These days, many TV sitcoms try to hit one of two feels: the bizarre or the topical. From the weirdness of Bob’s Burgers to the political comedy of Veep, there’s not so much a line between one or the other as there is a big fence. The duo of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock managed to touch it with 30 Rock and its inside look at the world of media combined with a colourful cast, and it seems they’ve managed to make a happy campfire on that line with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
The show introduces the titular Kimmy, (played by The US Office’s Ellie Kemper) a recent escapee from an underground doomsday cult in Indiana. Trapped there for fifteen years, she and her fellow prisoners, including a Latina woman who doesn’t actually speak a word of English, are thrust into a new world with cameras, TV appearances, and yes, even an autotuned interview of the neighbour. After the media circus surrounding the “Indiana Mole Women”, Kimmy, like any other naive 13-going-on-30 woman in New York, decides to tough it out and start a new life with a renewed lease on life.
Here’s where the show hit its stride: Kimmy earns her unbreakable status within the first few episodes, having to live in a closet in a basement while paying rent for her struggling actor/diva roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess), accidentally working for an extremely upper class Jaqueline Voorhees (30 Rock’s Jane Krakwoski), all the while keeping her upbeat spirit. And succeeding. In what seems to be the show’s wonderful signature style, the humour doesn’t come from the “woe is me” type of deals that most shows go for. Instead, it plays on the powerful optimism that Kimmy possesses as well as the mix of naivety and smarts that Kemper brings to the role so expertly. That’s not to say everything revolves around Kimmy. We also see Titus try desperately to break into the acting elite in increasingly inane attempts, and we explore Jacqueline’s less than glamorous origins.
What makes this an excellent show is that it borrows from the actors’ strengths, and it shows. Both Ellie Kemper and Jane Krakowski are such great fits for their character, though one can’t help seeing their previous characters on their former shows; the naive, energetic receptionist Ellie (The Office) and the pampered actress Jenna (30 Rock) respectively. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; their familiarity definitely helps locking their characters in and makes their bizarre moments much funnier. The series progresses in starts and stops, allowing some drama to seep in and set the pace before jumping back to its bold mix of surrealism and satire that never quite strays from the familiar. The satire in the show is nowhere near as biting as its contemporaries, but nonetheless it’s very funny.
The whole series subtly builds up the climax, and by the time you realise it’s coming, it drives the plot at a hundred miles per hour; the infamous Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, the leader of the doomsday cult, is standing for trial. While that’s not that much of a kicker, it’s how Fey and Carlock build that suspense so wonderfully and delivers the punches that makes it a hell of a treat to watch. Overall, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is some wonderful afternoon binge TV, for when you just want to sit back and not feel bad for laughing at someone’s string of unfortunate events. It’s catchy, addictive and just plain happy.