Anyone still mourning the loss of “30 Rock” — I imagine that’s a fair amount of people — will find a lot to love in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” The new Netflix show from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, debuting Mar. 6, is in many ways Fey’s old show dressed up in a new outfit.
That outfit — brightly colored and styled from the mid 90s, normcore at its finest — is sported by Ellie Kemper’s wide-eyed Kimmy, a 29-year-old Indiana woman rescued after 15 years in an underground apocalypse cult. She comes to New York to start her life over, and her outsider-looking-in perspective, though radically different in backstory, frequently echoes that of perennial nerd Liz Lemon, while corresponding more straightforwardly to the “funny foreigner” trope.
One of my favorite bits, which you can see at the end of this trailer, is Kimmy’s reaction to being catcalled by a construction worker. “You’re making me wish I was those jeans,” he drawls. “Well, I wish I was your yellow hat!” she yells back cheerfully.
True to Fey’s feminist ethos, the bit segues into an introspective moment for said catcaller: “Why do I talk to women like that?” he goes on to ask (and, later, makes an interesting discovery about himself that I won’t spoil).
The show, which was written with Kemper in mind, makes expert use of the actress’ sunny, goofy comic chops, which she previously showcased as Erin the receptionist in “The Office” and in “Bridesmaids.” This is her first starring role, though, and she utterly owns it — after watching five episodes, I can’t think of anyone else who could do the part.
The premise is, at its core, fairly grim: though it makes some sport of the sister-wife dresses Kimmy and the three other female cult members wear and features a ponytailed cult leader, the scenario also evokes the Ohio house-kidnapping in certain ways. “Yes, there was weird sex stuff,” Kemper offers up unbidden at one point. Also, the first moments of the pilot — and, subsequently, the opening credits — are a remix of a neighbor’s comments made on the news about the rescue of the girls from the bunker, a la Cleveland’s Charles Ramsey.
It’s to Fey and Carlock’s credit that they completely make this dark background work the foundation for a plucky comedy. The more we get to know the supporting cast, the more it becomes clear that one of the show’s big themes is that everyone — especially, but not exclusively, in New York — has a backstory from which they’re struggling to break free. It also (again, like “30 Rock”) has a good amount of fun with the expectations placed on women today, seen through Kimmy’s inexperienced eyes.
Fey has been explicit about the show’s debt to earlier gal-in-the-big-city shows like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” saying, “I feel like there’s always a story about a lady starting over: a lady starting over from a divorce, a lady who lost her job, a lady who moved in with her parents. But I don’t think we’ve seen a story with as much of a high-stakes reason that a lady is starting her life over.”
Fey and Carlock surround Kemper with familiar faces from “30 Rock.” Most significantly, there’s Tituss Burgess as her roommate, Titus — you’ll know him from his role as D’Fwan on “30 Rock,” but here he’s a struggling actor who reluctantly takes Kimmy in to help pay the rent. Jane Krakowski is Kimmy’s employer, Jacqueline, who’s sort of a wealthier, more entitled version of her Jenna Maroney character; she makes regular visits to the “gynodermatologist” (“I need to lie down with my feet and heart above my vagina”) and owns a tiny dog who doesn’t poop (“they bred that out; his anus is purely decorative”).
The tone and style of the show is pure “30 Rock,” too, from its upbeat soundtrack to its cutaways (often flashbacks to Kimmy’s time in the bunker) to its quippy, New York-insidery jokes. An early Titus plotline sees him joining forces with the city’s mariachi bands (led by Horatio Sanz), mangy Times Square Elmos, and weird Statue of Liberty dressers to reclaim their security deposits from a guy who has refused to give them back for years. (“If I can get my deposit back,” Sanz’s character says, “I can live my dream of no longer being a mariachi!”).
One of the show’s most delightful supporting players is Carol Kane as Titus’ landlady; Fey has described her character as “the quintessential New York weirdo. She’s someone who’s lived here forever, has opinions about everything — and it’s never the opinion that you expect.” She really is hilariously weird; she also coins a very useful term for a favorite pastime in the city: “I was ‘Rear Window’-ing,” she says, gleefully. “The old man on the third floor is stuck in the bathtub, and he’s starting to panic!”
If there’s one consistent target in “Kimmy Schmidt,” it’s New York’s ultra-wealthy; Kimmy’s introduction to the city largely comes through the condescending and oblivious (though ultimately not without substance) Jacqueline, and Kimmy’s employment by her as a nanny to a bratty grade-school boy (Tanner Flood) who shoplifts. She’s also terrorized by Jacqueline’s 15-year-old stepdaughter, the hilariously named Xanthippe (Dylan Gelula).
Martin Short puts in an appearance as Jacqueline’s plastic surgeon — call him the Dr. Spaceman of this show — and as annoying as I often find him, he’s pretty funny as a man who’s had so much work done you can’t understand what he’s saying (think Rob Lowe in “Behind the Candelabra,” taken to a more sitcommy extreme).
Fey and Carlock also get a fun early cameo from the “Today” cast, interviewing “the Mole Women,” as they’re unsurprisingly dubbed in the media. “We’re very grateful,” Kimmy starts, “but we don’t really love that name.” Matt Lauer steps over her objection: “Coming up: an ambush makeover of one of the Mole Women!”
“Kimmy Schmidt” feels like a natural continuation of the quick-witted, gently subversive tone of “30 Rock” — as well as that show’s later-season tendency to slide into formulaic sitcom plotting, but I’m willing to let it slide – while carving out its own voice. Kemper has said of it that “there’s sort of a light to it that we don’t always see in comedy these days,” and it certainly is less arch, in many ways, than its predecessor. I’m looking forward to seeing the city through Kimmy Schmidt’s eyes for at least a year — the show has a guaranteed second season for 2016.