‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’
Allie Tollaksen | Thursday, March 19, 2015
When Netflix announced that Tina Fey would co-write and produce a new original series, “30 Rock” fans rejoiced, and when it turned out that the title character would be played by comedian Ellie Kemper of “The Office” and “Bridesmaids” fame, the excitement only grew.
The final result is “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a show that takes Fey’s ability to pack in jokes and Kemper’s insanely high energy and turns them up to 100.
The series follows the story of Kimmy (Kemper), a woman just freed from a cult after being kidnapped by a reverend and forced to live in an underground bunker in Indiana for 15 years. Though the story sounds dark — and it objectively is — the show is anything but. Instead, “Unbreakable” is a silly, bubbly comedy about Kimmy’s life in New York as she finds freedom for the first time.
As of March 6, all 13 episodes of the show’s first season have been available to stream on Netflix, allowing viewers to take in 13 doses of fast-paced, chaotic Kimmy in one bender if they so please.
It’s worth thinking twice before binge-watching “Unbreakable,” however. As the show develops, Kimmy moves into an apartment, gets a job and roommate, falls into a love triangle, is revisited by her past and ultimately returns to Indiana to testify against her kidnapper. In only 13 episodes, the season is a whirlwind, and while its overarching plot doesn’t necessarily confuse, it certainly exhausts if taken in in one sitting.
The arc of the show’s first season and many of its dizzying subplots may be a little overstuffed, but another reason to slow down and take in “Unbreakable” one step at a time is its episodic comedy. While Kimmy’s storyline begs for some cutbacks, the show’s key players still make each individual episode worth watching.
First, Kemper does an impressive job and shows herself off as both a talented actress and a brilliant physical comedian. This is made even more impressive when considering how, in many ways, Kimmy is a difficult character to play. The writing over the course of the season paints her as both an incredibly naïve woman-child (she was a teenager when she was taken to the bunker, and there are ongoing jokes about Kimmy’s innocence and total cluelessness about contemporary culture) and a seen-it-all veteran (after all, she survived 15 years in a bunker with the reverend, two other teenage girls and a Spanish-speaking maid who refused to learn English).
These two identities that make up Kimmy aren’t mutually exclusive, but the writing often makes her character feel more contradictory than complex. Kemper’s girlish naiveté often feels too cliché, like when we see her dreaming of herself as a princess with a handsome prince coming to her rescue. The princess motif is repeated in a few episodes, and while its easy to convey innocence and idealism by making a grown woman into a princess, the theme hardly fits with Kimmy’s more empowered side.
Still, Kemper shines in the role on an episodic level as she sings the intro to “Yo! MTV Raps” and spews dated slang. She plays clueless but confident well, and makes even the potentially unfunny, darker moments of the show — like the flashbacks to her time in the bunker — laughable. Best of all, Kemper takes the role of Kimmy and, instead of playing her as pure saccharine (though admittedly the show does get too sweet at times), allows Kimmy to be weird. Kemper is just crazy enough to get out of “13 Going on 30” territory most times, which keeps the show moving.
Kemper is also helped out by a great cast, including Tituss Burgess as Titus, Kimmy’s roommate, and the wonderful Carol Kane as Lillian, their landlady. Titus and Lillian are consistently entertaining, whether interacting with Kimmy or involved in their own subplots, and their relationship is downright perfect. Jane Krakowski also shines as the super-rich Jacqueline. The role of out-of-touch, slightly pathetic narcissist may be familiar to any “30 Rock” fan, but Krakowski plays it so well, Jacqueline doesn’t feel stale.
After one season, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” still has a lot of work to do. Mostly, it needs to find a balance. Just as Kimmy seems to vacillate between two different characters, the show as a whole struggles to mix its super-sweet sincerity with “edgy” jokes that induce as many cringes as laughs.
A second season is in the works, and it’ll be interesting to see where “Kimmy Schmidt” goes. Hopefully, Kemper and the rest of the cast will have more of an opportunity to entertain as their characters establish themselves and Kimmy gets settled in the city.