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The gleefully absurd and spot-on comedic fingerprints of Tina Fey and fellow 30 Rock writer Robert Carlock are all over the wonderful new Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In this case, it’s a DNA bonanza, as yet another strong sitcom is unleashed into the world — much the way the title character was unleashed from an underground bunker in Indiana, having been there for the past 15 years after being kidnapped by a religious fanatic and indoctrinated into his cult.
Well, you know, it’s kinda like that.
By now you should be familiar with the backstory: NBC felt like it couldn’t launch a Tina Fey comedy because, well, it has destroyed its comedy brand so badly of late that a Tina Fey comedy, of all things, was deemed a nonstarter, and a deal was struck with Netflix that became a win for NBC’s studio and also for Netflix.
Voila — two seasons of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt get green-lit (which means a first season consisting of 13 episodes made by NBC and a second season where Fey and Carlock can free themselves from the broadcast-network shackles if they so wish and make the show whatever they want).
The good news is that Kimmy is already really good; in the first six episodes, each one gets better as it goes (though the pilot is particularly strong). Ellie Kemper (The Office) gives a virtuoso performance as Kimmy Schmidt, one of the four “Indiana mole women,” as the media immediately dub them. In a very 30-Rock visual joke — of which there are many — initial media reports blare “white women found,” with a smaller headline noting “Hispanic woman also found” because Donna Marie (Sol Miranda), a maid, was also taken (Sara Chase and Lauren Adams are the other “sisters” from the bunker).
The women, who believed that a nuclear holocaust had scorched the earth, survived for 15 years in the bunker (and yes, the flashbacks are ripe with comic material). Kimmy was in 8th grade when she was abducted, so basically it’s as if she’s been on Mars by the time she’s rescued and flown to New York with the other “mole women” to be interviewed on the morning shows.
That admittedly dark backstory provides a ceaseless array of jokes (ranging from being way behind on pop culture and technology to strange things like fearing Velcro) and ultimately leads Kimmy to want to stay in New York. Hey, if she can make it there — yeah, you get it.
What infuses the entire series with sweetness and positivity is Kemper’s never-flagging, completely endearing portrayal of Kimmy, who doesn’t want to be a victim and doesn’t want to waste another day of her life. She wants to live, and she’s damned upbeat about it — which, of course, puts her at odds with most everybody else in New York.
She becomes roommates with Titus (Tituss Burgess, 30 Rock), a broke, gay actor and singer trying (for years) to make it the big city. Carol Kane plays their landlord. And Jane Krakowski (30 Rock) plays Kimmy’s new boss, the rich Jacqueline Voorhes (basically a very rich version of Jenna from 30 Rock, but with an even better backstory that I won’t ruin here), who hires Kimmy to be a babysitter.
Fey and Carlock as the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt writers do an excellent job balancing the many stories available to them, though perhaps a little too much emphasis is placed on Jacqueline’s family. Kimmy trying to keep her secret so people don’t freak out on her (or about her) coupled with her enthusiasm for overcoming life’s obstacles is more than enough fodder. In propping up Titus’ sagging hopes about making it, Kimmy tells him never to give up the dream: “You are going to sing at the Grammys with Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson!” she consoles him. “Bad examples — but yes!” replies Titus. He’s constantly picked up by Kimmy’s unbreakable spirit, as are those around her. “How do I look?” asks vain Jacqueline. “Like a million bucks!” says Kimmy. “I know you didn’t mean that to be hurtful,” responds Jacqueline.
Titus makes Kimmy write down words and phrases in a book called Things People Don’t Say Anymore — just another of the many jokes about missing 15 years of one’s life that never actually seem to get old on this show.
Though the Titus and Jacqueline characters and, to a lesser extent, Kane’s role have their moments, Kemper is really the show — everyone is orbiting around her boundless, infectious energy. Like most series, the supporting roles eventually flesh themselves out over time, but the main character really has to nail it, and Kemper does that in every scene. Krakowski, ever the pro at this kind of role, also is given numerous great lines of her own.
Though Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt joins other strong freshman comedies like Fresh Off the Boat and The Last Man on Earth, I have a feeling the show will be something even better next season, when it’s a wholly Netflix entity and Fey and Carlock can discover what that kind of creative freedom allows them.
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