Thursday, March 12, 2015

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Review

Jill and I finished Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt last night (we started on Saturday). I know what you're thinking: "13 episodes in 5 days -- what took you so long?" And while that is a slow pace for us, we had unusual obstacles: We were vacationing in Vegas and missed our normal Sunday TV, so we had a lot to catch-up on. Even a great new show has to yield when you're behind on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

The most amazing thing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is how fresh it feels. This is particularly astounding when you turn over the constituent elements. The music and comedic beats are highly reminiscent of 30 Rock (unsurprising given the Tina Fey/Jeff Richmond nexus). Character-wise, Jane Krakowski (Jacqueline) is playing the same role she did in Thirty Rock, Carol Kane (Lillian) is playing the same role she is in Gotham, and Ellie Kemper (Kimmy) is (I'm told) playing the same role she did in The Office -- though I see more than a little Liz Lemon in her. Even Ki Hong Lee (Dong) feels like he's playing a character I've seen before, even though a quick IMDB search reveals no prospects.

Yet the concept feels like something that's genuinely new. Kimmy Schmidt escapes from a doomsday cult and, rather than going back to her old life in Indiana, decides to try and make it in New York. I'm pretty sure I came up with something similar in a New Year's Balderdash game, but it would not have anywhere near the polish. The closest cousin to Kimmy Schmidt might actually be Big Love (a great show in its own right). But Kimmy Schmidt is different in important ways, and not just because it is a sitcom. Kimmy was kidnapped in 8th grade -- she neither was a born-and-raised believer in the cult, nor is she completely unaware of the workings of the modern world. Plenty has changed in 15 years, but not so much that Kimmy is utterly lost -- she mostly doesn't know about contemporary slang ("troll the respawn, Jeremy") and pop stars. And she is not particularly conservative -- though she's understandably a bit stunted in her personal and romantic development, she is excited to have a boyfriend and kiss a boy. Kimmy has enough difficulties on her plate without the show going overboard and pretending like she doesn't know what a car is, and that restraint is greatly appreciated.

Another element that has to be remarked upon here is the incredible cast diversity. I give credit to Brooklyn Nine-Nine for being majority non-White male. But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt might be unprecedented -- there isn't a single White dude in the main cast. The four largest roles are three White women (Kemper, Krakowski -- playing a passing Native American -- and Kane) and a gay Black man (Tituss Burgess as Titus Andromedon). There are a few recurring White male characters amongst Ellie's boyfriends, and of course Jon Hamm as the cult leader Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (and can I just say how lucky Jon Hamm is to have Mad Men? Because literally every other part I've ever seen him in he's been typecast as "charismatic idiot"). But they're firmly on the periphery.

But by far the most impressive attribute of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is how it deals with the very real trauma Kimmy experienced. It manages to treat this in a manner that is realistic, sensitive, subtle, and hilarious -- a combination I would not have thought possible in advance, particularly in a comedy of this sort. The trick is that the "jokes" on this front blend in with the overall comedic rhythm of the show, but on closer examination they are obviously distinct. When Kimmy's colleague sneaks behind her to do a playful "guess who" and Kimmy whirls while screaming "I don't like that" (before immediately plastering back on her normal chipper face upon seeing who it was), that's the sort of gag that fits in well with the show's overarching run of jokes. But if one thinks about it, it is clear that this isn't part of Kimmy's normal personality. It's a product of the hell she went through for a decade and a half. She knows it and she wants to escape from it as best she can, and is taking impressive strides in that respect. But while Kimmy might be unbreakable, she is not unaffected, and the series shows that in surprisingly vivid (but not melodramstic) fashion.

And that's what Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is about, ultimately. It is about a bright and irrepressible girl who went through something terrible and is getting past it in her own way. The comedy is there but never at her expense, and underneath it all is a surprisingly poignant commentary on surviving. It really is an excellent show. Indeed, I think it's got a strong case to be the strongest original series Netflix has ever produced.

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