It’s been two years since new episodes of Tina Fey’s and Robert Carlock’s “30 Rock” graced television screens, and until last weekend, I didn’t realize how much I missed it. Then, the duo released their new show, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” to Netflix, proving that you can go home again – at least kind of.
Some “30 Rock” comparisons to Fey and Carlock’s new show are inevitable. Despite a vastly different premise – “Schmidt’s” pilot opens with four women, including protagonist Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), moving on with life after they’re freed from years trapped underground in a doomsday cult – the notes the show hits are often strikingly similar to its forebear. New York City is still the setting as the place where Kimmy moves to start her new life, “30 Rock” main cast member Jane Krakowski and bit player Tituss Burgess are back as Kimmy’s impossibly upper-class boss and her flamboyant wannabe actor roommate, some of the show’s one-liners read as if the ghost of Liz Lemon is haunting the set, and, most noticeably, “30 Rock” composer (and Fey’s husband) Jeff Richmond returns with a jaunty, clarinet-heavy score. If you close your eyes and just listen to the music, you’d think you were back in Jack Donaghy’s office.
A few calling cards aside, however, “Schmidt” and “30 Rock” are very different. Part of that difference is “Schmidt’s” skillful reliance on its binge watch-dedicated programming home, but the biggest departure is the new program’s ability to set almost an opposite tone. While “30 Rock” was usually a cynical or conflicted show tempered with a shot of optimism, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is one of the most buoyant and optimistic comedies on TV today, shot through with the darkest of dark streaks.
The show’s ability to be this way is likely due in large part to its distribution method. I don’t know at what point in production NBC executives decided to boot the show over to Netflix (it has to be by at least episode nine, which contains one of “Schmidt’s” sole concessions to “30 Rock’s” constant stream of meta jokes), but the latter half of the first season becomes heavily serialized, counting on viewers’ ability to remember past plot points because they can watch the show so quickly. The show is rarely not funny, but the latter half of the season transcends the fish out of water and woman out of time jokes of the still very funny first half to focus more intently on the trauma Kimmy and her three fellow escapees (or “Molewomen,” as the show calls them) must overcome.
Typically, the show handles the topic with a light touch, but one that still broaches the gravity that the women’s abduction had on their lives. One of the series’ funniest jokes revolves around one of the saddest real-life topics, when one of the women’s mothers accidentally tells a caller that no, her daughter is not at home because she’s been missing for years, before chuckling to herself when she realizes her mistake. The jokes are also joined by subtler touches, like Kimmy’s violent but unexplained reactions to being touched unexpectedly.
There are more direct approaches as well, however. The more standard sitcom plots about Kimmy’s dated references and inability to read social cues are joined by stories of her watching the other Molewomen sell out their victimhood and a confrontation with her kidnapper (Jon Hamm, proving once again that he needs to be in more comedies). Throughout her foray into New York and her adventures with the other characters, there is a sense of discouragement, of missed opportunity, of the shadows of the past begging Kimmy to give up. And yet, she will not. She is unbreakable. It is a tale of incredible darkness overcome by a refusal to bend.
The show’s writing in this regard is nearly impeccable, but it’s married to a phenomenal performance by Kemper. She sells cartoonish jokes, genuine confusion and hurt and abundant optimism with equal aplomb. Goofy environment aside, she feels like a real person.
In fact, the strength of her performance and characterization may indirectly lead to one of the show’s only flaws (well, besides a lower production value that leads to some distractingly noticeable green screen moments at season’s end). Kimmy is so engaging that it’s tough for the other characters to escape her orbit. They’re all good when they’re interacting with Kimmy, but when the show tries to showcase Burgress (whose character is also named Titus) by himself or pair him with his and Kimmy’s landlord (Carol Kane), the stories aren’t always as engaging as what Kemper is up to. Even this, however, improves as the episodes continue.
One week after it aired, the Internet would have you believe that everyone has already watched “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” If you haven’t, however, it’s well worth your time as a sitcom with a truly unique point of view.
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