Netflix’s new sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt migrated to the streaming service when NBC left the show swaddled on Netflix’s doorstep, unable to nurture another cult-ready comedy as the network shifted its focus to drama development. The move had the ring of a no-confidence vote. Kimmy Schmidt, created by 30 Rock’s Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, is based on an elaborate premise that seems unworkable from its logline, making it the sort of thing Netflix can capriciously buy at a network fire sale without denting its war chest. Turns out the glass was half-full: Kimmy Schmidt is not only a winning comedy; it exemplifies what a Netflix sitcom should be.
Ellie Kemper stars as the title character, who decides to make a go of it in Manhattan after being rescued from the nuclear fallout shelter she called home for 15 years. Kimmy is one of the four “Indiana mole women,” who were convinced by a fire-and-brimstone cult leader that an apocalypse had razed the earth and the shelter was the only inhabitable place left. The women head to New York City as part of the obligatory media gauntlet, and Kimmy decides to stay there, choosing to shed her past in the city’s anonymizing bustle rather than let her involvement in a news oddity define her life.
The backstory is a lot to digest, and though the pilot zooms a bit too quickly through the exposition, Fey and Carlock efficiently set the table so they can focus on unleashing Kimmy on a city of unwitting curmudgeons. Kimmy is the world-weary Manhattanite’s nightmare, an unfailingly cheerful spinning top with an almost-intimidating optimism. Kimmy approaches everything as a delightful adventure, finding joy in such soul-draining, quotidian tasks like landing a job or finding an apartment. As someone who, up until recently, was convinced there was no civilization left, Kimmy is unable to take anything for granted, not even the tiny indignities that can make big-city living so brutal.
Kimmy Schmidt is built from standard fish-out-of-water comedy parts, including the boss and roommate who find themselves equally inspired and confounded by their new addition. Here, the roommate is Titus (Tituss Burgess), a reclusive, downtrodden, would-be actor frustrated that his efforts to break into show business have only yielded a job passing out fliers in Times Square while wearing an Iron Man-esque robot costume. Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), a vapid, Upper West Side fembot, drafts Kimmy to be her nanny after she lies to conceal her mole-woman infamy.
The show hinges on its lead actress, and Kemper is revelatory as Kimmy, a role that caters perfectly to the actor’s strengths. Kimmy is sensitive and guileless, but with a sturdy backbone and moxie to spare, a balance Kemper perfected while starring in The Office as Erin Hannon, a character with a similar silhouette. Kimmy could easily overwhelm an audience the same way she overwhelms those around her with manic joy, but she never feels like too much of a good thing. That’s a result of Kemper’s savvy performance as well as the scripts she’s working with, which allow Kimmy moments of loneliness and doubt even she remains a beacon of positivity.
30 Rock fans lured by Fey and Carlock’s involvement will find lots to love about Kimmy Schmidt. The show doesn’t crank out gags at the same overwhelming frequency as 30 Rock, but from its earliest moments, Kimmy Schmidt brims with a comic sensibility recognizable as Fey’s. As Kimmy and her fellow captives are shown emerging from the bunker in a local news report, the chyron reads: “White Women Found.” Underneath, in a far smaller font: “Hispanic woman also found.” Krakowski and Burgess are soothing presences for 30 Rock devotees, but Jacqueline and Titus’ absurdity pales in comparison to that of Jenna or D’Fwan, indicative of Kimmy Schmidt’s commitment to more earthbound storytelling.
Kimmy Schmidt can still get plenty weird—“Who among us is a perfect foot slut?” asks Kimmy—but it isn’t a full-on live-action cartoon. Granted, the New York City of Kimmy Schmidt is the same one Liz Lemon is constantly griping about in 30 Rock, a trash-shrewn hellmouth populated with jerks and menacing youths. The spiritual link between the shows is always apparent, thanks to another jaunty, jazzy score by Jeff Richmond, in addition to more explicit callbacks—the cult’s leader, Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, sounds strikingly similar to the wacky religious leader mentioned by Kenneth Parcell. But Kimmy is the anti-Liz. She isn’t frustrated because her identity is defined by her work; she’s frustrated because her identity isn’t defined at all. She would love nothing more than for a demanding job to come along and absorb her life.
Kimmy’s journey longs to be told in a heavily serialized way, and to its credit, the show doesn’t hesitate to bury narrative land mines or develop longer arcs. This main character is a vault of secrets, and the writers revel in the mysteries within her, including her inexplicable fear of Velcro and her complex relationships with her three bunker mates, shaded in with sharp cutaway gags. It’s the type of comedy storytelling NBC simply can’t get away with anymore, at least not if it intends to change its ratings fate. So Kimmy Schmidt is a great fit for Netflix, as its serialization lends it to binge-viewing, as does its run time. The show was produced with network television in mind, so all 13 of its 22-minute episodes can be wolfed down on a Saturday afternoon without encroaching on Saturday night.
Netflix has already committed to a second season of Kimmy Schmidt, which will allow its writers to play a long game with such elements as Jacqueline’s defiant stepdaughter (Dylan Gelula), who feuds with Kimmy and vows to unearth her true identity. It’s a happy beginning for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which like its central character, demonstrates the beauty of shedding the past and starting anew.