to help, her advice to Kimmy is sound. He praises Andrea's telling Kimmy to face her fears and stop avoiding self-care. After all, it's through her conversations with Andrea that Kimmy realizes her anger towards her mother, something that started before she was even kidnapped.
Through Kimmy's sessions with Andrea and her confrontation with her mom, Lori-Anne (Lisa Kudrow), we see the show's hints at darkness, and at concrete efforts to address everything she went through. But it's always balanced out by brightness and more lighthearted comedic fare. The first time Kimmy meets Andrea, the B-plot is Titus' quest to find a storage system for cassette tapes, and the entire episode is scored by fake songs from Now That Sounds Like Music 3. The show is reaching darker-than-ever territory here — Kimmy reveals that she once attacked a goat at a petting zoo because its "beard" reminded her of the reverend. But it never stops being a true sitcom, which is no easy feat.
And on that darker note, we also learn more about Kimmy's sexual abuses in the show's second season. She develops a healthy relationship with someone she truly cares about — but every time Dong (Ki Hong Lee) tries to kiss her, Kimmy whacks him with a telephone. Helen Odessky, PsyD, explains that the human brain is "hardwired" for three responses to assault — "fight, flight, or freeze." Kimmy's reaction is to fight, and her instincts take over, even though she does want to be intimate with Dong.
It's not the first time we've seen a more violent reaction from Kimmy, either. In the first season, she meets a veteran, Keith (Sam Page). He responds to the sound of champagne popping by grabbing Kimmy and ducking to the ground — and in return, she starts attacking Keith and yelling about his "beard." It's not hard to infer that this scene, too, is a reference to sexual assault at the reverend's hands.
"Most of her brain is still back there," Paige says of Kimmy's captivity. Kimmy and Keith's subconscious reactions cause them to respond to those seemingly-harmless external cues in defensive ways. Their brains are "frozen" in the moment of trauma, explains Ginger Poag, MSW, LCSW.
But Kimmy's positivity and colorful clothing aren't an act. They're the best way she knows how to move forward with her life. And for the most part, they seem to be working, though she clearly has more issues to address in therapy sessions.
Based on what Nigro says, Kimmy will be making more progress in the third season, too. "In season 3, the colors are a little less intense," the costume designers says. "I don't know if Kimmy would ever be in all black in New York... but the colors are definitely a little bit more muted." Hopefully, that's a sign that Kimmy is continuing to move on from her past and to focus on her own needs.
After the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was released, Refinery29's Kelsey Miller wrote a powerful essay about why the show is uncomfortable to watch, as a survivor of abuse. Her moving essay was met with several comments suggesting the show didn't actually say Kimmy was abused, or that it was just a "slightly above mediocre sitcom." "Kimmy is supposed to be light and funny and adorable," one commenter wrote.
And while Kimmy's character is funny and, yes, adorable, calling Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt "light" is dismissive of the very real issues it seeks to address. Yes, Titus and Lillian (Carol Kane) provide much-needed sitcom levity. But at the heart of the show is the very real abuse that Kimmy suffered for 15 years.
It's not wrong to laugh at the show's hilarious moments. And it's good to remember that it is a fictional show, and trauma survivors all have different reactions to their experiences. But visually and psychologically, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's brightness does have a deeper meaning behind it, which only makes the show that much better.
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