Colorful comedy: ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ is a clumsy, fun treat

unbreakable-kimmy-schmidt-tv-review-netflixBy JIM SABATASO

[A version of this review appears in the March 26, 2015, edition of the Rutland Reader.]

After the long, depressing slog that was my House of Cards binge, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, was a much-needed palate cleanser. The new Netflix sitcom is the first new project from the “30 Rock” creative team of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, and it’s a charming, clever delight.

Like 30 RockKimmy is a joke-dense show, heavy on wordplay, screwball characters, and social commentary. Even the musical score of Kimmy echoes 30 Rock — not surprising since Fey’s husband Jeff Richmond did the music for both.

Fortunately, that sameness never distracts; rather, the familiar rhythms are like reconnecting with an old friend. Watching Kimmy Fey’s voice is present in the quirky gags, jokey dialogue, and healthy dose of feminist critique.

Ellie Kemper (The Office) plays the title character, one of four women kidnapped by a doomsday preacher and held captive for 15 years in an underground bunker in Indiana. It’s a somewhat dark premise for a sitcom, but the show’s optimistic tone keeps things cheery. “Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker,” Kimmy tells someone early on before pivoting to lighter territory. To the show’s credit, such moments don’t feel discordant; the writers know how to dance around that darkness without playing it for cheap laughs.

After their rescue, the Indiana Mole Women as the media dubs them, arrive in New York on a press tour. When it’s time to head back home, the now 30-year-old Kimmy decides to remain and start a new life in the city Mary Richards-style.

Kimmy settles into life her new life surrounded by a strong supporting cast of characters. Broadway actor Tituss Burgess (D’Fwan from 30 Rock) plays Kimmy’s gay, black roommate Titus Andromedon, an over-the-hill actor still waiting for his big break. Titus serves as Kimmy’s cultural guide for life outside the bunker.

The always-great Carol Kane plays Lillian, Kimmy and Titus’ compassionate but kooky landlady. Kane brings her manic energy to the role, making Lillian a whacky NYC neighbor who’d be right at home with Cosmo Kramer and Bob Sacamano.

Jane Krakowski, another 30 Rock vet, shows up as shows up as Jacqueline, the superficial socialite whom Kimmy nannies for.

Overall, Kimmy is pretty great despite a few rough spots. The supporting cast’s performances are big veering on cartoonish. Titus and Jackie are especially broad characters, and occasionally take up too much oxygen in scenes. Titus is the stronger of the two, but his divo histrionics get to be grating at points.

And while Krakowski is a lot of fun as Jackie, the out-of-touch one-percenter character didn’t bring much new insight or humor to a tired archetype. Also, all the stuff about her Native American heritage didn’t really land with me. While I can’t say it was flat out offensive, it just felt like an awkward and unnecessary choice.

Another problem for me was the show’s treatment of Asian character Dong (Ki Hong Lee), Kimmy’s GED classmate and potential love interest. From the many jokes made at the expense of his name to his poor English and strong math skills, the show doesn’t stray far from tired stereotypes despite making him an otherwise likable, sweet character.

Despite its brilliant creative team, issues of race and gender politics are clumsily handled throughout the season. It’s really hit or miss. The episode where Titus discovers he gets treated better by people when dressed as a werewolf is a silly but insightful. As is Kimmy’s take down of a charlatan cycling instructor (played by very welcome guest star Nick Kroll), which exposes the cults of beauty that women often find themselves trapped in everyday.

At other points, however, the jokes feel awkward, forced, or too easy. Knowing what this team is capable of, the comedy bar is understandably high, which makes it all the more disappointing when they fall short.

Setting these problematic issues aside, there is still a lot to like about Kimmy. Around episode four, everything really clicks as the show hits its stride showing a confidence earlier episodes were lacking. The bigger performances are dialed down, and the show gains some momentum as Kimmy finds her own way in the real world.

Kimmy is a naïf, but she’s not an idiot. Fifteen years underground have preserved her innocence. Early on, the naiveté is of the one-note, fish-out-of-water variety, but the show wisely lets Kimmy grow beyond her early reliance on other characters to act as social translators.

Beneath the many jokes, Fey delivers a manifesto about the resilience and strength of women. A big part of Kimmy is devoted to advancing the idea that women are “strong as hell.” (It’s even in the excellent opening credit sequence.) In the show, Kimmy represents the unbreakable female spirit, and delivers that message to the other characters. The effort is admirable, and I like what Fey is doing here even if this, too, is clumsily handled at times.

In a crowded field of binge-worthy TV shows, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a standout despite some awkward moments, and strikes an unlikely balance between Parks and Recreation earnestness and 30 Rock cynicism that largely works.

Endnotes

  • Critic Todd VanDerWerff wrote an interesting piece comparing Kimmy to classic gimmick sitcoms like Bewitched and Gilligan’s Island. It’s a smart observation, and worth checking out.
  • The series’ use of color is amazing. Bright pinks, yellows, and blues saturate every frame, from the wardrobe to set design. Visually, the show is pretty and light, incorporating Kimmy’s indomitable optimism into the overall visual style of the show.
  • Seriously, that theme song is a thing of beauty. Not only is it a fun parody of the auto-tuned witness viral video meme, it’s also catchy as hell. Not enough shows do theme songs anymore.
  • It was a total throwaway bit, but that bottled water runner got me every time. And the payoff at the end of the season was perfect. What is it about rich people and their fancy water?
  • No spoilers, but the actor who plays Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne was a great choice — and an obvious one given his former appearances on 30 Rock.
  • At first, the extended riff on the OJ Simpson trial seemed like an odd move, but it totally works due in large part to the performances of guest stars Tina Fey and Jerry Minor.
  • Kimmy’s notebook titled “Thing People Don’t Say Anymore” is another great throwaway gag. Word up.
  • I’ve been to a SoulCycle class. It is a goddamn cult.
  • “Hash brown. No filter.”

Season one of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is now streaming on Netflix.

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