It’s not exactly tough, per se, to watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as an Asian-American, but it’s eyeroll-worthy, at least for its first season. Dong (Ki Hong Lee), the Vietnamese love interest of one Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), has a funny name, he delivers Chinese food, he’s an undocumented resident, and he’s good at math. Also, Kimmy is into all of that. In the first season, the way Dong is written and the humor that informs his character straddles the line between self-aware and oblivious, but with the second season of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s show, such dicey race and identity humor seems not only intentional, but a pointed way of observing the way that the show’s audience engages with topics of race and identity.
However lazily written Dong is in the first season of the show, the character’s not necessarily inclined to perpetuate stereotypes—but it’s not strong enough or sharp enough to undercut them, either. The ridiculous bougie tendencies of privileged white people, and the complexities of femininity, are in Fey and Carlock’s wheelhouse. Race has always been a trickier thing for them—but that’s not to say they aren’t interested in it. Even when the show falls hard, as it does in the already much talked-about second-season episode “Kimmy Goes to a Play!”—in which Titus (Titus Burgess) dons yellowface and the Asian anti-defamation league that was going to protest his one-man show is eventually moved by his performance—there’s effort to explore the prickly issues at hand in its provocations. That seems to be most evident in Dong, a character whose thinness in the first season made him almost entirely forgettable, save the messy politics surrounding his writing. He’s ineffectual, and it’s surprising enough that he is a love interest for Kimmy in the first place (what? An Asian guy who’s sexy? You don’t say!).
There’s clearly been an evolution in thought and approach for season two. One line from the first season serves as a kind of foundation not only for Dong’s character, but for the new season as a whole. In season one’s “Kimmy Goes to School!”, Kimmy speaks effusively of Dong and tells Titus of his arithmetic skills. “That’s racist!” Titus shouts, somewhat gleefully. She looks at him incredulously, saying, “But he is good at math.” He responds demurely, “I don’t make the rules.”
The second season, then, is about grappling with those rules and navigating what they mean. The parameters of what’s “acceptable” comedy about identity is what Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt wants to prod, and it actively tries, not so much to outright transgress those boundaries, but rather to question why they exist and for whom. Can you make a joke about reclaiming your racial and communal background as a Native American using a white actress? Can you make a joke about coded queer language by talking about a desk and also about Entourage? It takes a different approach than 30 Rock, but Kimmy Schmidt is just as fixated on concepts of identity in society as that show was, with similarly daring ventures and mixed results.
With Dong, it means sidestepping a lot of the race stuff in general, and recontextualizing his identity as he tries to assimilate into American society, both out of want and need. He picks up the linguistic stylings of the Kardashians, his vocal affect shifting from a conventional Asian-American English accent to slickly ironic Valley Girl-speak. And while the way he deals with language is as important as anything, Fey and Carlock refocus on his character’s identity in a less overtly political sense: via love.
How Dong and Kimmy deal with their relationship is sensitively handled, and covers the arc of the first half of the season. That there is such tenderness given to this subplot is the thing that gets you through the first half dozen episodes, and it’s that humanity which becomes the back half of season two’s best quality. Dong’s writing in its first season lacked just that—he was but a springboard for one-fourth-baked ideas about identity politics. Here, Dong feels human in his ambivalence about his desire for Kimmy and his need to stay in the United States in a sham green card marriage. That he does all he can to assimilate into a society that is kind of racist makes what race jokes there are (specifically about him) feel more pointed, and fleshes out both his character and his relationship with Kimmy.
Tina Fey and Robert Carlock are perfectly capable of making intelligent comments about identity politics, but they often seem uninterested in the uncomfortable parts of the conversation. They’ll make a provocation, insightful or not, and while they won’t exactly shirk at engaging with the consequences, there’s a clear line of ambivalence. Fey and Carlock’s uncertainty over how far to push it with race-based humor in this show is exemplified in Dong himself: though he is cleverly drawn as a satire of lazily written immigrant archetypes and white culture from a cultural other’s point of view, it takes an entire half season for him to emerge as a full-fledged character.
Dong presents an in for jokes about white culture in a way that the show’s American characters cannot. When he asks, “Why do I know that?” after reciting inane information about the Kardashians, or re-enacts American romantic comedy tropes in his own life, the jokes all circle around the role he plays in articulating what it means to be American. Quietly, that may be the entire show’s subject, as Dong getting green-card-married, Kimmy reclaiming her life, and Titus finding stardom all seem to be their own iterations of the American Dream. It’s through this race- and identity-based humor that the showrunners essentially deconstruct this idea. For Dong, being a “real American” means getting divorced and playing into the archetypes he sees and tries to identify with.
Criticisms of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt seem, at times, slightly misdirected: Fey and Carlock aren’t only talking about identity politics, they’re talking about the way we talk about identity politics, and it’s a theme that’s been in their work since 30 Rock. But there’s the sense that they’ve grown weary of watching the blowback, as many a headline declared some iteration of “After ‘Kimmy Schmidt,’ Tina Fey Is Done Explaining Her Jokes to You People.” If the first half of its second season feels like a sharp, kind of shallow jab, with jokes about “outrage culture” and cultural appropriation that seem defensive, it’s because Fey and Carlock are good at showmanship.
The jokes are purposely designed to challenge the discussion. Amid the proliferation of what could be called the Hot Take Industrial Complex, the humor of 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt challenges the rapid reactionary reception, asking its viewers to parse its densely layered jokes and investigate not only identity but the discourse around it. Artists, including Fey, are becoming more cognizant of how foundational identity politics can be to their work, and one can consider Kimmy Schmidt as adding a different spice to the persistent conversations beginning, “This is problematic.” I think they’re interested in why something is “problematic”, asking for specificity and looking for insight. They may be slightly tired of the rhetoric surrounding identity politics, but they aren’t tired of exploring the subject anyways.
Carlock and Fey are capable of complex and insightful comments about identity politics and about the cultural discourse surrounding them, and they’re proficient in making cutting critiques of white guilt. If anything needs to change, it’s maybe an admittance of their weaknesses, that maybe their handling of certain topics is imperfect. It doesn’t mean they have to stop addressing those topics, but rather allow some awareness of their weakness inform the comedy itself. That recognition is evident in Dong, in his transformation as a viable, pretty legitimate character and love interest. What Dong proves, by backing away from penis jokes, is that Fey and Carlock can swing back and forth between broad macro comedy and more intimate, tender slyly absurdist humor, with both functioning as critiques of race and identity. They balance frivolity and profundity. They know what—groan—we talk about when we talk about identity politics.