Ellie Kemper opens the door of her “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” green room — backstage at the show’s sprawling set in Greenpoint, Brooklyn — clad in a woman-sized, painfully DIY facsimile of a Girl Scout uniform. The green felt sash drops over her drab cotton prairie dress, the one that her character, Kimmy, wears in the bunker that she escaped from in the first season. The “badges” are all bits and scraps of trash — like a single dry macaroni, or a few artfully sewn-on can tabs. Kemper, laughing, explains that she’s shooting a flashback scene where she and Cyndee (Sara Chase), bored and isolated beyond sense in the bunker, concoct a fantasy of selling Girl Scout cookies. The coconut, apparently, is fingernails.
In the midst of shooting its 4th season, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is forging a path forward for its unlikely, sunny heroine that keeps in mind her rocky past. It’s hard to imagine the show without Kemper, who infuses Kimmy’s optimism with the dark notes that gives the show its appeal. Kemper tells Variety that when she’s playing Kimmy, her inner child comes out; she craves peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Her green room has an elaborate toy kitchen in it — ostensibly for her son James, but fitting for Kimmy, too: the joy of playing house, while oblivious to the real-life mess of the kitchen.
Season 3 of the Netflix show ended with Kimmy leaving Columbia — and giving up on her dream of being a crossing guard — take a position at the startup GizToob, the type of techie business that has a ball pit in the office. It’s a natural fit for Kimmy, and her first real job in the world. But whether or not it’s the right path for her is an open question. Kimmy starts the season thrilled about her new, “Ally McBeal”-ish life, but she’s still trying to understand what her life should look like. “Everybody’s got their deal, their baggage — their bunker, so to speak,” says executive producer and showrunner Robert Carlock. “We want her to be in the best place, but what does that mean for her?”
The fourth season sees Kimmy — and her costars — looking for what being OK means, in their typically loopy methods. Jackie (Jane Krakowski) starts life as a talent agent and manager (a skillset so ruthless that Carlock describes it as perfect for the character) and Titus, having swum away from another disaster in the Season 3 finale, embarks on a journey teaching theater to high schoolers. The “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” set uses the same auditorium featured in NBC’s “Rise” for the production Titus is directing. Because GizToob is full of hapless millennials — and because Jackie does what she wants — Kimmy’s two friends end up using her new office as their base of operations, too. It’s an opportunity, Carlock says, to play with “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” as a workplace sitcom.
In a different experiment with format, one episode brings back Jon Hamm to reprise his role as the Reverend in an installment presented as a documentary about the Reverend’s kidnapping of Kimmy and the other girls — a “Making A Murderer”-style parody, Carlock says. This gave cast members a rare opportunity on the “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” set — a chance to improvise, on a show that is otherwise so tightly scripted that Kemper describes reading her dense lines as “a choreographed dance.”
Season 4 will also pursue some more timely comedy. The #MeToo movement is finding its way into the show, in a characteristically unlikely way — Kimmy, a “big hugger,” realizes “that might not work too well in an office environment,” Carlock says. Similarly, when she and Titus have a conversation about white privilege, Kimmy has to face her own culpability in the world.
Carlock and the writers try to find a unique entry point into sensitive issues, though, he adds ruefully, there’s always a portion of the audience that doesn’t like how they approached it. But he and the writers “find it a fun challenge” to frame these issues in a different way.
Where does Kimmy go from here? The challenge of Season 4, Carlock says, is “Keeping Kimmy Kimmy while letting her move forward.” Kemper, who was sad that Kimmy’s perseverance and intelligence wasn’t recognized by the TV version of Columbia, “wouldn’t mind seeing her continuing therapy” — and not just because that would mean more scenes with show co-creator and executive producer, Tina Fey. “[Kimmy] has a lot to work out,” Kemper says.
At least this season she’ll have a ball pit to hang out in.