Kimmy Schmidt as our Don Quixote

Gustave_Doré_-_Miguel_de_Cervantes_-_Don_Quixote_-_Part_1_-_Chapter_1_-_Plate_1_-A_world_of_disorderly_notions,_picked_out_of_his_books,_crowded_into_his_imagination-Branching out a bit, I wrote an essay about “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Tina Fey’s new Netflix show, for the Los Angeles Review of Books. The key idea is that we can view the main character as a person “out of time” like Don Quixote or Ignatius J. Reilly. A preview:

The “man out of time” genre, wherein a character is somehow temporally displaced to comic and edifying effect, has proven one of the more lasting satirical forms. Aristophanes brought ancient playwrights back from Hades to mock Athenian ways in The Frogs, Cervantes was the progenitor of the idea in modern literature, and Rip Van Winkle represents the theme in Americana. One might even argue that Ignatius J. Reilly, redolent of Quixote, makes the cut as a bloviated medieval throwback amid an early 1960s New Orleans.

In each of these “man out of time” tales the characters’ temporal displacement does more than just make them the butt of jokes. It makes us reconsider the eras in which they inhabit — more critically, but also more empathetically, more affectionately. The best of these stories become emblematic of the times and places in which they were written, much in the way Don Quixote can be read as a universal stand-in for Spain.

So perhaps one day when the critics of the future look back on 21st-century Manhattan (and boroughs such as Brooklyn and America), they’ll think fondly of Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), the “woman out of time” at the center of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Unlike Don Quixote or Ignatius J. Reilly, Kimmy’s temporal gap isn’t centuries wide, but just a decade or two. Yet the narrowness of that gap heightens our sense of how strange our world has become, and how quickly.

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