On March 6, Netflix debuted “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” written by former “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” star and writer Tina Fey and starring Ellie Kemper (“The Office”) as a survivor of a doomsday cult, with all 13 episodes of the first season available to stream right now. Ed Carroll provides his thoughts on the first season with minimal spoilers.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is an unconventional show for Netflix. Whereas the streaming service’s three flagship series (“House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black” and “BoJack Horseman”) all were created for Netflix and revel in their lack of a network anchor (and lack of censors), Kimmy Schmidt looks like something you would have seen on NBC Thursday nights a few years ago, smashed somewhere in between Fey’s own “30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Community.” NBC actually sold the series to Netflix, who picked up Kimmy Schmidt for a second season as part of the agreement.
Most of the first season had completed filming by the time the sale was finalized, and thus don’t expect “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” to be some sort of sailor-mouthed show; the worst word you’re going to hear in season one is “bitch,” which is a female dog and where puppies come from, so thanks. Most episodes are also the length of a network sitcom, which Kimmy Schmidt was supposed to be, although some of the latter episodes touch 25 minutes in length. Considering Netflix has struggled to fill the extended run times of some of its shows (“Arrested Development” and “House of Cards” especially), it’s nice that Kimmy Schmidt never overstays its welcome.
The first question you need to ask yourself before considering watching Kimmy Schmidt is asking yourself if you enjoyed Tina Fey’s other work, particularly “30 Rock.” It’s not necessarily a dealbreaker if you didn’t enjoy a previous Fey-written show, but the writing has her fingerprints all over. If you loved “30 Rock,” you can probably stop reading this review and go ahead and binge, but if you’d like to know more before jumping into the 13 episodes, we have your back at Everyone Hates Cleveland.
Kimmy Schmidt has a surprisingly dark premise, with Kemper playing the title character, who was abducted by a cult leader at a young age emerged from a fallout bunker after spending the past 15 years underground, believing the world to have been destroyed. In the pre-credits sequence of the pilot, Kimmy and three other women are rescued from the shelter, and Kimmy decides to travel to New York City after escaping.
As a Clevelander, it was hard not to watch initial episodes and recall the recent rescues of Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight and Amanda Berry, who had been kidnapped and confined in Cleveland for a decade. Though no overly obvious parallels are made to the three Cleveland women, I began to worry “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” could have a too-dark-to-enjoy premise.
My worry was quickly erased, as the show takes a cheery deposition on damn near every awful life experience Kimmy Schmidt goes through during the first season, including being robbed of thousands of dollars, being fired from a job, bullying, PTSD, and loneliness. It’s a credit to both Fey’s writing (which hasn’t lost a step since “30 Rock” left our lives three years ago) and Kemper’s absolutely perfect portrayal of Schmidt, which keeps the show light and optimist despite some really crappy things going on in Schmidt’s life. And the optimism rarely grates on you, as the show is consistently funny throughout. “Unbreakable” is also insanely quotable, and part of me wonders which catchphrases will blow up if the show becomes a hit.
Other than Kemper, the breakout star of Kimmy Schmidt is Tituss Burgess, who plays Kimmy’s perpetually broke actor roommate Titus Andromedon. Burgess had a few show-stealing appearances on “30 Rock” as D’Fwan, a member of Angie Jordan’s “Queen of Jordan” show-within-a-show, but he’s given plenty of opportunity to show off his talents here. It’s occasionally overbearing (particularly during a later episode where Titus is simply unable to show compassion for Kimmy because he needs to juicy details), but Burgess is consistently hilarious and given some fun material to work off, and the contrast between Burgess’s New York-weary Titus and the wide-eyed optimism of Kemper’s Kimmy is ripe for humor.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” doesn’t have an extensively fleshed-out cast yet, though, even after watching the first season, only four characters really get any serious development and appear to be set to return, with the other two characters being Carol Kane’s landlord Lillian and “30 Rock” alumnae Jane Krakowski as Kimmy’s trophy wife boss and eventual friend Jacqueline Voorhees. Krakowski’s Jacquie in particular is a bit frustrating, as the character is still just a bit too similar to Karkowski’s Jenna Maroney from “30 Rock,” and while Maroney was certainly a funny character, “Unbreakable” does make strides late in the season to differentiate the two.
As far as the rest of the cast, “Unbreakable” particularly struggles with love interests for Kimmy. I wouldn’t really care if there weren’t any love interests at all, but since the show insisted on having them (thanks, NBC), it would be nice if any of them were more than some basic stereotypes or at least likable. None of them are particularly memorable, and even the one the show seems to have settled on at the end of the season could easily be written out for season two, and it might be in the best interests anyways.
Luckily, “Unbreakable” seems to realize that Kemper and Burgess generate most of the laughs, and rightfully focuses most of the screen time on these two (either together or apart). That’s a solid foundation, and other characters can certainly be fleshed out more as time passes. There’s also a few instances were it looks pretty obvious that the show was filmed out-of-order (which is pretty common for a network sitcom), which wouldn’t be a big deal except when a certain character’s accent can’t stay consistent.
My major complaint with “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is its reliance on sitcom tropes to get characters in situations. To “Unbreakable’s” credit, the show doesn’t rely on the sitcom tropes FOR laughs, but more as devices to get characters together where the jokes can work. Kimmy goes through a love triangle, Titus has a secret admirer, Kimmy goes to school and tries to rally her disinterested classmates … all of your favorite sitcom stereotypes are here, but thankfully Fey only uses the tropes as a means to an end. The humor remains fresh even if it feels like we’ve seen some of these situations before.
And the show is funny, pretty consistently throughout. Some of that is simply Kemper’s infectious optimism, which would seem to be potentially annoying but by the third episode you’ve likely accepted it — and the laughs that it brings. It’s classic Tina Fey humor, rapid-fire and sharp as hell. Most of the stories are at least mildly interesting, which helps some of the less-funny parts move along. The season does sort of slow down at an odd point, with a bit of an over-the-top extended courtroom portion thinking it’s funnier than it actually is, but it’s not without any laughs.
It’s not as good as “30 Rock” at its greatest, but “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is a breath of fresh air (particularly with a dearth of entertaining half-hour comedies out there, RIP “Parks and Rec”) that’s pretty consistently funny, and if you insist on comparing it to Fey’s other work, it’s probably far better than “30 Rock” at its worst. It’s slightly ironic, because the first season of Kimmy Schmidt is arguably better than the first season of any of NBC’s other recent flagship comedies (“Parks,” “The Office,” “Community” or “30 Rock”) and probably better than most of the crap on that channel. Thanks for saving this show, Netflix. Also, because this is Netflix and not NBC, we won’t have to wait and wonder if there’s going to be more to Kimmy Schmidt’s storyline. We admittedly might have to wait until next March for more episodes, but “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” will be back for a second season. And for what it’s worth, between “Unbreakable” “BoJack Horseman” and “House of Cards,” Netflix also has thee of the best title credit theme sequences in television.
As for if you should spend a day with a former doomsday cult member, the show has an episode with an extended Major League reference, so yes. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is the perfect springtime show to catch as you’re thawing yourself out of Cleveland’s winter, a show with sunshine, optimism and enough laughs to make the sunshine and optimism tolerable. Yes, it feels like something you should probably be watching at 8:30 p.m. on network television on a Thursday, but “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is entertaining no matter what time or date you watch.