Tina Fey's Weird and Winsome Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Channels Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope

Mar 5, 2015 at 4:00 am
Tina Fey's Weird and Winsome Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Channels Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope

The world is a terrible place. That's the uncompromising truth with which Tina Fey and Robert Carlock begin Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix), their follow-up to the under-seen but culturally monumental 30 Rock. The very first scenes of Unbreakable's first season, which will be released in its binge-able entirety on March 6, find 29-year-old Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) being rescued from the doomsday cult she's been trapped in for fifteen years. If you do the math, that's a harrowingly young age for a girl to be groomed into a sister-wife. "Yes, there was weird sex stuff," blurts the PTSD-ridden middle-school dropout, who's spent more than half her life in a basement (with three other women).

But the cheerfully determined Kimmy refuses to give in to the awfulness of her past or the arduousness of New York City, where she will start her life anew. It's her sunny indomitability, along with the show's surprising thoughtfulness and sly, gimlet-eyed wit, that makes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt so weird, wild, and winsome. Fans of 30 Rock will immediately recognize Fey's mordant and absurdist comedic voice, as well as Jane Krakowski, the erstwhile Jenna Maroney, here playing a striving trophy wife who hires Kimmy as a nanny. Newcomers to Fey's work, meanwhile, will find a rare combination of rapid-fire hilarity, affecting existential crises, a fully realized network of characters, and the rare creative team that's firing on all cylinders right from Episode 1.

Kimmy's liberation from the cult immediately brings about new challenges. She and her fellow captives are instantly branded as the Mole Women by the media — a careless insult that helps Kimmy realize that, as long as her reputation as a victim precedes her, she'll never be free to be herself. And so she joins a long list of sitcom heroines, led by Mary Tyler Moore, who start over in a new city. In Kimmy's case, it's because only in a metropolis as crowded and as anonymous as New York can she hide until she's ready to show her true face. In the meantime, she has to navigate work, dating, and her roommate situation with flamboyant, out-of-work actor Titus (Tituss Burgess, who played D'Fawn on 30 Rock) with a naive and outdated understanding of the world. "Are you into molly?" she's asked at a club. Kimmy practically wags her tail in response. "She's my favorite American Girl doll!"

Kimmy's optimism eventually proves infectious even to the world-weary Titus, who spends his days panhandling for change in an Iron Man costume in Times Square. But relentless positivity doesn't necessarily translate into a happy ending. Titus's decision to resume auditioning despite his seeming lack of talent — "you are not passing as a straight giraffe," sniffed one casting director who rejected him for The Lion King — might well become one of the series' darker developments. As a swishy swooner, Titus is probably the most familiar among the character types. But Fey and her writers give Burgess plenty of funny things to do, especially by making him their primary entrée into satirical jabs at the entertainment industry. When Titus goes to audition for a troubled Spider-Man production on Broadway, the producers just need to test one thing: Can he continue acting after a flying Spider-Man falls on him?

While Kimmy, Titus, and their loony landlady (Carol Kane) eke out an existence, the wealthy Voorhees family drives itself batty with its embarrassment of riches. Krakowski's Jacqueline counts among her blessings a young son who bonds her to her always-traveling millionaire husband and a designer dog that doesn't need to poop ("They bred that out, so his anus is purely decorative"). The stewardess-turned-socialite mostly exists to throw curveballs at Kimmy and to represent the grotesque excesses of the moneyed elite, but she isn't without a softer side. When her teenage stepdaughter (Dylan Gelula) attempts to rattle Kimmy by investigating the latter's suspiciously vague background, Jacqueline, who's sitting on her own trove of secrets, supports the new nanny's right to erase her past and forge a new identity. Kimmy will have to reveal her Mole Woman status in due time, but her spontaneous efforts to cover up her fifteen years underground in the first few episodes add an unexpected sense of urgency to largely low-stakes story lines.

If you're counting at home, that's three targets of comedy — Christian extremism, the ruthlessness of showbiz, and the dumbassery of one-percenters — thus far that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt shares with its 30 Rock predecessor. Also in common is their portrait of New York — much more expanded here — as a harsh, economically polarized obstacle course that ultimately proves itself to be a meritocracy. The result is not unlike watching the maniacally twinkling Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation — or a girl-version of the beaming goon Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock — try to make it in Liz Lemon's perilous New York.

But if Fey made the question of whether Liz Lemon could "have it all" as a female creative professional and the scared, vulnerable heart of 30 Rock, she broaches an even darker issue here: Did Kimmy's suffering and anguish make her a better person — or simply an unhappier one? How will she know when she's done healing, assuming there even will be an end? Brightly lit and punctuated by bursts of yellow, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt focuses mostly on its protagonist's efforts to adapt to the minutiae of her new normal: planning parties for her new charges, being asked on a date, learning about Google. But its core seems to lay an ambitious exploration of female victimhood and how it can warp or limit individuals' possibilities — or be manipulated as a tool against others.

In her first starring role, the goofy and gawky Kemper thrives in a part written for her open face and joyful bewilderment. Kimmy Schmidt hasn't yet figured out who she is, let alone where she belongs in this terrifying world, but I'm delighted Netflix has already given Fey and Carlock a second season for this brave new girl to figure herself out.