If you were ever a “30 Rock” fan, you’re in luck: While Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan are nowhere to be seen on camera, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (created by Fey and “30 Rock” producer Robert Carlock) echoes the familiar rhythms of that beloved program. From joke patter to music to the sunny oddities of New York City that pop into frame, the sense of nostalgia you might experience is only overwhelmed by the gratitude for more of that singular comedic voice. Truly, watching “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” feels like coming home…
For what makes “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” one of the more exciting comedies of 2015 so far has nothing to do with “30 Rock” or the remnants of its broadcast network past. (If you weren’t aware, the series — which premieres in full on Netflix March 6 — is an NBC Universal production originally slated for NBC primetime, until it became clear that NBC might not be the best fit.) What makes the series remarkable is the fact it’s not just a show about oddballs and misfits, but is a misfit itself: A very funny sitcom about loss and trauma.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” should not work. And yet its first six episodes, made available for review, hint at a season which might just stick the landing.
The premise: Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), who was kidnapped as a pre-teen by the leader of a very small doomsday cult, is freed at the age of 29 and thrust into the media spotlight for a hot second. Rather than go back to her old life in Indiana — because what’s left to do there, aside from finish the eighth grade? — she decides to reclaim her life and stick it out in New York City, finding a place to live thanks to new roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess) and something resembling employment thanks to uber-rich New York wife and mother Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski).
So, you know, it’s “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” if Mary Tyler’s origin story included a decade-long stay with Charles Manson. It is on the opposite side of the planet from an “Odd Couple” remake. Bluntly put, it is unlikely to become a mainstream hit. But for anyone who loves an underdog, that just makes it all the more loveable.
“Kimmy Schmidt” hits some predictable beats, and episodes often fall into the classic definition of “situational comedy” pretty hard. (No spoilers, but it’s safe to say a number of subplots lean into “hilarious misunderstanding!” or “character tells a lie and has to deal with the consequences” tropes.) But it’s all set against this insane initial premise and populated by a strange assortment of original characters, which keeps each of these moments feeling fresh. Perhaps the term is “normcore”? I don’t know. And neither would Kimmy.
As mentioned, it’s a unique ensemble to television — the show is damn well cast, and unconventionally so. Fey and Carlock created the character of Kimmy specifically for Kemper, and they knew what they were doing: Her relentless cheer makes her an instantly likeable protagonist, but Kemper is also capable of hitting the darker notes required by the story and the character, and at times your heart bleeds for both her innocence, and her attempts to deal with the innocence that was taken from her.
Meanwhile, Carol Kane as Titus’s landlord seems a bit frail but no less hilarious for it (where’s Carol Kane’s Betty White-esque cultural popularity, I ask you?). And Krakowski was such a reliable comedy power player as Jenna on “30 Rock” that seeing her take on a brand new character with a totally different sense of entitlement just serves as a reminder of how good she is as a performer.
(The only tragedy in her casting is that it would complicate any effort made to have “30 Rock” exist in the same universe as “Kimmy Schmidt,” but maybe Jenna could have an identical twin… cousin? Who knows.)
And here’s a whole paragraph about Tituss Burgess! If you’re a “30 Rock” fan, you’ll remember him as D’Fwan, the flamboyant scene-stealer of Angie Jorgan’s reality show “Queen of Jordan.” Burgess represents one of the purest forms of success: a one-off actor who nails that one appearance so hard he ends up getting a prominent series regular role out of it. And he proves how much he deserves it, serving ably as comedic anchor and compassionate friend to Kimmy. Romance on TV can be easy — friendship is hard. And yet, the friendship between Kimmy and Titus is immediately believable and true.
And that’s one of the best elements of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” — the friendships. It’s easy to define a new show by its romances, especially since will-they-won’t-they drama is one of television’s most tried-and-true tropes. But, despite the presence of the (very cute, don’t get me wrong) Charles (Andy Ridings), who also works for Jacqueline as her son’s tutor and has definite potential for Kimmy as a romantic partner, over the first six episodes the real appeal is in Kimmy herself and her attempts to navigate this new world with a lot of help.
The show never loses sight of what brought Kimmy to this place and to keeping us conscious of the fact that her adorable fish-out-of-water nature comes courtesy of a truly scarring event. It’s full of jokes about how Kimmy doesn’t understand modern technology or culture, but it never makes light of her real trauma, and never belittles what she’s been through.
And it never belittles her for experiencing it. It’s a sitcom that talks about the word “victim” as more than a label — as a choice. Right there in the title, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” tells you its central character is stronger than what’s been done to her, and she will survive it.
Plus, it’s funny.
Maybe you should plan to watch it.