It is common knowledge that getting a new sitcom off the ground can be a fickle business, but even Tina Fey, the comedic genius behind the brilliant 30 Rock, must have been taken aback when NBC decided to ditch her new show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, before its first season had even aired.
Quite why the network is so determined to decimate its comedy output will likely remain as one of the great mysteries of our time, but their lost is most certainly Netflix’s gain. The online-streaming behemoth swiftly swooped to give the show a two season pick-up, the first of which was made available in its entirety last Friday.
Even from just the pilot episode, Fey’s perky sitcom looks like it has what it takes to join House of Cards, Better Call Saul and Orange is the New Black in the line-up of superb shows that make Netflix essential. Sweet, funny and unashamedly optimistic, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the perfect remedy to our modern day cynicism.
The show centres on Ellie Kemper’s Kimmy, who is rescued from an underground bunker where she has spent the last 15 years imprisoned by a reverend who told her and three other women that the earth was destroyed by an apocalypse.
Keen to avoid being forever labelled as “one of the mole women”, she decides to start her life afresh in New York City. A hefty dose of sitcom good fortune lands her a cushy job nannying for Jane Krakowski’s barmy Manhattanite and an affordable flatshare with a fabulously camp out-of-work actor (Tituss Burgess), but when life in the Big Apple starts to bite back, Kimmy begins to question if she has what it takes to survive in the real world.
The show hinges on Kemper’s bright and effervescent performance, the actress clearly channeling her time as The Office’s meek receptionist Erin Hannon into the kind-but-guileless Kimmy. All big, beaming eyes and eager grin, and dressed in a fetching collection of yellow cardigans and floral blouses, it’s impossible not to warm to Kimmy as her insatiable enthusiasm for even the most mundane aspects of everyday life, such as getting a job or running outside, becomes truly infectious.
Her unflinching optimism is the lynchpin that makes the show so unique. After a spate of dark comedies that mocked everything we consider to be crap about modern life, Kimmy’s can-do attitude feels like a breath of fresh air.
Her story harbours a positive message about not letting our fears about what people think of us hold us back from being who we want to be as, having spent a decade and a half hidden from the world, Kimmy has no idea what is normal and is therefore free to live her life in whatever way makes her most happy. In this way, Kimmy represents the kind of person we all secretly wish we could be, and that makes her an entirely rootable protagonist.
But while the show is mostly warm-hearted and sweet-natured, the comedy never feels sickly or saccharine largely because the kindness is undercut with a sprinkling of Fey’s trademark bitter cynicism. Each episode introduces a new opponent who tries to convince Kimmy that she doesn’t belong in the real world – in the first episode we see her get mugged in a nightclub, fired from her job and told she isn’t tough enough to survive in New York City. Yet she always finds a way to prove her doubters wrong and come out on top. Well, she is unbreakable, after all.
It’s not as manically paced as Fey’s previous hit comedy, 30 Rock, but each episode is still crammed to the seams with a similar brand of absurdist humour. One early scene features a local news caption that reads: “White woman found”, with another, much smaller, caption underneath: “Hispanic woman also found.”
Unbreakable also boasts a sparkling ensemble to support Kemper, with Burgess proving to be the main standout as an out-of-work actor who makes up for his lack of career progression by acting like a diva at home, while Carol Kane could yet be a lot of fun as a hippy landlady if she is granted more screen time.
With thirteen 22-minute episodes to binge through, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a perfect fit for Netflix, whilst also offering a pleasant alternative to its more cynical offerings like Arrested Development and BoJack Horseman. Warm-hearted, quirky and thoroughly hilarious, the show wears its optimism proudly, and with a second season already confirmed, the future is undoubtedly bright for Kimmy; and, indeed, for Netflix too.