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The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Isn’t Racist, But…

Promo for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is hilarious. Audiences and critics having been, for the most part, singing its praises. It’s not a huge show by any means (and Netflix’s refusal to disclose its numbers continues to make it difficult to truly quantify its success), but simply by paying attention to social atmosphere and various review sites, along with a guaranteed season two, you can easily surmise that the show’s cult audience is thriving.

Its success, however, is tainted somewhat by a wave of criticisms of its approach to racial humor (here’s just one of the many, many thinkpieces about it). It’s odd to hear so much criticism of a show that’s not Two Broke Girls and/or something from the mind of Daniel Tosh or Seth MacFarlane. I mean, Tiny Fey? The darling girl of 30 Rock and SNL’s more successful runs put to task about the show’s alleged racism? Never thought I’d see that day.

After binging through the show though, while I can certainly see why so many people are making this argument, I don’t think the show is racist at all. Or rather, I don’t think it’s “racist” in the way that such a loaded word tends to imply. Tiny Fey and Robert Carlock’s new show certainly isn’t intentionally racist, that’s for sure. The problem is that its unilateral focus on Kimmy Schmidt’s life has indirectly weakened its portrayal of the various characters around her. It’s not racist per se, it’s poor characterization, resulting in racist (and homophobic) impressions.

Personally, I’ve always had an issue with how Tiny Fey portrayed minorities. I’ve only seen a few episodes of 30 Rock, but of the ones I did see, they too had somewhat disingenuous racial connotations (specifically I’m talking about this episode), particularly when they’re all centered around a successful white woman who also happens to be neurotic (the pretty white people with problems syndrome, or PWPWP, pronounced “pwip-pwip”). I don’t think its necessarily Fey’s fault though. I think the general narrative that tells the story of a single character’s journey through a troublesome point in his or her life tends to lead to poorly structured characters around them. If you’re not careful, that can lead to a lot of uncomfortable moments.

Bojack Horseman, another cult-hit Netflix show, has a similar issue. What started out as a comic take on Hollywood excess through the eyes of the scene’s most failed misanthrope, turned into a dark character study of a broken former star. That’s fine, I suppose, although it’s hard for me to sympathize with an (ostensibly white) dude with a lot of money in the throes of interpersonal ennui. But that heavy focus really diminished other potentially rich characters like Todd, Mr. Peanut Butter, and, worst of all, Princess Carolyn, who, in the midst of her own depression, ends up dating two kids in a trenchcoat. The problem isn’t that she’s dating two children – clearly, that’s the joke; it’s that her crafty, confident, hilariously determined character became a sad sack who only felt her only worth was finding a figure worth dating before she got too old.

Contrary to most critics out there, I also find The Last Man on Earth, Fox’s newest hit show, problematic in its own way. It’s a trickier matter with this show, as there’s only been four episodes as of writing this, but so far its high-concept premise, in which a man struggles to survive within a world devoid of life, has essentially relied on a “Men are like THIS, but women are like THIS” template, just in an apocalyptic setting. I mean, I sort of see the show’s attempt to make Carol’s insistence on preserving a certain sense of humanity part of her character, but I disagree that the show makes it clear that it’s part of her personality, not necessarily her gender. Why is she so driven to marry before sex beyond the fact that this is what women do? The show doesn’t say.

These shows aren’t bad by any means, but they feel contrived, forced to fall victim to sitcomy tropes, gender cliches, and relationship woes, and no amount of animated animals or barren landscapes will hide them. What Bojack Horseman and The Last Man on Earth do with gender, the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does with race. All three shows are so intrigued with their central lead characters (not in and of itself a bad thing) that they struggle to explore other characters outside of gender/racial stereotypes. In this post-Tumblr world, it’s easy to categorize that as sexist or racist but really, it’s just a form of laziness.

And that’s the crux of the racial problems with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. There’s an… air of concern underlying the show that seems to exemplify Patricia’s Arquette’s misspoken post-Oscar comments, where white women should be propped up by minorities and LGBTQ people (that’s not what she meant, of course, but that’s how her words were (mis)interpreted as). In this case, it’s Kimmy Schmidt (and Jacqueline, which I’ll get into later) who is the white woman propped up by Titus, the gay and black man, and Dong, a Vietnamese character, so they claim. By propping up Kimmy’s journey towards autonomy and self-reliance, Titus and Dong are forced to go through generic storylines mostly defined by their race and/or sexuality.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is funny, and the storylines involving Titus, Dong, and Donna Maria are hilarious, yet I can see why so many people are having trouble with the show, despite disagreeing with them. Unlike 30 Rock, whose main character is successful and wealthy yet seems to be swamped by first-world problems, Kimmy is emerging from a darker, more complex place – fifteen years within a bunker at the behest of a controlling male figure. Kimmy is driven wonderfully by her desire to no longer be a victim, which is a stronger motivation than “lack of fulfillment” that drives Bojack or 30 Rock (and, implicitly, Last Man on Earth). Yet the show is so glowingly focused Kimmy’s success (witness how easily she succeeds at finding a home and a job in New York) that everyone around her, from a character perspective, feel like their playing catch-up; Titus is defined by his blackness and gayness; Dong thrives on a host of Asian-American stereotypes; Donna Marie ends her arc by selling mole sauce.

This all probably applies to Jacqueline’s character the most, whose Native American parentage has become the most decisive part of the show. There’s a difference between being absurd and being nonsensical: absurdity allows the satire to shine through cosmically massive hyperbole, while “nonsensical-ness” relies on sheer illogical connections for humor. Jacqueline’s Native American relations toe this line, which only comes off confusing. It isn’t clear if the show wants to satirize Jacqueline’s overwrought attempts at whiteness (at the expense of some easy Native American gags) or play it all ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous (like a text-alerting banana). The result is, unfortunately, tone-deaf, especially with that wild season finale scenario at the gas station.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t necessarily have to explore its racial (and sexual) caricatures with any real depth, but it may be in the show’s favor to do so, particularly in the second season, to make a richer, stronger, and more comically complex show. After all, this is the show that, just as lazily, implied a catcalling construction worker as a closeted gay person; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt can do so much better (and has, frequently). Fey and Carlock can certainly continue their story into Kimmy’s world, but they’d be better off letting Titus, Dong, Donna Marie, and Jacqueline’s parents into it.

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Social Media Doesn’t Ruin You. Snark Media Does.

This New York Times article confirms essentially what many are fearing about social media of today: the wrong tweet, post, or comment, removed from context, can explode in a wave of social mob outrage, destroying lives and careers in the process. Shaming, a form of bullying that ridicules people just for the existence of one personal aspect of their lives (whether physical, verbal, emotional, or spiritual), has become democratized; in the process, it has become a weapon of the masses, regardless of class, race, sex, or gender. But it’s basically a nuclear warhead, and unlike Kennedy, there’s little to no leader at the head on that program.

I think the question though is why certain comments on the internet become pitchfork-worthy and other, equally hateful and terrible comments are either ignored or, in fact, celebrated. The opening couple of paragraphs of that Times article show that Sacco isn’t particularly a PC-minded person on her Twitter account, despite being a PR rep. (Buzzfeed went further and collected her 16 worst tweets.) But the one that caught fire was different. The one about the German? Rude, but personal. The bad teeth? Lazy stereotype, but direct. The joke about AIDS in Africa? Well, that’s snark. Sacco lays it bare:

    “To me it was so insane of a comment for anyone to make,” she said. “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal.” (She would later write me an email to elaborate on this point. “Unfortunately, I am not a character on ‘South Park’ or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform,” she wrote. “To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble.”)

Ladies and gentlemen: it is 2015, and snark is done.


 

SNARK was fine as a quick, biting, responsive form of comedy. Snark always existed, the literary bridge between irony (a legitimate literary device) and sarcasm (a punchline, a tightly-squeezed form of irony reduced to end a joke.) Whole worlds are build on irony – Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, for the easy examples – and sarcasm was one-and-done, easy-peasy toppers to gags – heroes yelling, “This is going well!” as they sink into the quicksand. Snark was culled from those two concepts and built an attitude around it, often used to mask certain feelings or behaviors.

It makes sense though. Irony masked truth (or more accurately, satirical truth) nearly one hundred percent, and sarcasm barely masked the obvious (clearly, things are not going well). Snark was the middle ground, the way for so-called geniuses or experts to expel their version of the truth to the world while sort of, kind of, justifying their obnoxious behavior. Snark got big in the early 90s, the Dr. Houses and Dr. Kelsos of the world seemingly inspiring a burgeoning class of people with now-regrettable desires to be like them: smart, with the hot-shot ability to put down everyone with elaborate ridicule, under the premise that, deep down, they were broken or flawed – you know, human. This began the horrid wave of “I’m an asshole, but that just me, so get used to it” mentalities that thrived in the late 90s to the mid 00s. Some people were proud of their worldview. Others didn’t flaunt it, but nonetheless were expressing themselves as such, usually in passive-aggressive ways. Everyone thought they were a comedian, or a satirist masking “brilliant” insight behind abject meanness. Hell, Family Guy built a show around it (although I would argue it didn’t start out that way).

The rise of nerd culture embraced snark like no other. It’s a perfect attitude for lovers of geek culture, now embracing the cultural cachet that once pushed them to the margins. They have the knowledge – of classic comics, old-school games, and ye films of olde – and now they could impart that knowledge on others, particularly on those that once shunned them. It was as if The Simpson’s infamous Comic Book Guy was now in charge. What better way to both express that knowledge as well as exact revenge by using snark? What better way to thrive into the 21st century as cultural leaders than to be a smartass blogger?


 

THE thing about snark is at a certain point, no one will tolerate it anymore. Everyone has a breaking point, and we as a society reached it. Social media let that happened. Snark was everywhere: comments implying inferiority behind knowledgeable superiority. People were being snarky without them knowing they were being snarky. Chris Christie is a good example. His “bullying” was once celebrated, telling people to shut up as he expunged his own brand of nonsense, but now, people are sick of it. More and more people are calling out snarky behavior and commentary, and that’s what Sacco learned the hard way.

Everyone “ruined” in that Times article was ruined by the internet’s response to, specifically, a snarky comment or photo: Stone and her goofy gestures at the Tomb of the Unknown; Lynch and her Boston Marathon Victim costume; hell, even jokes about dongles. Regardless of seriousness or intent, all were examples of people joking “all in good fun,” attempts to be comical under the idea that their comments couldn’t possibly be taken seriously. And while most people think that the lack of context and wave of social media is what ruined them, I’d argue that indeed social media knew exactly that they were being “funny”. They didn’t object to the joke regardless of context; they responded to the snark, the “what’s the big deal?” attitude around it.

Such reactions were exacerbated by the rise of minority voices. Nerd voices and their “snark” rose, but so did feminists and transgendered and black voices, and they all kind of, sort of embraced snark (with its passive-aggressiveness, flippant jokiness, and direct meanness masking an indirect point) and it’s lead to a line in the sand. Snark versus snark – smug ironic comedy veiling satire (regardless of quality) pitted against itself – was a lose-lose. The dongle gag lead to both sides being attacked and being fired. Biddle, he who called out Sacco’s snarky AIDS gag got his own karmic retribution when the internet turned on him with his “Bring Back Bullying” comments. All of which ties to Gamergate, perhaps THE biggest depiction of the fallout against snark. Gamergate surges onward because of aggressive responses to snark; any sarcastic jokes that put men in any kind of harsh light will get their full wrath, regardless of how “obvious” the joke is. As Sacco learned.

Snark has become so toxic that sincerity – directly stating how you feel – has become preferable, regardless of belief or stance. Had Stone, Lynch, or the dongle-jokers been candid about their jokes – expressed themselves directly, they might have have been rewarded. There’s precedence for this belief. It’s reached the point that sincerity has been earning more respect. It’s better to outright air your opinions, law-breaking be-damned (Cliven Bundy, Darren Wilson) then to cutely “beat around the bush”. Today’s role models, for good or ill, are those who are candid with their words and deeds.

Snark can work, but it has to be approached positively, not a reflective response to justify assholery or masking poor, ill-thought out behavior under some guise of comedy or satire. Social media has exposed everyone to snark’s insidious side. Those who have been at the receiving end of snark all their lives are calling it out now, and those who have embraced it as a so-called defense mechanism, are entering a tougher world to manage, and may want to tread carefully before releasing another smartass comment out into the world. Because they get the joke. They just don’t like the attitude behind it.

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003)

Through 155 episodes, 4Kids’ 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles managed to maintain a relatively consistent high quality, but not by committing to the tone of the comics – by committing to itself.

The one thing that every good cartoon needs isn’t great animation, tight storytelling, excellent art direction, or appealing characters. Sure, all of those are desirable, and every creative team should aspire to achieve those goals, but the number one thing necessary to a sustainable, enjoyable cartoon is commitment. Cartoons are, almost by definition, so loose and free and unrestrained, that any ridiculous, unrealistic premise can take surprising form and shape if everyone on board commits to the idea(s) and the ideal(s) of the cartoon. Commitment isn’t something you can put on paper or thrust into a few characters. Everyone has to agree to the set-ups AND the various plot catalysts that are inherent in the show’s premise. Everything that does happen, no matter how crazy, has to somehow come back the the core nature of the show and its characters.

TMNT logo

This is a roundabout way of explaining why basically the 2003 version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles managed to maintain a high (well, appealing) quality through its seven season, 155-episode run. Whether shooting the four brothers across space, cyberspace, dimensions, time, pseudo-time, dream-scapes, or whatever crock-pot crazy story the writers cooked up, the show never shied from some core, committed basics: the natural characterizations of the four brothers and their pseudo-father (and their rich, always-potent familial connection); the intense, well-done action scenes; the unique seasonal choices that threw the cast into unique and varies circumstances; the myriad of diverse, outlandish characters that popped in and out of the turtles’ lives. SO much happened in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles during its entire existence, but whatever DID happen, the writers and animators were committed to it. Even its weakest, wackiest premises were given solid, well-told stories: with seven season and one final TV-movie to muck things up, I’d be hard-pressed to declare any season or arc as an abject failure (and I’ll get more into that during this review).

I’m going to put a lot of the show’s success on Chuck Patton and Roy Burdine’s shoulders, the directors of the majority of the episodes (with credit also to the sheer influx of various writers that flowed in and out over the years). Every iteration completely up-ended the show – whether by changing the tone, the designs, the flow of action, the locations, the story-arcs, etc., all at the expense of a (increasingly obvious) shrinking budget and network interference – and Patton and Burdine managed to crank out fantastically energetic, entertaining episodes day in and day out. Even if the Lost Episodes, Fast Forward, and Back to the Sewer episodes disappointed fans (something I’ll get into a bit later), they still managed to produce delightfully watchable television.

All that’s primarily due to the show’s commitment. No matter what crazy event came into the turtles lives, the writers and animators approached it one hundred percent. No matter what insane limitations and forced changes were passed down on the creative team, they bit the bullet and cranked out good work. With cartoon writers these days seemingly struggling with storytelling with a 23-minute timeframe (The current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Adventures of Puss and Boots are two glaring examples), it’s refreshing to watch a show that can handle a solid, straight-forward story with genuinely tight action, real dramatic stakes, impressive characterizations, and actual humorous moments – all done within structurally competent stories and direction.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s major strength probably came from two key aspects: 1) treating the show like a comic, and 2) spending the time to establish every and all major plot changes. The first allows for slick visuals and dynamic animation (including constantly changing aspect ratios, the TV way of mimicking comic panels), particularly around large-scale fight sequences, while the second allows for characters and plot points to breath, particularly important when time/space/dimensional travel becomes a lot more significant. Animators get creative freedom; writers get creative freedom. Combined, the two aspects allow audience members to get drawn into borderline-incredulous storylines. Sure, the basic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story – where Leo is stalked, thrown into April’s apartment; where they all escape to the farmhouse and recover; where they return to New York and finally beat back the Shredder – is there, and smartly drawn out to emphasize the sheer seriousness and intensity of the arc.

When the brothers are warped into some bizarre space war between humanoids and alien-dinosaur people, discover an underground civilization of transformed monsters, battle along side parodies of Marvel/DC superheros, or when sucked into an alternate universe that involves a large-scaled, competitive battle nexus, a la Mortal Kombat – these kinds of stories threaten to completely throw the core nature of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for a loop. But the show maintains its composure, focusing on those two aspects from above, delineating multi-part arcs to ease in the strangeness – mini TV movies, basically. This opens up the door to some pretty crazy, but wildly entertaining stories down the line, both dark and light, and for the most part all intriguing.

A lot of fans disliked the fourth season take on Leonardo, who became a darker, more emotionally-distant brother after the crazy events of the third. I thought it was a bold choice; the show clearly didn’t take Leo’s view as gospel, and the remaining brothers/Splinter tried desperately to help him. It was a real challenge, and it worked well, making Leo’s breakthrough all the most satisfying. It unfortunately led to The Lost Episodes, which didn’t originally air at first. They were released after the Fast Forward season, and it’s clear why. It feels like the creative team wanted to try a “Turtles, but in school” set-up, but also attempted to go for the strangely popular Dragon Ball Z fanbase. Clearly cobbled together in a rush, The Lost Episodes are, while not awful, definitely way out the creative team’s range. But they try, and the very attempt makes it a lot more watchable than it has any right to be. Still, The Lost Episodes are by far the weakest season.

Fast Forward, meanwhile, definitely feels like network interference. Throwing a cast of familiar characters into the future was always a go-to move to try and revitalize a series. It’s also a bit more sillier, with Serling’s robotic annoyance, Constable Biggles uselessness, and Mikey’s more mischievous, goofier behavior taking up more screen time. But the writers, being professional, still make the most of it, with some solid, tense episodes and pretty intimidating villains. That season’s potential was also cut short, with a bunch of episodes left on the storyboard wall as Back to the Sewer debuted. It has the same tone as Fast Forward, more or less set up to finish up the series on a high note. Even though that season also was clearly cut short, time-and-budget-wise (nothing comes of the first episode’s “three Shredders” set up), the season is still relatively strong, its characters still on point, and its stories still well told, with a rushed but wonderfully resonant finale that sums up the entire season as a whole. “Wedding Bells and Bytes” exemplifies the show’s core strength – it’s constant commitment to whatever change comes its way.

The glowing praise here can’t mask the show’s few flaws, which are, while tiny, rather significant. The main one is that every single villain is a mustache-twirling figure of evil of some type, heavy on exposition and rants with little in terms of development. They do try to explore Stockman a bit, but his life story comes a bit too late, his massive ego way too ridiculous to pull back from. (Bishop’s arc overall is much better, although he’s was so much more entertaining as a villain). Stockman’s literal, constant dismemberment is also disconcerting, as being the only major minority character on the show; watching his hubris, submission, and destruction to others is a bit uncomfortable to watch, time and time again. Poor treatment of female characters is also the show’s flaw. April is established as a scientist but only occasionally exercises that level of intelligence; her training by Splinter never results in anything, either (Karai, on the other hand, fares better). Generally speaking, the characters are second-fiddle to the scope of the show, which is fine, but major players like April and Stockman deserve better.

Yet despite the flawed characters, changing premises, shifting tones, and various character designs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles never really lets up, constantly chugging out engaging episodes and real character moments that remained at a high caliber. The series ended its run (and celebrated its 25th Anniversary) with “Turtles Forever,” a fantastic, high-energy trip down memory lane, with the 2003 team meeting up with the 1987 team and battling 2003 Shredder, Karai, 1987′s Shredder, and 1987′s Krang. It’s filled with cameos and references to the various versions of the franchise, culminating in a self-referential (and self-deprecating) battle with the 1984 Mirage Comics version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s hilarious and amazing, with top-notch animation and clever touches, making it one of the best parodies/homages in ages. It also makes a fantastic capper to a fantastic show, a distillation of a series that ran its paces and constantly delivered.

Turtles forever, indeed.

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