The Gig Economy in ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’

Unbreakable Kimmy SchmidtUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt returned to Netflix on Friday with season 3 picking up for the most part where it left off. At the start, Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) is deciding whether to pursue college and taking her opportunity to make the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) miserable by refusing to sign his divorce papers. Titus (Tituss Burgess) washes ashore after his mysteriously-ended cruise ship gig, and Lillian (Carol Kane) is still fighting gentrification in East Dogmouth, now by running for city council. The show continues its heightened candy-colored absurdity and dedication to hilarious, over-the-top bits, but it also has a strong preoccupation with class and urban development, and when Unbreakable focuses its satire on these topics, the show is at its most compelling.

Despite the many storylines that take Kimmy or Titus on a ridiculous outsized adventure, their lives revolve a great deal around the gig economy. Some of their jobs are more old-school at this point — the sorts of precarious occupations actors like Titus have always taken to cover rent while going on auditions, like being a street artist and working at a themed restaurant. It’s common for artists to have strange and unstable part-time work, but as Kimmy and Titus’s many gigs have taken a turn toward the tech sector, their work lives have started to more closely resemble the lives of more and more American workers participating in the gig economy, rather than people whose living situation is dictated by a vulnerable background.

In season 2 both Kimmy and Titus turned increasingly to the contract jobs touted by Silicon Valley as a new freedom from office drudgery, often in ways that made them vulnerable to those hiring them. Titus rented their apartment on AirBnB to a “sweet couple from Texas” who turn out to be Austin hipsters eager to fetishize a sense of authenticity for their Instagram accounts, leaving Titus and Kimmy without a place to sleep. Kimmy becomes a rideshare driver and quickly treats it like a 9-to-5, recognizing the higher demand during morning rush hours.

In the new season, both register for odd jobs app TaskRabbit. Kimmy’s first task sees her cheerfully carrying an entire refrigerator on her back up the stairs of a New York walkup. It’s just her first in a day full of running from odd job to odd job, and it’s an effective metaphor for her character, not to mention the gig economy at large. Kimmy’s unflinching sunniness helped her survive 15 years underground with a kidnapper, and in many ways that optimism also prepared her to be the ideal capitalist worker: ready to accept abuse with little expectation of fair remuneration. After all, she can handle anything ten seconds at a time, and nothing is as bad as the bunker.

Last year as I watched Kimmy’s forays into ride sharing in season 2, real-life apps Uber and Lyft were warring with city governments across the country over regulations requiring drivers be fingerprinted. In the city of Austin alone, they broke a record for spending in a local election in a bid to get those rules repealed. Their argument generally claimed that the regulation would take away drivers’ ability to earn extra cash, even going so far as convincing their drivers to campaign on their behalf. In reality, fingerprinting drivers also puts them one step closer to being able to claim status as full-time employees rather than independent contractors, which would require the super successful apps to pay (gulp) employee benefits.   

Sure, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is just responding to the times, but paired with Lillian’s obsession with New York’s gentrification and getting priced out of her neighborhood, it paints a larger picture of how fragile many of our financial lives are now: racing from gig to gig to pay rising rents all the while being cheerily told this is a new “freedom” when all the gig economy really promises is zero worker protections. It’s a deserving send-up of Silicon Valley apps masquerading as hip and cool ways to be your own boss when they’re really the new robber barons.

Erica Lies is a writer and comedian in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bitch, The Hairpin, and Paste.

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