Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt finds a lot of surreal humor in an incredibly dark premise: four women are rescued from the underground bunker where they've been imprisoned for 15 years by a doomsday preacher. The new Netflix sitcom, co-created by Tina Fey, is very good, thanks to Ellie Kemper’s effervescent performance as the title character, a human sunflower stubbornly sprouting from a mound of turds, and flashes of brilliant, sixty-jokes-a-minute absurdity that are more than a little reminiscent of 30 Rock.
There's a lot to praise here, from the cameos (Kiernan Shipka! Martin Short! Dean Norris! Jon goddamn Hamm!) to the addictive theme song (which makes me kind of teary, for some reason?) to every single thing Tituss Burgess says and does, but Kimmy's unconventional love interest is a great place to start.
In the first episode, Kimmy moves to New York City and finds a job as a nanny for Jacqueline Voorhees (the flawless Jane Krakowski), an eccentric Manhattan socialite. The show initially pairs our heroine with Charlie (Andrew Ridings — whose look is so “generic white dude” that 30 Rock cast him as a made-up Romney son, Garrett), the Voorhees family's tutor, then with Logan Beekman (Adam Campbell), a filthy rich “daddy’s boy.”
But it’s ultimately Dong (Ki Hong Lee), a fellow student from Kimmy's GED class and an undocumented Vietnamese immigrant, who wins her heart. This matters.
As Vulture’s E. Alex Jung has written, depictions of Asian actors as genuine romantic interests are few and far between on television, where these men are too frequently typecast as asexual sidekicks.
The last time an Asian-American actor played a romantic lead opposite a white actress on network TV was also the first time. The budding romance between John Cho and Karen Gillan's characters on Selfie, ABC’s Instagram-age reimagining of My Fair Lady, was cut short when the promising sitcom was cancelled partway through its first season last fall.
Kimmy is well aware of the pattern it’s upsetting here, and acknowledges this with characteristic irreverence. Says Lillian (American treasure Carol Kane), Kimmy's landlady: "For some reason, that Asian fetish thing tends to go one way, white guys and Asian women. But swim upstream, and a lady can clean up. Trust me.” Then she opens her wallet to reveal a series of photos of Asian men inside.
I will say this: Dong, who speaks with a thick accent and delivers food for a Chinese restaurant, is himself far from a boundary-pushing character. Kimmy does make an effort to subvert Dong’s less-than-progressive portrayal with irony — just as "Dong" is a phallic euphemism in English, “Kimmy” is said to mean “penis” in Vietnamese — but a show as sharp, self-aware, and diverse as this one probably owes him better.
But, while Kemper and Lee's chemistry doesn’t approach Gillan and Cho’s (remember this scene?), this is a relationship that’s easy to root for. Dong is smart, funny, totally adorable, and cares deeply for Kimmy, tutoring her in math and, as a birthday gift, building her a bike with parts stolen from the cycles of other delivery guys. These two big-hearted outsiders have fun together, splashing around in a fountain to reenact the opening from Friends (or, as Dong knows it, Six White Complainers).
Sadly, the season finale leaves their future in jeopardy. With the INS hot on his trail, Dong marries their GED classmate Sonja out of desperation when Kimmy — back home in Indiana to testify at her kidnapper’s trial — doesn’t return his calls. It's unclear if they'll find a happily-ever-after next season.
I don't know that I'd bet on it. For one thing, Kimmy's dating life will never be the show's primary focus, because it's more invested in her own personal growth and the transformatively positive effect she has on the people in her life. For another, I suspect Ki Hong Lee might have bigger fish to dry. The 28-year-old Korean-American actor recently landed a choice role in The Maze Runner and was named the fourth sexiest man alive (after three white dudes, natch) by People last year.
Whatever the future holds, they'll always have Central Park.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.