Positive people are annoying.
That’s why so many of today’s beloved TV characters are the curmudgeonly, cynical, cranky types. The jaded are our brethren in self-loathing. We delight in laughing along with their pessimistic worldviews, or living vicariously through their unchecked moral bankruptcy. In fact, we want our characters so dark and brooding—and wry and crude—that we’ve even forced TV’s brightest minds to flee the shackles of broadcast television to streaming services like Netflix in order to explore the depths of their depravity more fully.
So it’s rather surprising that from Netflix, the network that’s given us Kevin Spacey’s devil in the Oval Office and Litchfield Prison’s ward of disturbed inmates, we’re given TV’s best new character. Her name is Kimmy Schmidt, and her defining characteristic is the brightest, most joyous ear-to-ear smile you’ve ever seen.
It’s not an eerie, deranged smile, either. It’s not the grin of a doofus. It’s genuine. It’s pleasing. And, on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix’s new series available for streaming Friday, it’s not being mocked. Instead, it’s inviting us to smile back. Which you do. Quite often.
Given pop culture’s obsession with sarcasm and the idea that no bad deed should ever go punished, it’s quite the progressive creative decision to infiltrate all that moodiness with a TV show centered on happiness and positivity. Leave it to Tina Fey to cook up a TV binge that we can feel good about devouring.
Created by Fey and her 30 Rock co-genius Robert Carlock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt opens on a moment of sheer bliss in the midst of horrific circumstances.
There’s Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids) as Kimmy, eyes wide and smile wider, as she puts the star on a Christmas tree. She turns to her friends to talk about Secret Santa presents. It’s only when the group of women begins singing together that we’re clued in to the darkness that surrounds them.
“Apocalypse, apocalypse, we caused it with our dumbness,” they sing, to the tune of “O Christmas Tree.”
A few quick cuts later, the girls are rescued from the bunker they’ve been living in for 15 years as members of Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne’s doomsday cult. They’re whisked away to New York, where they appear on the Today show and are interviewed by Matt Lauer about their experience as the “Indiana mole women.”
The next two minutes sets the tone of the entire series: a high-concept premise, Fey’s signature kooky-sharp writing, and an overtone of sadness and injustice that is ka-pow powered through by Kemper’s relentlessly sunny—though still impressively shaded—performance. (There’s a reason Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt sounds like a superhero.)
Lauer quizzes each of the mole women on how they fell prey to the cult in the first place. “The reverend had bought some of my hair on Craigslist, and we started emailing and I just thought he had some real good ideas,” says one. “I had waited on Reverend Richard at a York Steak House I worked at and one night he invited me out to his car to see some baby rabbits, and I didn’t want to be rude, so…here we are,” says another.
“I’m always amazed at what women will do because they are afraid of being rude,” Lauer deadpans. (Lauer deserves a Guest Actor Emmy nod for this scene, and that’s no exaggeration.)
The segment quickly ends, and the mole women are ushered out of the studio by a producer handing them gift bags and shouting, “Thank you, victims! Good luck!” And yet, in spite of all this crass treatment and negativity, Kimmy Schmidt decides to make a go of it. She’s going to stay in New York.
There, basically, is your plot. A woman who literally hasn’t seen the light of day in 15 years is going to live, work, and create a life for herself in the harshest, most unforgiving city in the country. She’s more excited than Jessie Spano on caffeine pills, and barely even scared.
Kemper imbues Kimmy with a sense of wonder that recalls Will Ferrell in Elf, Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30, and Tom Hanks in Big, but is a comedic tour de force in her own right.
She cheerfully runs alongside joggers, because, in her mind, why wouldn’t one be stoked to be running outside? She laughs at an automatic sink faucet turning on with the mad gaiety of Julia Roberts receiving pearls in Pretty Woman. She has candy for dinner and is generally confused by modern society, but in a curious and cute rather than scared kind of way.
Obliviousness is a funny color on her, too. “Where is your grownup?” she asks a little boy after seeing him steal candy. “Are you alone? Or are you some kind of tiny businessman, sir?”
The boy leads her to his mom, an Upper East Side narcissist named Jaqueline Voorhes, played by Fey’s 30 Rock secret weapon, Jane Krakowski (she’s just as lethal here). Jacqueline promptly hires Kimmy to be her son’s nanny, and proceeds to steal every scene she’s in with delicious one-liners sending up the vapid and needlessly opulent New York rich.
It would be easy to draw comparisons between Krakowski’s self-involved Jacqueline on Kimmy Schmidt and Krakowski’s self-involved Jenna on 30 Rock, were it not for one obvious difference: Unlike Jenna, Jacqueline very clearly is not a terrible person. But then again, it would be easy to draw comparisons between much of Kimmy Schmidt and 30 Rock.
Tonally, the shows look and feel are very similar. They both explore our cultural tics and skewer our oft-unintended self-centeredness. They both fire off zeitgeisty wordplay as if the actors are rapid-fire comedy rifles. And Kimmy’s sense of humor echoes that of 30 Rock’s: toeing the mainstream line, but living in that precarious wobble off-center. It’s what gives both shows their edge.
But, more impressively, both put clever spins on the tired “single gal in the city” trope.
The conceit should be dried up at this point, having perhaps wrung the last bit of cleverness out of it with Fey’s hapless Liz Lemon as the one trying to have it all. But seeing the world through Kimmy’s blindly optimistic eyes is a welcome counterpoint to the worn-down jadedness of Liz, and it’s a testament to Kemper’s performance that Kimmy’s pluckiness doesn’t seem retrograde, or grating.
She’s not Pollyanna. She’s got a 'tude. She’s spunky and she’s defiant, which is why you have no doubt that she’s gonna make it after all. Her spirit fingers cheerleading her new lease on life have a high-functioning middle one, too, and it’s directed at anyone hell-bent on destroying her fresh opportunity.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was originally developed for NBC before the network eventually passed and it went to Netflix, reportedly because they found the whole thing to be too unusual for network TV.
As the episodes progress and Titus Burgess, who plays Kimmy’s new roommate, and Carol Kane (!!!), who plays her new landlord, blossom into the kind of endearing kooks we’re used to Fey peppering her shows with, it’s easy to see why Netflix is the perfect home for the series. Who knows what kind of stereotypes NBC would have flattened their characters into, or even Krakowski’s for that matter?
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t take advantage of the freedom of Netflix to ramp up nudity or profanity or moral depravity, as other series do. Instead it uses the creative breathing room to dial up and embrace the show’s inherent weirdness—this is a comedy about a cult survivor, after all—and then have the luxury to bring things back to a relatable, human level again.
As a sum of its parts, this series shouldn’t need a ringing endorsement to pique anyone’s interest in it. (Hello, this is a comedy from Tina Fey and starring the trio of Ellie Kemper, Jane Krakowski, and Carol Kane. They could be watching paint dry and we’d all be on board.)
Nonetheless, it can’t be oversold how big a win this is for Fey and Carlock, who prove themselves just as adept at characterizing a protagonist’s joie de vivre as they are at crafting a woman content with merely working on her night cheese. Going the route of happy when everyone else is veering dark, they’ve solidified themselves as not just bravura comedy writers—which we already knew they were—but industry risk-takers, too.
If there was ever a cult worth subscribing to, it’s theirs.