Review: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

5 minute read

When they prepare the in-memoriam reel for the next Emmy Awards, let’s hope the Academy sets aside some space for NBC’s Thursday-night comedy block, God rest its soul.

It was born in 1981, when the network aired the first in a set of comedy lineups that would eventually include Cheers, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, Friends, The Office and many more TV legends. It died of old age and neglect on Jan. 22, 2015, with the little-mourned expirations of Bad Judge and A to Z. (Parks and Recreation outlived its cohort slightly, ending its days in February, exiled to Tuesdays.) It is survived by the night’s current occupants, espionage dramas Allegiance and The Blacklist, as well as The Slap, the bourgeois-parenting-angst miniseries that is a comedy only unintentionally.

NBC euthanized its comedy block, but it is not solely guilty. The Must-See-TV brand once promised a kind of sitcom that was both sophisticated and popular. But as cable outlets for niche comedy multiplied, audiences shrank. The finale of the urbane, witty Cheers drew over 80 million viewers; the finale of the urbane, witty 30 Rock, not quite 5 million.

The first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which premieres March 6 on Netflix, might have aired on NBC’s Thursday in a distant era–like last spring, when the network first picked up the comedy, about an escapee from a doomsday cult making a new life in New York City. It had a Must-See Thursday pedigree, with 30 Rock’s Tina Fey and Robert Carlock as co-creators. It had a Must-See Thursday star, Ellie Kemper of The Office.

But by 2015, there was no Must-See Thursday to schedule it on. So NBC, whose parent company produces Kimmy, essentially precanceled the show and sold it to the streaming service.

The deal was a sad statement about the potential for comedy at the new NBC. (Earlier last year, the network canceled the inventive Community, which will stream its sixth season on Yahoo starting March 17.) But it was probably the best thing possible for the delightful, strange Kimmy, which could have easily, quickly died on network TV. Netflix committed to two full seasons of the show before the first even premiered.

The pilot opens in an underground bunker, where Kimmy Schmidt (Kemper) is decorating a Christmas tree. She’s celebrated the holiday with the same three women since the ’90s, when she was 14 and was kidnapped by an Indiana cult leader who claimed to be saving them from a nuclear apocalypse. After a SWAT team raids the bunker, the “Mole Women” are whisked to Manhattan for a Today show interview (a relic of cross-promo-obsessed NBC), after which Kimmy finds herself on the street, trying to figure out what to do with her life. She stumbles across a roommate share with broke actor Titus (30 Rock’s Tituss Burgess) and eccentric landlady Lillan (sitcom legend Carol Kane). Alien in every way and still 14 at heart, Kimmy sets out to explore the terrae incognitae of the big city, the 2010s and adulthood.

Kemper and Kimmy are one of TV’s most natural matches of actor and character since Lou Ferrigno became the Hulk. She’s a terrific physical comic and contagiously joyous, as if Lucille Ball had a baby with a rainbow. Kimmy knows almost nothing about today’s world, which means she doesn’t know enough to be jaded about it. When she spies a costume in the corner of Titus’ apartment–his day job is handing out arcade flyers wearing a copyright-violating faux–Iron Man costume–she squeals with amazement: “Is that a real robot? Do people have robots now?” We may be watching a sitcom, but she’s living a sci-fi story.

Fey doesn’t appear in the series, but Kimmy’s cartoon-NYC zaniness, broad characters and rapid-fire jokes are pure 30 Rock, as is its overall aesthetic. (It even has similarly jaunty incidental music, composed by Fey’s husband Jeff Richmond, who also wrote 30 Rock’s.) When Kimmy finds a job as an under-the-table nanny, her vacuous one-percenter boss Jacqueline Voorhees is played by Jane Krakowski, who for all intents and purposes is doing Jenna Maroney 2.0, right down to the plastic-surgery connoisseurship. (“Feet are the new butts, Kimmy!”)

But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt also has a dark core. Kimmy’s bunker experience is played for laughs (she “made a pet cat out of dryer lint”), but it was also abuse by a misogynistic cult leader who convinced the women their “dumbness” brought on the world’s end–all but Kimmy. Each character is a survivor of something that’s tried to break them: Mrs. Voorhees, desperate to please her always absent, philandering husband; and Titus, grappling with growing older as a struggling actor and single gay man.

If Kimmy would have been too odd for NBC, it’s oddly conventional for Netflix. When Netflix revived the Fox comedy Arrested Development, it was as a complex, nonlinear narrative. Kimmy is structured like a typical network sitcom–22 minutes or so an episode, no swearing–with one notable difference. After the pilot, the end of most episodes introduces the plot of the following episode, the better to get binge viewers to click “Play Next.” (This, curiously, even though NBC produced the first season before handing off the show.)

For the six installments sent for review, anyway, it worked on me. In the end, I can’t blame NBC for not taking a chance on a story that could have been a weird subplot on 30 Rock. But I’m glad that Kimmy the show, like Kimmy the character, found itself in 2015, where Netflix could pull an odd misfit out of the bunker of network-TV limbo and bring it, blinking, into the light of day.

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