The story behind Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is an interesting one: Tina Fey and Robert Carlock created the show after 7 critically acclaimed seasons, but NBC’s programming in 2014-2015 is comedyless, which means that there was no place for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, so the show’s available on Netflix, which allows for some great binge watching. All of this procrastination, plus Fox’s killing of Fey’s other newbie sitcom Cabot College, could have been bad for the show; the sitcom’s premise: a young woman tries to adjust to society after being trapped in a bunker for 15 years, also makes the show sound way to high concept for it to work. But it does. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a hilarious, often brilliant show, that benefits from all of Tina Fey’s patented smart and snarky sense of humor.
The Office comedienne Ellie Kemper stars as the titular character, a bright, bubbly young woman, who has been in a cult, sequestered in an underground bunker with a tiny group of other women. When rescued, Kimmy decides to “make it in the big city.” A potentially-depressing premise, instead, Kimmy Schmidt is an optimistic comedy about second chances and finding strength within yourself. Kimmy’s life could’ve been really crappy, but she doesn’t wallow in self-pity for too long.
Through the magic of TV logic, Kimmy finds a new best friend, Titus (Tituss Burgess), a struggling actor-singer who becomes her roommate. Her instant family also includes her wacky landlady, Lilian (Carol Kane), and a nightmare of an employer, Jacqueline (Tina Fey’s 30 Rock pal Jane Krakowski). Each episode charts Kimmy’s heroic strides in acclimating to 2015, having to deal with archaic pop culture references, atrophied social skills, and being an apologetic misfit. Since Kimmy was trapped under ground since she was 15, she also has to do all her growing up real quick.
The idea of a naive and well-meaning girl from the sticks living in New York City could’ve been a source of mean humor. And as evident from certain episodes of 30 Rock as well as her hilarious Sarah Palin impression, Tina Fey can do mean. But on Kimmy Schmidt, she wisely avoids cheap shots at Kimmy’s expense. Instead, we’re meant to root for Kimmy and her ridiculous foibles. The writers – Fey, Carlock, as well as other 30 Rock alumni like Sam Means, Jack Burditt, and Allison Silverman, along with other accomplished comic scribes – maintain Kimmy’s dignity and strength.
And along with the top shelf writers, Fey and Carlock have assembled a great cast – Kemper’s a wonder. Her work here is excellent, though it should be a surprise to no one that Kemper’s a comedic genius, given that the last four seasons of The Office were watchable solely to Kemper. As Kimmy’s appallingly spoiled socialite boss, Jacqueline, Krakowski steals her scenes – her performance will remind viewers of Jenna Maroney, and there is huge overlap (imagine Jenna getting married, settling down, but still acting a fool). Though Kemper is the star, Tituss Burgess is clearly a standout with an extravagantly hilarious performance (he stole scenes as D’Fwan on 30 Rock). In fact, though we’re watching Kimmy’s journey, Titus’s story is equally-poignant: after all, being a black, gay failed actor-singer who’s pushing 40 isn’t the easiest road to travel, and his flights of fancy and moments of supreme self-indulgence all work as self-preservation.
Because Kimmy is so sunny and genial, she’s remind viewers of other lovely TV ladies like Mary Richards or Leslie Knope. Kimmy’s plucky and resourceful and manages to pull through her episodic dramas with indomitable will. The writers know enough not to make Kimmy’s progress too dramatic – after all, too much growth and success would make the character unbelievable; instead, Kimmy’s changes are important to her – they’re not world-changing, but they mean something to her.
Because the show’s premise lends a bit toward “fish out of water” the show will face some challenges in the second season and beyond in keeping the episodes fresh. Shows like Samantha Who? and Ugly Betty also started off brilliantly, but then quickly flamed out when their rigid situations stymied any growth or development. It’s still too early to judge how Kimmy Schmidt will move beyond the first season’s handling of Kimmy’s re-entry into the world – hopefully it will maintain the excellence of the first batch of episodes.