By Chloe Gilke, Managing Arts Editor
Published March 10, 2015
“Life beats you up. You can either curl up in a ball and die, or you can stand up and say we’re different. We’re the strong ones, and you can’t break us!”
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Like the series’ title suggests, Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper, “The Office”) is unbreakable. Fifteen years ago, she and four other young women were kidnapped by a pathological reverend, who told them the world was going to end and their only hope of survival was to hide with him in an underground bunker. When Kimmy and her fellow survivors are eventually rescued, the media brands them as the “Indiana Mole Women,” appropriating and depersonalizing their horrifying experience into a viral video and series of news stories. Kimmy moves to New York, but her sweet naivety results in a stolen backpack and thousands of dollars in cash — which she received from the group’s relief fund — gone. A precocious 14-year-old in an adult’s body, Kimmy hasn’t experienced the outside world in over a decade, and real life is a lot crueler than she imagined.
But Kimmy doesn’t let this break her and, more impressively, the heavy backstory doesn’t cast a shadow over “Kimmy Schmidt” ’s persistent sunniness. The series is refreshingly optimistic. Kimmy is eager to put her traumatic past behind her, and the show follows suit, following the heroine through her adjustment to her new job, friends and love interests. Despite its offbeat and dark premise, “Kimmy Schmidt” plays a lot like any regular sitcom. Kemper makes a vivacious and compelling lead, and the supporting cast is filled with characters that appear singularly unrelatable and bizarre, but whose experiences and resilient personalities echo Kimmy’s.
“Kimmy Schmidt” is Netflix’s first venture into an original sitcom series, and this binge-friendly format allows the show to find its groove so quickly. With many network comedies, viewers suffer through a few rougher weeks until the characters are fully-formed and the comedic style is solidified. In “Kimmy Schmidt,” these exposition-heavy early episodes play out like the beginning of movie, introducing all the important characters and plot elements as premise for a hilarious and incisive run of mid-season episodes. The difficulties that the show faces in its first few episodes — its shallow characterization, clumsy introduction of plot information and off-kilter humor that viewers unfamiliar with executive producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s previous work on “30 Rock” may find off-putting — are resolved by episode four.
Fey and Carlock’s influence is apparent in nearly every aspect of the show, from its acerbic humor to its jazzy musical interludes composed by Fey’s husband, who also composed similar transitions for “30 Rock”. Fellow alumnus Jane Krakowski plays Kimmy’s ridiculously rich, ridiculously posh boss, Jacqueline Voorhees. At first, Jacqueline appears a minor permutation from Jenna Maroney. However, once the show commits to exploring her depth, she becomes one of the best characters. Voorhees is wealthy and wasteful, but those material possessions merely reflect an “outside-in” approach to self-worth — dressing yourself up in diamonds and Botox hides the doubt and paranoia lurking under the skin. Krakowski’s manic energy equally matches Kemper’s, and the moments they share are some of the show’s best.
Kimmy’s roommate, aspiring thespian Titus Andromedon, steals every scene that Krakowski doesn’t already. Fellow “30 Rock”-er Tituss Burgess is probably the only person in the universe that could pull off a shirt that says “Baby Slut” and sing “Dreamgirls” lyrics in an everyday conversation. But aside from his more lighthearted moments, “Kimmy Schmidt” uses Titus to employ biting social commentary and ground the show in a complicated racial and cultural landscape. For his job at a horror-themed restaurant, Titus, who is African American, dresses up as a werewolf and quickly discovers that other New Yorkers treat him much better when he’s dressed in the costume of an actual monster than as a regular Black man. It’s a powerful statement about the struggles and prejudices that people of color have to face, but “Kimmy Schmidt” doesn’t dwell too much here. It introduces these serious topics and then moves on into comedic territory, just like Kimmy herself doesn’t focus too much on her tragic experiences.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is an insightful and well-crafted narrative, and just as importantly, one of the funniest series around. The show’s ability to juggle satire and fluffy, feel-good buddy comedy is remarkably solid for a series so early in its run. Part of the success has to be due to the magic touch of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, but the real gem of “Kimmy Schmidt” is Kimmy’s relentless spirit. The pathos-driven comedy would be nowhere without that wide smile, that unquenchable enthusiasm, that magnetic effect that pulls the entire show into perfect place. She’s the strong one, and nothing can break her.