On March 6th, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt began streaming on Netflix. Ellie Kemper, best known from The Office and Bridesmaids, stars as the titular Kimmy Schmidt, a twenty-nine year old who has spent the last fifteen years of her life in the underground bunker of a doomsday cult in Indiana. Kimmy decides to abandon her hometown and the other ‘Mole Women,’ and starts over in New York. She quickly finds a job as a nanny for the second wife (played by 30 Rock’s Jane Krakoswki) of a wealthy businessman and moves into an apartment with roommate and struggling actor Titus Andromedon (played by Tituss Burgess). She attempts to navigate her new surroundings with only an eighth grade education and cultural awareness circa 1999.
Already renewed for a second season through Netflix, this show is unmistakably a product of Tina Fey. While the first few episodes are hit or miss in their jokes, the show soon finds its footing and is reminiscent of both classic 1960s comedies and the best of NBC’s Must See TV. It is Tina Fey’s distinct style of absurdist humor and Ellie Kemper’s impeccable acting and enthusiasm that gives Kimmy Schmidt its charm.
The series finale of Parks and Recreation this past month signified the end of NBC’s Thursday night comedy block, a television staple for nearly thirty years. 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, and Community grew off of The Office fans that didn’t change the channel after the credits. While the show was originally picked up by NBC, without any other single camera sitcoms to support it, Kimmy Schmidt had no place on NBC. Executives there even argued that the network could not adequately promote the show or do it justice. As with all previous Netflix originals, the entire season is available to stream immediately, and without advertisements or the pressure of competing for a time slot. This is the first completely original sitcom to debut on Netflix, further showing their intent on taking over the television ecosystem, and proving their strength in execution.
With a platform to fully support it and equally brilliant writers and actors, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is one of the most promising new half hour comedies that television has seen in years.The series leavens wacky absurdity with acid wit and is very funny. Tina Fey, who created “30 Rock,” and Robert Carlock, its showrunner, apply that show’s alchemy to this one, and it works. Almost every scene has both whimsy and something darker, at once daftly effervescent and snidely cynical. And as on “30 Rock,” many of its jokes are New York-specific. At one point, Ellie, who has problems with sleepwalking, tries to strangle her roommate, Titus (Tituss Burgess). Titus indignantly tells her, “This isn’t the Chinatown bus — you can’t just choke someone who’s sleeping.”
Despite the darkness of its premise, Schmidt’s tone, like that of its heroine, is indomitably sunny: She is unbreakable, and don’t you forget it. In the time it takes most sitcoms to set up a decent joke, Kimmy is rescued, has her plight auto-tuned, becomes famous as one of the “Indiana Mole Women,” and decides she is not going back to Indiana, where she will “always be a victim.” Instead, she’ll tough it out in New York City. With Kimmy Schmidt, Fey and Carlock may need some time to find their go-to themes and develop their supporting characters, but they still have complete mastery of their rhythm: cracks, asides, observations, and goofy references fly by so quickly, as a viewer you start to play a kind of reverse dodgeball—desperately doing whatever you can to get pegged by a punch line.
In the hands of lesser showrunners, the concept for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—a young woman is freed from a doomsday cult after years of living in an underground bunker only to find the world is still around and has evolved rapidly since she saw it last—would be unbearable; a chance to beat viewers over the head with “hilarious” scenes of the ignorance and culture shock experienced by its titular character.
But this is Tina Fey and Robert Carlock we’re talking about. As the creators of 30 Rock have envisioned it, Kimmy may be ignorant, but she’s almost entirely shock proof. Even in one of the world’s most overwhelming cities, she embraces every opportunity with a huge toothy grin and a “can do” attitude. Place her among some of the most cynical and entitled people on TV, and you’ve got the perfect raw materials for comic mishaps and sharp-tongued banter. And what ignorance she does reveal—telling an iPhone wielding character to put their Game Boy down, dancing like a spindly In Living Color Fly Girl in a modern dance club—is used for quick comic effect before moving Kimmy through her next adventure.