Brow Beat

One Unexpected Benefit of the Netflix and Amazon Full-Season Dump

Tituss Burgess and Ellie Kemper in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

With the release of the buzzy new Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt came the latest wave of arguments against the all-at-once TV season dump, in which every episode in a season is released at the same time. In one such piece for Medium, Rex Sorgatz suggests an alternative to the Netflix and Amazon model that more closely resembles the typical multi-day roll out of miniseries. This, he argues, would help audiences synchronize their viewing schedules and reviewers navigate spoilers. But there’s at least one unforeseen upside when all episodes are released at once: The writers don’t get the chance to self-correct in the middle of the season.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has been a critical hit for Netflix and executive-producer Tina Fey, but almost as quickly as praise rushed in for the show, so did the criticisms taking aim at how it dealt with race. In particular, Dong, Kimmy’s beau, and Jacqueline, Kimmy’s employer, have come under fire for their respective representations of Asian men and Native Americans. As these characters have been scrutinized, Fey’s history of wading unabashedly (and sometimes uncomfortably) into broad race-based humor has also been examined.

It’s a good thing that people are thinking about and questioning these aspects of the show. But the fact that all of these criticisms had to wait until after all of Season 1 had been released is an undoubtedly good thing, too. We’ve seen repeatedly how it can impair a show when writers feel the need to react quickly to mounting dissent against their work. The prime example of this may be Aaron Sorkin, notorious for addressing outside criticism in his shows, often clumsily. Episodes of The West Wing were mostly written as the season went along, mere weeks in advance, which made it quite easy for him to adjust plot points and narratives. After the 1999 season premiere’s lack of diversity drew protests from the NAACP, a bunch of minority characters suddenly appeared in subsequent episodes. (“There’ll be black faces, Asian faces, Latin faces, men, women all over the place,” Sorkin told the New York Times. “Are we a little late to the party? Yes we are.”)  

And when the infamous West Wing episode “Night Five” aired, it was instantly recognizable to fans of the show as a direct retort to the accusations of sexism that had long plagued Sorkin. In the episode, speechwriter Sam tells lawyer Ainsley that her attire is “enough to make a good dog break his leash,” which provokes a clunky conversation about office sexism. (Meanwhile, Ainsley—clearly speaking as a Sorkin mouthpiece—essentially says that the government has bigger fish to fry than worries about objectifying women.) It’s a hamfisted plot that only serves to distract from the world of the show and draw attention to Sorkin himself.

Needless to say, many shows rejigger themselves between seasons based on the whims of public opinion. These tweaks can sometimes result in positive changes, as when The Good Wife introduced, to most viewers’ dismay, Kalinda’s estranged, abusive husband Nick. The show scrapped the unpopular storyline mid-season to mostly positive feedback. But in our age of TV recaps and minute-by-minute micro-analysis, it’s easier than ever for a specific criticism to gather momentum and outpace the show itself, snowballing even faster than the writers can put out new episodes.

The first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt benefited from the writers’ inability to recalibrate—and from the way the multi-episode streaming dump puts pressure on viewers to consider a whole bundle of episodes at once. Titus could have easily seemed, at first glance, like a full-fledged cliché: a bundle of tics and catchphrases that simply parroted stereotypes about gay men. I, for one, became instantly enamored with Titus as a character, while as a straight woman, I also wondered if I should be. But over the course of the season, the character deepened; he became more than just Kimmy’s confidante and best friend, but also a character with his own issues to work out. (The “straight coach” subplot in Episode 10 is both hilarious and enlightening.)

On the flip-side, Jacqueline’s Native American backstory and the uneasy portrayal of Dong as Kimmy’s boyfriend were rightly called out by critics for failing to truly break out of their awkward, uncomfortable archetypes—only becoming more and more caricatured as the season progressed. But instead of eliciting knee-jerk reactions based on just a couple of available episodes, critics (and audiences) were able to look at the first season as a whole. Within hours of the show’s Netflix premiere, a slew of smart, informed pieces about the show’s treatment of these characters had sprung up online.

Therein lies the beauty of the Netflix and Amazon models: Releasing the season all at once allows shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to get out ahead of the media cycle and lets writers lay their cards on the table, good or bad, even before the rest of us have a chance to react. As more and more TV shows take on hot-button cultural topics like race, gender, and sexuality, we should probably be grateful for any platform that pushes us to take the long view instead of jumping on perceived issues the second they flare up.