A weary transplant, beaten down by the indignities New York City will make the uninitiated suffer, sadly waits to board a bus that will take her back to Nowheresville, Indiana. Before she can board though, she goes to throw something away in the trash, only to catch sight of a rat rooting around in the garbage. This rat living in a garbage can reminds her of her past strength and inspires her to stay in New York City after all.
If you’ve watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, you know that story, since it’s a scene from the show’s first episode. Finding inspiration in the garbage that piles up all around us might not be the advertisement for New York City that Mayors Bloomberg or de Blasio would want, especially in light of another recent piece of pop culture celebrating the city, Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York,” being revealed as some kind of stealth viral marketing for a tourist-friendly version of the city.
The two are perfect contrasts. Where Kimmy is a hustler with a tiny room in a basement apartment, Taylor Swift’s protagonist is up in a penthouse. Kimmy works, Taylor Swift’s character is that girl eating kale salad and taking Uber with her parent’s retirement. Kimmy Schmidt is real New York. Taylor Swift is Starbucks New York.
There’s a lot to love about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: the chemistry between Ellie Kemper and Tituss Burgess, the occasional foray into magical realism, and the very clear appreciation for New York City and the hustle it takes to succeed here. “Act like you belong and the world is your oyster,” Kimmy’s roommate Titus tells her when they sneak a table at a fancy restaurant (in order to steal fancy liquid soap from the bathroom, not to eat). It’s a lesson you can’t get from Taylor Swift and her tribute to a plastic, frictionless version of New York. It’s so oddly clean in that New York they probably don’t even have soap, because they certainly don’t have dirt.
While I’m sure that the writers didn’t set out to make Kimmy Schmidt a show that would turn out to be exact opposite of “Welcome to New York,” the fact is that they did. In contrast to Swift’s vague lines about bright lights, dreams and being yourself, Kimmy Schmidt’s New York is chaotic, specific and alive, at a time when money is trying to sweep over the city like a great wave of blandness.
Striving immigrants, catcalling construction workers, monstrous rich people who seemingly live in another world but somehow inhabit the same city as the main characters, Kimmy’s yenta landlord Lillian and her apartment in an unnamed rough stretch of Manhattan above 94th Street, a whole crew of knock-off, copyright-infringing costumed characters working Times Square (who as it turns out are only struggling to make their own dreams come true because they can’t get their deposits on their costumes back). These details and more combine to make a city that feels real and lived in.
Even more important than making the city a living part of the show, the writers understand something that Taylor Swift managed to flub badly in “Welcome to New York:” to move here with dreams and not much else means you’re going to struggle.
“Escaping is not the same as making it,” as Titus tells Kimmy, especially here, because the city isn’t “waiting for you,” as T-Swift sang in the song’s chorus. As an astute cultural observer previously pointed out, New York doesn’t wait. New York churns on every day, with every industry attracting so much talent that even the role of the mad scientist at Professor Dracula’s Spooky Laboratory and Bar & Grill is hyper-competitive. After all, the scientist does get a monologue. So when you’re here, you either struggle to make it or you get sucked into the giant blades and turned into liquid goo for the rest of us to subsist on.
The struggle of moving here with a dream is perfectly captured by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It doesn’t matter what idiotic vision of success you have when you show up here, whether it’s becoming a celebrated author or just subsisting on your backpack full of $13,000 in cash while learning about the world you missed while you were held hostage in an underground bunker. Your plans will be upended, your backpack will be stolen, quickly, and you’ll spend time working a demeaning job with insane people, who, if you’re lucky, will eventually not hate you.
“You’re a 29-year-old babysitter who lives in a basement!” a fellow bunker survivor yells at Kimmy in an attempt to highlight how she’s wasting her time in New York. While that might not exactly describe your circumstances, you’ve heard something like it from friends and family after you move here, who wonder when you’ll stop working at the grocery store or when you’ll move to a room with a real window as opposed to one with a fake cutout that looks into the living room. Kimmy’s response isn’t to quit the city: it prompts her to get her G.E.D, it doesn’t make her think twice about having moved here, because by this time, Kimmy has learned, like anyone else who’s moved here, to enjoy the struggle.
Has the subject of “Welcome to New York” fought for a single thing? Maybe she had a battle with the condo board over whether her cat is an emotional support cat and therefore exempt from the “No pets allowed” rule of her $20 million apartment. Kimmy though, fights to make it here from the very beginning of the show, when Titus tells her “Go home, New York City is not for you.” Her life here, from her attempt to get her G.E.D. to her job as a cheerful but daft Mary Poppins for the Voorheeses, the ludicrously rich family she works for, to her navigation of a love triangle, involves a struggle to just exist in New York, a welcome contrast to instant victory lap of “Welcome to New York.”
Of course, any tribute to the show’s sense of hustle and struggle would come up short without focusing on Titus Andromedon, Kimmy’s roommate who starts the show as a character more defeated and beaten down by life than the woman trapped in a bunker for 15 years. Titus presents himself as a cautionary tale of optimism and youth crushed by the city. His first attempt at a better job after handing out flyers in Times Square dressed as Iron Man-knockoff “Metal Hero Friend,” trying out for Spider-Men 2: Too Many Spidermen is an unqualified disaster. But as he’s dragged back into the world by Kimmy, he too manages to achieving his dream, in a way, of singing on Broadway.
Titus’ video for “Pinot Noir (A Tribute to Black Penis)” is a triumph of guerrilla filmmaking. First shooting it without permits outside the neighborhood strip club and in the bat-filled abandoned chandelier factory, Titus manages to hustle his way into the use of the Voorhees’ palatial home while they’re away, to give the video the production values that can only be provided by a beautiful mansion with curtains that are supposed to be curtains, as opposed to coffin linings like in his apartment.
You may not have ever dressed for a high society party with an outfit made of a bath mat, a toilet chain and heels spray-painted gold as Kimmy does and you may never have used a photo booth at an arcade to make faux-professional head shots like Titus did. But maybe you lied your way into a job that you needed. Maybe you told a venue that you could fill it with your weird, untested idea for a comedy show, even though you had no idea what you were doing. Maybe you walked in a wrong door and got pictures of a news event no one else could, or in a weird parallel to Kimmy finding her magical TV in the trash, you found a printer on the sidewalk that continues to work five years after someone was throwing it out, like I did.
However you hustled and clawed your way to a livable existence, if not the top, the odds are that Kimmy and Titus’ experiences navigating the city, and Kimmy’s declaration near the end of the first episode that “You can either curl up in a ball and die or you can stand up and say ‘We’re different! We are the strong ones and you can’t break us!'” are closer to your own than whatever it was Taylor Swift was singing about.
Welcome to New York, Kimmy Schmidt. We’ve been waiting for you.
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