Review: UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT, Season 1

Rescued from NBC purgatory, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a charming success — and good luck getting that theme song out of your head.

Tonight is more than just a party now, Titus!

–Kimmy

That’s my favorite sentence everrrrrr!

–Titus

In 2014, NBC had a problem. Well — it had a lot of problems, and continues to have problems, but the one I’m talking about in particular had to do with its once-venerable comedy brand. In my piece on Fox’s excellent Last Man On Earth, I touched on the State of the Industry, particularly when it comes to network sitcoms, and their unwillingness to try much that is truly interesting or original. On CBS, you have the laugh-tracked, obscenely popular multi-cam series that keep Chuck Lorre stocked in destructible baby grand pianos. ABC specializes in families, particularly the Modern, Emmy-gobbling kind, and their latest efforts in riffing on that formula (Black-ish, Fresh Off The Boat) have been well-received. Fox, for its part, shoots for “quirky,” and all four (only four!) of its current series — New Girl, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Mindy Project,  and LMOE — have had their share of moderately-rated success. The most groundbreaking work is still being done elsewhere: on cable (Veep, Broad City), and now on services like Amazon (Transparent).

And then there’s NBC. NBC, the former home of “Must See TV” (Seinfeld! Cheers! Friends!), has now become “Must Flee TV.” The drop was as sudden as it was steep; as recently as 2012, the Peacock was home to the greatest comedy block of my generation in Thursday’s The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Community. All except the first were low-rated critical darlings (Office was a decently-rated critical darling that nevertheless stayed on the air three seasons too long). But Robert Greenblatt, who ascended to chairman of NBC Entertainment in 2011, took one look at that lineup and said…”Nah.” Instead, he committed to “safer” series with “broader” appeal — no more weirdness on his watch! And one by one, those beloved cult favorites were replaced by lumbering disasters: Go On. Sean Saves the World. The Paul Reiser Show. The Michael J. Fox Show. Two things those series have in common: first, former NBC stars; second, they were unilaterally bad, and didn’t see a second season.

But Greenblatt, and NBC, kept trying. Amazingly, every year of failure led to second/third/fourth chances for Parks and Community (30 Rock had already bowed out gracefully; The Office, less so) — but everything ends eventually, and as of this writing the network has all but given up on the sitcom. Its biggest hits are The Voice, The Blacklist, and Sunday Night Football. As a network, that’s the equivalent of CNN programming two hours a night of Malaysian Flight 370 coverage. So it’s to NBC’s credit that they viewed Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — the new series from longtime Peacock loyalists Tina Fey and Robert Carlock — not as the future of their brand, but a future casualty of their current one.

At the time, the pre-cancellation of UKS was interpreted as either typical dunder-headedness, or worse, a vote of no confidence: could it be that Fey & Carlock’s follow-up to 30 Rock just wasn’t good? The swiftly-following announcement that it had instead been picked up by Netflix, who would air the 13 episodes already in production, was less cause for celebration than confusion. Netflix had been looking to break into the original comedy game for quite some time; they had produced the new season of Arrested Development, but that series’s future was up in the air; the only equivalent series currently in its portfolio was the animated Bojack Horseman, which is well-liked by many, but wouldn’t be the cornerstone of any network (or streaming service). Kimmy Schmidt, they seemed to believe, would be the kind of series that — alongside House of Cards — the service could build around, as the battle for television supremacy spreads out from the airwaves and onto our computers.

Okay, that’s 600 words of inside baseball, and I haven’t even begun answer the most important question: Hey, is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt good, or what? YES. It’s better than good — it’s great. But those preceding paragraphs are important, because while the series will eventually have to stand on its own, the context surrounding its production is key, because NBC has — for once — given us a real gift. On its network, Kimmy Schmidt would have died an agonizing death. On Netflix, it will not only survive, but flourish. Greenblatt may have tossed it overboard, but he also threw it a life preserver, and gets to keep a share of the residuals. Everyone wins…especially us.

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The school’s not going to replace you — they’re broke! They’ve been renting out the lockers as hotel rooms for Japanese businessmen!

–Kimmy

The title character is winningly played by Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids) who has specialized in naive Pollyannas, but has never had the chance to play someone with the depth and heart of Kimmy Schmidt. Kimmy has spent 15 years of her life in an underground bunker, the victim of kidnapping by a crazed preacher; she’s been told that the world has ended, and the only ones left are the Reverend and her three “sisters.” Fortunately for her, that’s not the case, and when she emerges grinning into the sunshine, she chooses not to return to her childhood home in Indiana, but make a brand-new life for herself on the mean streets of New York City. She gets a job as a nanny, finds an apartment, and hides her “Mole Woman” history wherever possible.

Outside of its comic energy and sprightly underscore (once again, from Tina Fey’s husband Jeff Richmond), Kimmy Schmidt has less in common with 30 Rock than it does with, say, Flight of the Conchords or (as Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff cleverly observed) even Bewitched. The jokes are fast, but don’t reach nearly the RPM of the previous series’s whirring gag turbine; instead, there’s an earnestness and a sweetness. With very few exceptions, we loved 30 Rock‘s characters as characters, not as people. Here, the opposite is true. As Kimmy, Kemper is incredibly appealing — her smiles could be used to calibrate the brightness of your television — and she shows through her resilience that she may not know much about 21st Century America, but she’s no dummy. The relationships she forges over these 13 episodes are real and meaningful, whether she’s politely rebuffing a boy in her GED class, or sparring with Jacqueline’s bratty step-daughter, Xanthippe (Dylan Gelula).

Notably, there’s an absence of a dark star like Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy for the other characters to orbit around. In fact, there are no white males in the principal cast at all. Instead, there are three women — Kimmy, Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski, playing a barely-concealed variation on Jenna Maroney), and Vivian (Carol Kane), Kimmy’s boozy landlady — with one gay black man. And that man, Titus Andromedon, played by Tituss Burgess (D’Fwan!), is already the breakout star of the 2015 television season. Not only does the aspiring Broadway actor get all of the best lines (when told “Fame is a double-edged sword”: “But then you get twice as much sword!”), he holds his own when adrift of an episode’s principal plot. When Titus discovers he gets treated better in costume as a werewolf than as his normal self, it’s not only a hysterical physical performance from Burgess, but sharp social commentary. But even as a straight white guy, I can’t help but identify with him:

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I feel you, Titus. I feel you.

Growing pains are unavoidable for any new series, especially a comedy, and one of Kimmy Schmidt’s early issues is finding efficient uses of its characters. But thanks to Netflix’s binge-friendly model, you don’t have to wait week to week for the show to “get better” —  you just dive in, and trust that it will. And it does. As 30 Rock became more comfortable with what it could do, it pushed out into stranger and stranger territory; Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t even wait four episodes to give us its most horrifying visual in Martin Short’s “Dr. Franpf,” a unintelligible plastic surgeon with a bizarrely inflated face, and this comes only one episode after the (slightly troubling) revelation that Jacqueline, Jane Krakowski’s spoiled socialite, is secretly a Native American. As the season unfolds, a general structure presents itself — Kimmy tries something new while attempting to leave behind her past, which brilliantly climaxes with the season’s final two episodes — but that inherent absurdity, that “anything can happen, and it’s going to be weird,” is as much a part of the show’s DNA as Titus’s love of, uh, Pinot Noir.

As you might expect when Tina Fey is involved, Kimmy Schmidt gets incredible mileage out of a dizzying list of guest stars: other than Short, we get appearances from people like Nick Kroll, Richard Kind, Amy Sedaris, Jon Hamm (spectacularly), and of course Fey herself. (My favorite is obviously Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris, who hams it up in the funniest storyline of the entire season as Titus’s “Straight Coach” in “Kimmy’s in a Love Triangle!”) For me, the season really started to hit its stride about halfway through, and what was at first a “this is fun, but I’m not in a hurry” viewing experience became a real binge.

But as giddily enjoyable as its first season is, the prospect of the next is truly exciting: now Fey and Carlock will produce another 13 episodes all under Netflix’s purview, free of the shackles of not just network Standards and Practices, but television convention itself. They can make exactly the show they want to make. What’s more, the thrilling meta-cynicism of 30 Rock, as it bit the hand that fed it, can be traded in for something ultimately more memorable, and valuable: warmth. Kimmy pushes each person she comes across to overcome the obstacles put in their path, but the show never has to sacrifice jokes to keep her honest and sincere. As former stablemate Parks and Recreation showed, you can still get plenty of comic mileage out of being nice.

And, it’s true, I need to set the insanely catchy theme song as my morning alarm. It would be impossible not to have a good day. They alive, dammit!

Season Grade: A-

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