In the series premiere of Netflix’s brilliant confection “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” from “30 Rock” veterans Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, four women held captive in an underground bunker for 15 years appear on “The Today Show” to tell their story. (“Thank you, Bryant,” one says—to Matt Lauer.) Though it begins with the easily lampooned business of viral videos and morning chatter, however, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” soon deploys the absurd, allusive humor of “30 Rock” toward the hard work of living, every day, without losing hope.
The indefatigable Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) decides to stay on in New York rather than return home to Indiana, and her message to her fellow survivors expands on the credo of the series’ auto-tuned main theme: “They alive, dammit!” “We’re not garbage, we’re human beings!” she says. “I have to get my life back. Everybody in Durnsville is always going to look at me like a victim, and that’s not what I am!”
Like Phil (Will Forte) and Carol (Kristen Schaal), the protagonists of FOX’s inventive, post-apocalyptic “Last Man on Earth,” Kimmy embodies the old adage that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Repurposing stories all too familiar from young adult literature and the nightly news, both series find silver linings in every cloud, and yet retain the bracing conviction that laughter is our sole weapon against an impossibly cruel world. Bright, zippy, absolutely hilarious depictions of loneliness, human frailty, and abject failure, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Last Man on Earth” are the perfect comedies for this anxious age.
The former, anchored by Kemper’s goofball charm, motors along with the same exaggerated inflection as peak “30 Rock”—I dare you not to binge on all 13 episodes at once—following not only Kimmy’s re-entry into society but also a supporting cast of lovable losers. Her roommate, Titus (Tituss Burgess), a gay black man with dreams of stardom, stumbles again and again into the indignities of showbiz, but dusts himself off to create a triumphantly campy music video for his song, “Pinot Noir.” Jane Krakowski appears as Kimmy’s employer, Jacqueline Voorhees, turning up the volume on her vain, status-obsessed “30 Rock” character, Jenna Maroney; Carol Kane rummages through every register of her gravelly/squeaky voice to play the hardened eccentricities of Kimmy’s landlord, Lillian.
The result is delirious post-modern screwball with a deep vein of grief, never less than joyous and yet always aware, as Kimmy says near the end of the first episode, that “life beats you up.” (“Titus, age doesn’t matter,” Kimmy reassures him to this end. “You can die at any time!”) “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” cannily acknowledges that we’re cogs in a merciless universe, and then transforms this bleak notion into the comic existentialism of another old adage, “keep on keepin’ on.” The series premiere ends with Kimmy and Titus performing “Circle of Life” in Times Square, nearly drowned out by sirens, jackhammers, car horns, and murmuring tourists, the buzz of a city that pays them no mind. But they smile through it anyway, survivors both.
Replace the white noise with eerie silence and this is, more or less, the premise of “Last Man on Earth,” which begins in the aftermath of a viral plague that’s brought the human race to the brink of extinction. Though it skirts the creative challenges of sustaining a comedy with only one character by introducing Schaal’s Carol twenty minutes in—twenty minutes that, on their own, would easily make my list of the year’s best episodes—it’s in the frustrated sympathies of the two protagonists that the series, from “The Lego Movie” filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, truly shines.
Credit for the success of this gambit falls largely to Schaal, who manages to transform the rather shrill rule-follower, harping on proper grammar and traffic laws, into engaging, funny company. Confronting Phil’s loosened grasp of social norms with sunny, prim optimism, Carol is a twist on the sitcom figure of the hectoring wife. (“They say a person’s home is a reflection of their soul,” she notes happily at one point, before the episode cuts to an image of Phil’s “toilet pool.”) Though she’s often forced into the position of the humorless nag, Schaal effectively portrays one side of the ongoing battle between bearing up and giving up. For all the fun of lawlessness—Phil pilfers priceless paintings and Oscar statuettes before resettling in Tucson, where he “bowls” with lamps, aquariums, and souped-up cars—it’s her attempts at starting over that consistently save him from despair.
Joining him for racquetball in the foyer and appreciating the irrigation system he rigs up for her garden, Carol becomes the soul of the series, lending humane depth to the clever, no-rules antics of a manchild with a Twinkie on every finger and a gun tucked into the crack of his ass. Indeed, despite the fact that “Last Man on Earth” is, as Carol says of Phil, “the story of a man with a brothel of a home and a pool filled with human excrement,” she is, not unlike Kimmy Schmidt, the last line of defense against the belief that life’s garbage.
What allows the madcap fantasies of “Last Man on Earth” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” to soar is this wry balance between tragedy and farce, committed to facing grim circumstances without succumbing to them entirely. Whether you consider them black comedies with hopeful grace notes or spangled baubles with a streak of darkness, both admit, in the embellished terms of “Cast Away” references and near-apocalypses, that just getting out of bed in the morning can be terrifying indeed. “The worst thing that ever happened to me happened in my own front yard,” Kimmy tells Titus, a reminder that the catastrophes that befall us are not the end of the world.
All 13 episodes of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” are now streaming on Netflix. “Last Man on Earth” airs Sundays at 9:30pm on FOX.