There are three moments in Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated that best represent the show’s biggest, most glaring problems.
Let’s start at the end and work backwards.
In “Gates of Gloom,” there’s a bit of misdirect in which it seems like Fred, Daphne, and Velma are inside a souped-up, armor-covered Mystery Machine, plowing through heavily armed killer robots. Sacrificing the iconic van with an explosion to take out the remaining robots, it’s revealed that the three teens were controlling it from inside a completely different vehicle. Fred proceeds to lament on his car’s sacrifice to ensure his love, Daphne, remained safe… only to toss a half-assed nod to Velma’s protection as well (Velma replies flippantly). And I get it. It’s a gag that emphasizes Fred’s simple, one-track mind; Fred just forgot about Velma as he declared his passionate love and devotion for Daphne. Yet even within the parameters of the gag, it’s pretty mean, particularly after two long seasons of uncommitted, un-established relationships among the group’s members.
This is more distinct in “Night Terrors,” admittedly Mystery Incorporated strongest technical episode. This homage to The Shining pits the individual members of the group against a series of hallucinations, including one that makes Daphne think Shaggy is Fred, and makes Shaggy think Daphne likes him – which leads to the two making out. Set aside the awkward sexual misconduct of the moment (Shaggy’s prideful boasts of this “conquest” is both gross and wildly out-of-character), the scene falls apart when Fred sees it. In typical Fred fashion, he freezes up (an act he has done before when he sees Daphne flirt with other men). Daphne and Shaggy express concern about Fred, but Velma – again, who knows this is one of Fred’s dumb freakouts – makes a sarcastic comment towards Fred. Shaggy and Daphne, for some reason, are deeply offended by Velma comment, and it’s at this point I just want to throw my phone out the window. For you see, Velma has been the ignored butt of the team for several episodes, the only member truly committed to solving the various mysteries, and often had to venture out on her own because of the group’s self-centered, whiny crap. They have abandoned her many, many times. So for the characters – and by proxy, the show – to turn a typical Velma bit of sarcastic comedy against her, so viciously… it just was so awful, a moment that pretty much made the show irredeemable in my eyes. Fred’s forgetfulness is portrayed as comedy, but Velma’s flippant gag is some sore of cruelty? In Shaggy’s own words, “Not cool.”
Yet it’s all the way in season one’s “Howl of the Fright Hound” where the show essentially falls into a character-narrative trap from which it never can escape. Mystery Incorporated started off with the show’s worst decision – a forced relationship between Velma and Shaggy. It’s wildly nonsensical and utterly ill-defined, with Velma acting as a nagging shrew, forcing Shaggy to do a bunch of crap he doesn’t like, all while keeping the relationship a secret from Scooby-Doo. Nothing good, worthwhile, or meaningful comes from this, and it creates eight-or-nine episodes of piss-poor sitcomy bit-writing. So in “Howl of the Fright Hound,” Shaggy finally tells Velma that he doesn’t want to date her any more so he can maintain his friendship with Scooby. There’s a lot of problems here (mostly because it’s unclear if Scooby is upset because Shaggy never told him about the relationship or if he’s jealous that Shaggy and Velma are dating, and also, is it that hard to date Velma and still maintain a friendship with Scooby?), but the show comes to a screeching halt when Velma yells out, in front of Scooby, “The boy I love picks a dog over me? That’s the most insulting thing a girl could have ever happen to her!” Velma says this with a tone that’s so off-putting that it becomes a real question of why in the hell are these four teens and their dog even hanging out together (the show is aware of this, but tries to gloss over it, which I will get into later). As goofy as Scooby-Doo is, he’s definitely not just “a dog,” but even beyond that, Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated represents an uncomfortably dated showcase of TV entertainment, part of the post-Lost landscape of shows that emphasize long-term mystery over characters and their relationships. The show’s second season scramble to “explain” that behavior, but right here, right now, I’m calling bullshit.
Of the many problems with Dreamworks’ theatrical flop, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, there’s one glaring one that occurs at the beginning of the film. I’m not quite sure how to describe it, really; it’s, like, a “character dissonance” of sorts, an inability or failure to establish an outlier character-type within the world that’s bigger than who the character-type is, or what he or she represents. There isn’t much to the original Mr. Peabody and Sherman after all; Jay Ward’s educational segment within The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show was just a tossed off bit that produced historical lessons along side Ward’s acerbic, smartass wit. The film, forced to double down on the familial connection between Sherman and his canine father, may have managed to contextualize that connection via a montage of historical trips and visual examples of nurturing, but it never establishes Mr. Peabody and Sherman as individuals within the modern world – especially Mr. Peabody. That’s because he’s a dog.
It’s hard to see how the movie wants to fit the very idea of “Peabody as a talking, brilliant dog” among humans. What is his place? Sure, he’s introduced as a figure providing the world with gift-after-gift of scientific achievements, but he seems to be the only dog in this entire universe, and the film never bothers to explore what that might mean. Other characters toss indirect insults in his direction, along the lines of questioning the entire premise of a dog raising a child, but it’s approached with a “seriousness” that is left hanging in the wind. Do other characters just “see” Mr. Peabody as a dog? Do they not know about his real accomplishments? Is the whole thing “the joke”? There is no context for this dissonance; it’s not really metaphorical, it’s not really comical, and it’s not really complex, yet it tries to be all three, which is vague and inherently lifeless. (As a counter-example, look at Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which establishes quickly, and often, that Frylock, Master Shake, and Meatwad are absolute abominations and thus completely part of the nonsensical joke of the entire premise of the show.)
I’m not even sure if I quite explained myself all that well there. It’s a tough subject to explain. Mr. Peabody is an outlier of a character (a dog in a purely human world), and the world never situates his place within it. It tries to showcase him as different but the same, but never works to establish how Mr. Peabody himself feels about that dissonance. And that dissonance is alive and present in Mystery Incorporated, right when Velma makes her blanket statement. Velma may be angry, but Scooby is not just “a dog,” and the idea that she would just say this without the show establishing Scooby’s reaction to such a disingenuous, belittling statement, is baffling. And the show knows it, because 1) that’s the joke and 2) the inanity of my complaint makes it immune from criticism.
Think about it. I’m basically complaining that we’re not provided with Scooby’s real feelings about Velma’s statement. Scooby-Doo! Who in their right mind would raise such a stink about an objectively mean complaint towards an objectively ridiculous character from one of the most objectively stupidest franchises in history? Why would you even care? Why would anyone care? Half of my life is spent arguing about the very nature of contextualizing cartoons, a medium that has been geared towards children for years now. Why would anyone bother to complain about characterizations in such an inane kids’ cartoon?
And, really, that’s been Mystery Incorporated’s shield, its safeguard from complaints and critiques. Scooby-Doo, ever since, oh, let’s say, A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, has become the great Hanna-Barbera joke, the epitome of self-aware self-deprecation, a franchise that has been ripped apart in order to make every obvious joke ever possible. Fred is stupid and Daphne is stuck-up and Velma is a nerd and Shaggy totally
smokes pot and Scooby is a talking dog that’s hard to understand and what’s up with that? And we have seen every joke ever made about how insane it is for some old man or crazy woman to dress up in a scary costume to scare people away from “generic setting X” so they can steal gold or dig for oil in peace. It is the nature of this very formula that Hanna-Barbara established back in the 60s, that they themselves have repeated, knocked-off, ridiculed, and re-hashed all the way up until their passing. Scooby-Doo has been, and always will be, nonsense, and to even question that kind of nonsense in any way, shape, or form would be a fool’s errand. No, the show wants to say, you’re the idiot for wanting to know about Scooby’s feelings.
Not only does Mystery Incorporated know this, it uses it to its advantage, re-contextualizing it in a huge, series-length story arc. The very nature of Scooby-Doo’s inexplicable character behaviors is not just the lazy-turned-ridiculing nature of the show’s premise, but also part of a super-serious-guys-you-don’t-even-KNOW massive plot. There’s a whole lot of “things will never be the same,” “you cannot possibly understand,” and “this is bigger than you or me.” Abject world-changing cliches taken from so many movies and shows (particularly from the failed post-Lost shows like Flashforward and The Event), re-contextualized within the Scooby-Doo’s self-awareness model. It is the cartoon’s cartoon, the obviousness of animated inanity as applied to the biggest event in history, that literally puts the world in danger.
And every single decision and action and episode and choice is built around that – that self-awareness-but-also-world-changing story arc, and this allows criticisms thrown its way to be deflected to either “C’mon! It’s Scooby-Doo! Who cares!?” or “No, but see, it’s all part of the plan!” It is the Steven Moffat-ing of Scooby-Doo, and I actively, adamantly reject this. I refuse to be cow-towed to tossing aside real, legit complaints about the show’s poor, weak characterizations and relationships because it’s either part of the joke or part of the plot. Because I believe Mystery Incorporated could indeed have been both self-aware AND plot-driven without approaching its characters as misanthropic, one-note, antagonistic avatars under the control of an evil force.
And it sucks, too, because Mystery Incorporated is arguably one of the most fascinating, beautiful, and creepiest shows ever, purely at a technical level. Insanely tense chase sequences. Horrifying imagery. Terrifying art design. Homes, mansions, hotels, basements, dreamworlds and alternate-worlds are animated with lush, decaying details; oil-painting-esque backgrounds give everything an old, decrepit sheen. Villains are comically but dangerously overpowered, and when they give chase, viewers will physically jump and wince at every near-death leap, every close call, every death-defying dodge. Most remarkable is the show’s use of colors; a commanding use of reds, blues, greens, and purples give each and every scene a stark edge, applying visual sensations to every type of danger that occurs on screen. Taken away from its characters, Mystery Incorporated is an abject lesson art design and art direction, worthy of study for future artists, animators, and scenic designers. (I say all that with one caveat: the character designs themselves are lackluster, with basically three different body types for its male characters and only one, maybe two, basically body types for female characters.)
Yet Mystery Incorporated’s characters are there, and they’re rather unpleasant to watch in action. And I’m certainly not adverse to unpleasant characters – Darkwing Duck, Scrooge McDuck, and Master Shake are all my favorite characters and not-at-all role models – but it’s clear that Mystery Incorporated is not at all interested in exploring its five titular characters and how they relate to each other as friends and teammates, beyond establishing that they just are friends and teammates, and that “this has all happened before.” For you see, the four-humans-and-one-animal grouping is not an in-depth look at the concept of five figures pulling together in a world of craziness and danger; they’re the modern incarnation of an historical timeline of such groupings, manipulated by “evil” to eventually release a dangerous spirit into the world. It’s as silly as it sounds, but played deathly serious (as in, various characters are actually killed!), but worse, it becomes the reason the characters are dicks to each other. Because it was planned that way!
The funny thing about that is that I sort of saw it coming. Part of it because I watch a lot of cartoons, part of it is because I have been weaned off post-Lost copycats. Large-scaled arcs are narrative false-flags; unless you’re Joss Whedon, there’s little chance of major characters being killed off, which turns universal stakes into ho-hum affairs (see: the lowering stakes of the Cinematic Marvel Universe). The importance of these kinds of arcs (which Lost got right, despite its disappointing finale) is how individual characters and relationships are formed, strengthened, weakened, or destroyed, and Mystery Incorporated is only barely interested in that (mostly only with Fred’s connection with his parents). When the show dropped the “bombshell” that this has all been done before, I pretty much assumed this was leading to a giant circle-jerk of self-awareness, that the creators themselves would be revealed as the source of everything – think the 2003 TMNT’s “Turtles Forever” special, but taken deadly serious. And, really, I wasn’t that far off.
And so we’re given a show where Fred, Daphne, Shaggy, Velma, and Scooby-Doo are essentially one-dimensional jerks, plopped with their signature characterizations but played up to eleven for the occasional self-aware gag (Velma tells Scooby she can barely understand him on the phone! Fred loves ascots and traps! Shaggy and Scooby eat a lot!) and not much else. Potentially interesting aspects, like Daphne’s rich family and her jealousy of her sisters, or Shaggy’s constant disappointment to his parents, are hardly explored. This isn’t a show where Velma and Scooby hash out their complex emotions towards Shaggy, or Fred confronts Daphne’s parents about their obvious dislike of him. This is the kind of show where Daphne leaves the group and is replaced by Marcie (“Hot Dog Water” is her nickname, because they’re jerks, remember), only for Daphne’s new boyfriend to be revealed as a criminal so she can join right back in – and for Marcie to be consequently kicked out because “it’s always been the five of us,” despite her being legitimately helpful. (Nice for Mystery Incorporated to make Daphne’s boyfriend villainous and for Marcie to be secretly working for a big bad to justify all that.) Also all their mean behavior isn’t about five disparate characters struggling to come together as a group, but the results of a “supreme evil,” because that’s easier to make work than, you know, character development. Hell, it doesn’t have to be deep characterization, but it would’ve been nice to see something other than the lame collective of forced feelings the Mystery Inc. team formed to plunge a stick into the heart of said supreme evil spirit. In “Dark Night of the Hunter,” when this master, manipulative evil is revealed, Shaggy wonders aloud if they were ever even friends, which is less of a genuine, pressing concern from Shaggy and more of an admission of characterization failure from Spike Brandt and Tony Cervone, two of the show’s producers who, interestingly enough, screwed up the characterizations of the Looney Toon characters in The Looney Tunes Show.
Honestly though? I feel bad. I really, really do, because I can see the real, genuine effort that the animators and artists and writers put into the show. I can see them pouring their heart and soul into every loving frame, every tightly scripted moment, every sharply-delivered gag, every genuinely terrifying moment. I know so many people who swear by this show, who recommended it to me and sung its praises often, and who declared it the best iteration of Scooby-Doo ever. And I get that. I do. I was so ready to like this show. I was ready and willing and eager to love this show and be among those who happily, finally found a version of Hanna-Barbara’s enduring franchise that worked.
And then, right after Velma’s awesome introduction, I watched episode after episode of her constant nagging on Shaggy, and the on-again, off-again relationship woes of Fred and Daphne, and the complete lack of knowledge on what the hell to do with Scooby (an issue they admittedly use to their advantage in the second season). Then Velma called Scooby “a dog” with that distinctly dismissive tone, and then the criminals became more and more obvious, even by Mystery Incorporated standards. Flashes of brilliance, like “Mystery Solvers Club State Finals” and “Heart of Evil” were undercut by other episodes’ stretched-out chases and belabored villainy. Then Crystal Cove got a potentially cool mayor, who was once in the Air Force(!) – and then she was neutered and forced into an eye-rollingly inane love story with the incompetent Sheriff Stone. And the characters continued to be jerks with little to no attempt to make them into a cohesive team – or even friends – only for it to be revealed that that was the entire point (which is fan fiction’s number one go-to for bullshit explanations of all crappy storytelling). Then the overall long-term arc even begins to fall apart (did the other previous animals of past groups talk like Scooby?) and then it became clear that the creators were trying to be both clever and funny with it all, to which I just:
You can’t be self-aware and serious at the same time to justify weak characterizations; it’s a show writhing with visually fantastic noise but lacking real substance.
So it’s with a heavy heart that I, as a fan and supporter of Mystery Incorporated’s technical achievements, must declare my disappointment with the show overall. Shallowness masked as a comic bit/plot point is no excuse for poorly drawn characters, and being able to see through all the tricks, only to find a hollow, undercooked cast of characters has left me cold. Pulling the well-designed mask off Mystery Incorporated was no easy feat, for the reveal was empty and the culprit was my expectations.
Brandy and Mr. Whiskers had the drive but never could quite get a firm handle on its characters or its comedy. Why such a funny show never could translate into an appealing one.
The mid-2000s was not really a great era of animated television. The cartoon bubble had burst, which led to the slow dismantling of Saturday morning cartoons on the prime TV networks. Cartoon Network was humming along awkwardly, Disney’s animation department was a bit cluttered, searching for “stylistic” shows (read: cheaply produced), and while Nickelodeon was kicking ratings ass with Spongebob and The Fairly Oddparents, it was becoming clear that those shows were all they had. It wasn’t exactly a dead period for animation, but it seemed like a direction-less era for the medium. Disney, in particular, seemed keen on culling stylistically from the past and aiming for strict gendered demographics (hence the Kim Possible/Proud Family divide). In the middle of that came Brandy and Mr. Whiskers, a two-season outlier that seemed to have no real demo at all.
Every so often Disney tries to “do” wacky, its own take on Looney Toons-esque insanity, to mostly failed results: Bonkers, Schnookums and Meat, Fish Hooks. (Arguably the most successful one was Timon and Pumbaa, mainly because the characters were strong enough to carry the craziness, but I digress.) As I mentioned before, Disney thrives on strong characters and strong settings, but according to this take on the pre-production on the show, the execs at the network wanted to “push” things, visually, which 1) confirms a lot of what I’ve heard about this era and 2) suggests strongly how lost the animation division was at this point. It’s clear that they wanted to “copy” Cartoon Network’s unique-looking shows like Dexter’s Laboratory and PowerPuff Girls without exploring exactly why those styles worked. “Style” brought nothing new to Kim Possible or The Proud Family, and it didn’t bring anything new to this show either.
Not to say it’s a poorly animated show. It’s easy to dismiss it as another Ren & Stimpy knockoff, yet another Spumco-wannabe, but that would be lazy. In action, Brandy and Mr. Whiskers resembles more of the 1920s-1930s animated works of Fleischer studios. Hell, some of the designs resembles Disney’s own style from that time period! Sure, some Spumco sensibilities are there, but the “always to the side” facial expressions with the sideways mouth is pure Fleischer, especially when you compare it something like Popeye or Felix the Cat. Depending on the animation studio, the movements and expressions could be fluid, even adorable, with unique bounces and shapes with eye and head positions. But some animation studios struggled with the style, with minimal movements, lazy repetition, and flat expressions, particularly during crowded scenes.
Yet animation studios weren’t the only entities that struggled with the cartoon. Brandy and Mr. Whiskers is a show that required a certain level of commitment to its premise and its characters; some writers got it, and some just didn’t. It’s not a weak premise – in fact, it’s pretty progressive, which I’ll get to – but it is pretty outlandish, which basically means you got to love it or leave it. A pretty, snobbish canine and an insane, nutty rabbit fall out of a plane and land in the Amazon jungle, where they interact with the wacky locals while they try to learn how they can live with each other. There’s no real substance here, especially since Whiskers drives Brandy crazy, which requires the writers to just have fun with it and its loose tether to even its own animated hyperreality. It’s the kind of freedom that not a lot of creatives can work with, and its obvious to see certain scripts awkwardly stretch ideas with no structure in place, especially in the second season, when it drops arguably its sole rule of Brandy instigating the plot by mentioning some broad concept to Whiskers.
Not to say that Brandy and Mr. Whiskers isn’t funny – it frequently is! In fact, it’s cruelly funny, the kind of nasty, mean-spirited comedy that’s present in Seinfeld, Archer, or Arrested Development. Brandy is exaggeratedly conceited and self-centered, treating Whiskers (and everyone else, although less so) like utter crap. Whiskers is the obvious hyperactive/moronic type, although he is a lot smarter and determined then you’d think, quite often calling out Brandy for her shit. The cast around them – Ed, Lola, Gaspar, Meryl and Cheryl, Margo – are fun in their own unique ways, and the show really picks up when they’re thrown in the mix. Whiskers annoying Brandy, only for them to make up and be friends, is nonsensical (and the show expressly acknowledges this in “Dog Play Afternoon”), so the show is at its best when it brings in the rest of the cast, or when Brandy and Whiskers actually team up:
Despite Brandy and Mr. Whiskers’ overall unevenness, it’s… arguably one of the more progressive animated shows I’ve seen in a while. It feels like a broad response to the wave of girl-powered cartoons (PowerPuff Girls, Totally Spies, Life as a Teenage Robot, The Proud Family) that hit in the early 00s, and in particular it feels like a direct response to Kim Possible itself. I wrote about how monstrously disingenuous Kim is in that show, how that kind of “character” hurts its feminist aspirations more than it advocates them. And while Brandy and Mr. Whiskers certainly isn’t a bastion of feminist progress, it does contextualize a “Kim” type way better than Kim Possible ever did. Plus, it has more female characters in the mix, of different backgrounds. Margo is the Bonnie to Brandy’s Kim, Lola is Hispanic, and Meryl and Cheryl are (coded) black. Most importantly, they all get into the wackiness with aplomb and aren’t regulated to “safe” or “straight man” status. Just listening to the show and its mix of voices is a revelation; even cartoons today are driven by male (white) voices, give or take a Steven Universe.
Yet even with that cast, Brandy and Mr. Whiskers never can quite expand past its basic rhythms. Brandy and Mr. Whiskers has the verve and comic chops in place, but struggles to push beyond that. While something like, say, The Penguins of Madagascar (a show that the executive producers of Brandy and Mr. Whiskers, Bill Motz and Bob Roth, worked on extensively) could build upon the goofy and silly layers of its characters and comedy, Brandy and Mr. Whiskers never seems willing or comfortable to take that extra step. Sure, it smartly moves away from the formulaic nature (Brandy says something that Whiskers ought to do, in which things hilariously fall apart from there) of its first season in the midst of its second season, but doesn’t know what to do given that new-found freedom. It falls back on elaborate crushes, boyfriend chases and more nonsensical premises, with only a few episodes actually possessing what could be construed as a real purpose. The clearest sign there are struggles? Some episodes possess unfulfilling, unsatisfactory end tags that are obviously undercooked. It’s not a thing that the show builds up on; they’re clearly placed on to pad the final minutes of episodes so they can fill the full eleven minutes:
Brandy and Mr. Whiskers is an eager, hungry show, committed to its silliness with plenty of loony, physical gags, absurd characters, and enough self-awareness to make Animaniacs blush. It’s also hurt by some weird, poorly utilized edits that seem as if they were done to avoid animation mistakes, and lack luster endings that seem to 1) kill the little dramatic momentum that the show actively possesses, or 2) double-down on its cruel nature. Cute families of animals are killed off; characters in which Brandy and Mr. Whiskers treat terribly are never given their proper due; hell, “The Tortoise and the Hare-Brain,” one of the funniest and most inspired episode of the show, ends with a wildly tone-deaf joke that implies interracial relationships as problematic.
Yet that’s the core issue with Brandy and Mr. Whiskers. It’s a hilarious show that is also often dark and brutal, a black comedy that often borders on exposing misguided values with little about it that was appealing. It’s smarter and more in-tuned with itself then you’d think, but it’d also hurt by uninspired scripts and thinly-pointed gags about the callous destruction of the rainforest with little to no insight. It utilizes some of current comedy’s most potent set-ups: cutaways, smarm, self-awareness, irony (particularly about how lame forced heart-warming moments are), but never offers anything new to take its place. At its core was the bizarre, tricky interplay between Brandy and Mr. Whiskers themselves, two characters who never clicked as friends nor enemies nor teammates – and with the core leads purposely “unconnectable,” so to is the show as a whole, despite its laughs and moments of cleverness.
Perhaps there’s a deeper meaning with Brandy and Mr. Whiskers: a show about two American figures – one arrogant, brash, and selfish, the other moronic and chaotic – literally dropping into a new, established culture that is forced to kowtow and submit to their behavior with begrudging reluctance. Sure, they may introduce Western concepts to this culture, such as fashion and currency (undercut, somewhat, with the introduction of the mall in the second season), but that introduction is portrayed as not at all wanted, a corrupting influence that’s more trouble than its worth. Brandy and Mr. Whiskers exemplifies that concept, a show that has the right ideas and attitude, but lacks the kind of heart needed to sustain itself. Like the show’s titular characters, Brandy and Mr. Whiskers is trapped in a comically nonsensical jungle with no real desire to escape.
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.