‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ is the ‘30 Rock’ Companion TV Needs Right Now
Once upon a time, NBC Thursday nights were untouchable. In one two-hour block, we were treated to four of the funniest, strangest and warmest comedies in recent history. The Office hadn’t begun its downward slide quite yet, Community was a refreshing blast of narrative anarchy, Parks and Recreation was quickly becoming the show we grew to love, and 30 Rock had transformed one of the most reliable sources of inspired lunacy in the television landscape.
And then, slowly but surely, NBC lost their spark. Three of those shows ended with varying levels of grace and the fourth found a new home. NBC Thursday nights were dead.
But from the ashes, a new show has emerged. While it bears the distinctive markings of a show that would be right at home in that immortal two-hour stretch of comedy magic, it’s not on NBC. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt may be the latest series to debut on the ever-growing, all-consuming streaming behemoth that is Netflix, but its goofy spirit and whimsical characters feel like they could only exist because of what aired before ... on NBC. Specifically: it’s no coincidence that this show shares so many writers, directors and producers with 30 Rock. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the reincarnation of Tina Fey’s screwball comedy series, sharing an identical tone with the series that its creators tackled before it. Let’s torture another metaphor: it’s the same set of instruments being used to compose a totally unique song. The notes are similar, but why complain when the notes are so good?
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt begins with a kernel of pure darkness before spiraling into pure joy. Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids) stars as the title character, a 29-year old woman who is rescued from a doomsday cult leader who imprisoned her and three other women underground for 15 years. But as the title implies, all of that time in terrifying isolation hasn’t dampened Kimmy’s spirits. In fact, she quickly realizes that the best way to make up for her wasted years is to dive face-first into life, even when life is full of bewildering technology, unrecognizable slang, muggers, cruel teenagers, lazy GED teachers, oblivious bosses and the other trials that exist in this cartoonish version of New York City.
This take on the Big Apple, which is simultaneously a vicious hellscape and the place where dreams come true, is identical to the world of 30 Rock. In fact, this love/hate representation of city life is so close to the New York of 30 Rock that it wouldn’t be surprising if creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock revealed that Liz Lemon and the cast of TGS With Tracy Jordan exist in the same universe as Kimmy and her ever-growing circle of oddball acquaintances. Although both shows share the same madcap storytelling and pop culture savvy, its the setting the makes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt feel intertwined with Fey and Carlock’s previous work.
The similarities go deeper than that. As Kimmy’s narcissistic one-percenter of an employer, Jane Krakowksi is really just playing a slightly tweaked version of Jenna Maroney. But why fix what isn’t broken? Why deny us more of Krakowski doing what she does best, which is transforming a character constructed entirely out of self-obsession and casual cruelty into someone we can’t help but love? It doesn’t get much better than Krakowski referring to a piñata as a “Mexican candy animal,” which is such a 30 Rock joke.
The comparisons to could continue, from the bouncy musical score to the surreal pop culture observations. Hell, there’s even a Spider-Man Broadway musical number that gives “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” a run for its money in the “I can’t believe someone wrote this, but man, I’m sure glad they did” department. But Carlock, Fey and their team of writers and directors (which includes 30 Rock vets like Jack Burditt, Michael Engler and Beth McCarthy-Miller) use their finely honed comedic skills to tell a very different kind of story. It looks like 30 Rock, it sounds like 30 Rock and it certainly feels like 30 Rock, but Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is, in many ways, a response to 30 Rock.
While Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon was ultimately granted a happy ending, 30 Rock spent seven seasons delighting in her misery. Because Fey was the chief architect of her character in front of and behind the camera, she refused to spare her overworked, under-loved leading lady any indignity. She fought hard to appease co-workers who thought nothing of her. She worked overtime to build her friendship with Jack Donaghy, only for him to tear her down at a moment’s notice. Her love life was a nightmare for years and when she finally found the man of her dreams, he too became a target of merciless jokes. Fey and her team never let 30 Rock get truly dark, but it never shied away from the fact that it was about a deeply unhappy misfit struggling to find happiness and success ... and frequently being told that she’s a failure who will die alone in an apartment full of cats.
But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is more of a half-glass-full television show. Kimmy Schmidt easily could have been a punching bag, but Kemper’s joyous performance sidesteps any real darkness. Kimmy is indefatigable, her enthusiasm for life acting as teflon to the darkness of the world around her. This is a show where the opening credits always remind us that the main character was recently pulled out of a hole in the ground by an army of SWAT officers, but that’s as morose as things get. While Liz Lemon struggled to find reasons to keep going, Kimmy Schmidt can’t stop counting the ways in which she has been blessed. Yeah, it really, really sucks that she spent all that time being brainwashed in a cult, but the world is still here and it’s beautiful and the people who live in it are beautiful and every day is a big, wonderful adventure.
Kemper, who has always been a fine supporting actress, takes the spotlight with ease and creates character who suffers all indignities with a smile. There is no future problem that could possibly be worse than what she has lived through before, so all Kimmy can do is joyously charge forward and do her very best. This is a remarkable performance, a combination of eccentricity and optimism that could have come off as phony with a lesser actress. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt scratches that 30 Rock itch, but it’s Kemper who makes the show into its own thing. Yes, there is darkness lurking around the corner in every frame of this show. Fey and Carlock are too cynical to not drag the characters through the mud every so often, but they bounce back. This isn’t a comedy about suffering, but rather a show about overcoming suffering. It elevates when it could easily wallow.
As that (astonishingly great) earworm of a theme song reminds us, females are strong as hell. They alive, damn it. It’s a miracle.