When 30 Rock first debuted on NBC, it was overshadowed by a bigger, more prestigious, flashier TV series with a similar premise (RIP Studio 60). Over the course of its first season, though, the sitcom started to embrace its weirdness, and it became a wonderfully odd and unique addition to the TV landscape throughout its seven season run. There was nothing else like it at the time, and there hasn’t been since. Until Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, that is.
Originally developed and produced for NBC before being handed off to Netflix, Kimmy Schmidt is created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the longtime co-showrunners of 30 Rock. The comedy stars Ellie Kemper of The Office fame as a woman who, after having been kept underground for 15 years as part of a doomsday cult/scam (by the aptly named Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne), is finally rescued and decides to start her life anew in New York City. The bright-eyed and naïve yet headstrong young woman gets a job as a nanny for Jacqueline Voorhees, a wealthy Manhattanite (30 Rock’s Jane Krakowski, essentially playing another variation of Jenna Maroney) and finds a roommate in Titus (Tituss Burgess, aka D’fwan on 30 Rock), a theatrical, larger-than-life aspiring singer with dreams of Broadway stardom.
If you’ve been waiting around for something akin to 30 Rock, then Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the closest you’re likely to get. The show radiates the same sense of offbeat humor, carries an insane jokes-per-minute ratio, and features a slew of blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em visual gags. While Kimmy Schmidt lacks a more grounded character like Fey’s Liz Lemon to balance out the surrounding goofballs, said weirdness is still wonderfully hilarious and fully embraced. Martin Short has a delightfully over-the-top guest appearance in Episode 4 that harkens back to Paul Reubens’ role in 30 Rock’s “Black Tie” (twirl!).
But the heart of Kimmy Schmidt is Kemper, and this is a role that’s tailor made for the actress’ strengths. Kimmy is adorable and sweet, but not helpless. Despite the fact that she’s essentially a woman out of time, with the pop culture sensibilities of a 90s teenager, Kimmy is smart and strong, with a fair amount of moxie that makes clear she can hold her own. She’s constantly looking to help people, and indeed while she was living in the bunker with the other “Mole Women” as they’re called, Kimmy was singlehandedly responsible for keeping everyone sane. This makes her a swell fit opposite the emotional Titus and out-of-touch Mrs. Voorhees (you better believe they have fun with that name).
The 90s references are peppered throughout the show just enough to keep them funny, but Fey and Carlock wisely refrain from using them as a crutch. Highlights include Kimmy’s fondness for The Babysitters Club books and frequent use of 90s slang, for which Titus creates a notebook full of “Things People Don’t Say Anymore.” And another swell addition to the series regular cast is actress Carol Kane as Kimmy and Titus’ colorful landlady, who is both a little loony and also quite possibly the sanest person of the bunch.
Amidst all the jokes and gags, though, is a fair amount of genuine emotion. Fey and Carlock don’t simply ignore the fact that Kimmy’s ordeal has impacted her in a real, deep way, and the show actually gets quite sweet now and then, with a tinge of the darkness that comes with this sort of ordeal. The show is a bit more compassionate than 30 Rock, and much of that is thanks to Kemper’s complex lead performance. Kimmy’s always got a smile on her face and is unendingly optimistic, but Kemper brings some nuance to the role with shades of unease—Kimmy is constantly afraid of being found out as one of the “Mole Women,” as Titus is the only person aware of her past. He points out in the piot that “escaping is not the same as making it,” and that’s essentially the theme of the entire series. Kimmy is free, but now she’s got to find out who she is.
The first episode of the show, written by Fey and Carlock, is outstanding, starting the show off with a strong foundation. The next couple of installments aren’t quite as pristine, but the series begins finding itself quite quickly—sitcoms notoriously take a few episodes to fully bloom, and 30 Rock didn’t come into its own until halfway through the first season. If there’s a minor fault with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt it’s the fact that it begins fully formed in its weirdness. This is late season 30 Rock, where things just got wildly nutty, as opposed to the early seasons where it was still trying to draw in more viewers. The oddity of it all can be a bit much here and there, but mostly Fey and Carlock do a nice job of balancing that out with the pure emotion. Again, Kemper is key to the sustainability of the series, and she’s positively wonderful in these first few episodes.
Netflix has already ordered a second season of the show so we’ll get to see how it continues to progress, and it’ll be interesting to see what adjustments are made when the show is written and produced solely for Netflix as opposed to trying to fit into the network TV landscape (the entire first season was made under the impression that it’d be airing on NBC). But for now, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is not only a swell addition to Netflix’s stable of original series (it’s undoubtedly their funniest comedy yet), it marks the return of a unique sense of humor that’s been missing from the TV landscape since 30 Rock went off the air.
All 13 Episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s first season are now available on Netflix.