Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt once seemed like the show was broken: with its weird, dark premise (a woman decides to live in New York City after being rescued from the underground bunker of a doomsday cult), off-kilter comedic cast (Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane), and peculiar pedigree (30 Rock), it seemed like there was too much to live up to and not enough to back it up. So when NBC decided the show didn’t have a great chance for success in their current line up, Universal, Tina Fey, and Robert Carlock were eager to have it make the jump to Netflix.
This happened almost entirely after the show was filmed, during post-production, so Kimmy Schmidt, in a lot of ways, really lucked out. Other Netflix original content is made specifically to expand beyond the restrains of traditional cable shows–a limited run time (usually 22 or 40-some minute long shows), network censorship. While some shows, like House of Cards, seem to adapt well to the lack of structure, other shows are not helped by the freer formatting. Look at Arrested Development’s fourth season, which stretched itself so far beyond the bonds of network influence that the awkwardly long episodes were specifically designed to be binged on and then rewatched multiple times before their humor could be fully comprehended. Because of Kimmy Schmidt’s airing uncertainty, it avoided a lot of the pitfalls that Arrested succumbed to.
Much like Flight of the Conchords on HBO, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does not relish in the gory glory of being picked up by a “network” that offers fare which frequently features cursing, nudity, and sex. Instead, Unbreakable gleefully teases at cut off curses and lacks nudity in a way that only a show which traces its roots to a love of network sitcoms could do.
This sort of joyful attitude is refreshing, especially as the show is set in New York City, a place synonymous with high cost of living, disgusting surroundings, and perpetually angry inhabitants.The upbeat tone is even more shocking when you consider that the Fey/Carlock duo’s last big hit was about as sarcastically sour late-night showrunner, also living in the Big Apple.
While it shares an urban setting and a female lead, that’s essentially where the similarities end; Kimmy Schmidt has little in common with 30 Rock. While 30 Rock was about a show-within-a-show and lampooning current pop culture, Kimmy Schmidt is a coming of age story (albeit, that age is 30) with a sweetly nostalgic fondness for the 90’s. Both shows tap into the current cultural zeitgeist, but in vastly different ways.
Kimmy Schmidt is analogous to that awkward pseudo-generation between Generation X-ers and millennials–Kimmy herself is not a girl, but not yet a woman. All the characters, from Carol Kane’s inspirationally goofy landlady to Tituss Burgess’ lovingly acerbic gay roommate, are in a state of arrested development, and the show is about them growing out of, and into, themselves. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt shares the same sense of 90s nostalgia that you find on tumblr and Buzzfeed, but it also lacks the inherent need to be “plugged in.” After all, the titular character (dubbed a “mole woman” in the first episode by the Matt Lauer in one of the show’s best cameos) has been living under a rock (almost literally) for 15 years. The last internet she knew was AOL dial-up was the internet, cell phones were camera-less bricks, and Moesha is her hippest frame of cultural reference.
Jeff Richmond’s compositions are lighthearted and jovial, but they often feel to derivative of his work on 30 Rock, where the mix of frenetic and energetic soundtrack suited the show, and often offered a humorously optimistic-sounding counterpoint to the show’s staunchly pessimistic lead. That said, the opening theme for the show is some of Richmond’s (and The Gregory Brother’s) best work, perfectly pop-referential, while being both sincere and empowering.
The show’s biggest fault lies in the fact that it is 30 Rock’s little sister. It will never be able to break away from the shadow of its big sister. Certain characters feel like vague call-backs to 30 Rock: I can’t help but wish that Chloe Grace Moretz played Kimmy’s sister Kymmi (but Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka makes the caustic teen her own, and provides a wonderful foil to Kimmy’s sunny nature). Martin Short’s Dr. Franff feels (and looks) quite a bit like Prince Gerhardt Hapsburg, but Short’s delivery falls…well, short, especially when compared to Paul Reubens. And John Hamm, while great in his cameo, seems to have become a pre-requisite for all Fey and Poehler productions (so, next up: Broad City?), which makes his role seem slightly less special.
But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt isn’t trying to be 30 Rock, and that is also the show’s greatest strength. It’s obviously going to follow in the same weird footsteps, but it has different goals in mind.
At its core, Unbreakable is a story about women (and, to a lesser extent, men) breaking free from the bonds that have been forced on them; literally (in Kimmy’s case), self-imposed (the kept wife Jacqueline, Titus’ fear of rejection), or socially enforced (Dong versus U.S. Immigration). Every character is deeper than they initially appear, and while the first season had some slip-ups in dealing with the presentation of race (with one especially odd, but almost justifiable narrative choice presented in the third episode), because of Netflix’s guarantee of at least two seasons for the show–and likely more to come, due to the critical acclaim the show has received thus far–there’s a great likelihood that everyone will get their shining moment and plots that seem awkward in the first season will find more nuanced resolution.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is an anthem to empowerment. In what sometimes seems like the darkest timeline, this show is a ray of light that proves television can still be fun, uplifting, and exciting, even for the most cynical viewers.