Just one year later, the Marcia Clark parody on 'Kimmy Schmidt' feels sharply outdated


The season finale of American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson aired on FX on Monday night. The Ryan Murphy-produced anthology series has earned wide acclaim, including much praise for its nuanced, humanizing portraits of prosecutors Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown).

Paulson’s portrayal of Clark—as a tough, fiercely smart, and devoted public servant who’s also a working mother in the middle of a contentious divorce—is transcendent, recasting a controversial figure as a feminist icon. In scenes that can feel more like fiction than fact, American Crime Story depicts the infuriatingly sexist treatment that Clark endured in the press: Contemporary media outlets ridiculed the attorney’s appearance, and topless photos of Clark were published without her consent in the National Enquirer.

But Clark’s public humiliation wasn’t limited to the news, nor even to the ’90s. As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in The Washington Post, “Pop culture feasted on [Clark] and has continued to do so as recently as last year.” There’s no better proof of just how revolutionary our newfound sympathy for Marcia Clark is than to look at how the same woman was depicted on television in 2015, by a show that otherwise goes out of its way to celebrate women: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

The second season of the comedy, co-created by Tina Fey, will return to Netflix on April 15. The title’s Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) is a survivor of a doomsday cult, imprisoned in a bunker for 15 years by Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm). In the final episodes of season one, she returns to her native Durnsville, Indiana to testify at Wayne’s trial, only to find that the prosecutors happen to be named Marcia (Fey) and Chris (Jerry Minor), and that they look aaaawfully familiar.

“In Durnsville, we’re just Marcia and Chris, not famously incompetent California prosecutors,” Chris explains to Cyndee (Sara Chase), another of the Reverend’s victims. “Hey, he’s in jail now,” Marcia says. “So who has four thumbs and loosened that jelly jar?”

In a February profile of Clark for New York Magazine, Rebecca Traister characterizes Fey’s parody as an evisceration, and I don’t think that’s by any means an overstatement. Kimmy Schmidt hammers that “famous incompetence” hard. Marcia and Chris—whose last names are never mentioned—soon distinguish themselves as one of the most farcical elements of an already surreal sitcom.

The lawyers watch the movie Legal Eagles as their pre-trial prep, introduce a surprise witness with absolutely zero knowledge of or relevance to the case (it’s supposed to be a surprise, isn’t it?), and submit a dictionary as their sole article of evidence. Later, in a direct reference to one of the more regrettable moments for the O.J. prosecution, Chris has the Reverend try on a glove that doesn’t fit.

“I swear, I’m going to find out who this glove belongs to,” Chris says.

Clark and Darden’s rumored romantic tension, portrayed with a light touch in the FX series, has on Kimmy Schmidt blossomed into a full-blown relationship. Under that infamous close-cropped perm, Fey’s Marcia in particular is very strange, and strangely sexualized, making multiple TMI references to showering with Chris and complaining about the prices of female condoms in Orlando. Clark isn’t an object of empathy; she’s a punchline.

And here’s the thing: She made for a really funny punchline, probably for the very reason that viewers (myself included) had never thought to engage with the person Marcia Clark might actually be, beyond the deeply insulting version of the prosecutor that was presented in the media more than 20 years ago. American Crime Story has changed that. (Ironically, some young fans of Kimmy Schmidt have only learned who Fey’s character was parodying as a direct result of the FX series.)

It’s worth noting that Tina Fey, too, is a big fan of 2016’s new conception of Marcia Clark. “Thank God I did that before Sarah Paulson because Sarah Paulson is so good!” Fey told ET last week of her Kimmy Schmidt role, revealing that she’s so “obsessed” with The People vs. O.J. Simpson that she changed her Emmy voting status so she can support its ensemble as a member of the acting peer group.

Even if no real harm was intended—and I don’t think it was, neither on the part of Fey nor the Kimmy Schmidt writers—the whiplash-inducing differences between these two Marcias are a stark reminder of how, from tabloids to parodies, pop culture’s business-as-usual treatment of women is often hypercritical, harsh and unfair.

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.

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