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Review: Ellie Kemper finds the joy in Tina Fey’s dark, funny ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’

Senior Television Writer
03.05.15 41 Comments

Netflix

Early in the first episode of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the title character, played by Ellie Kemper, smiles as she explores New York City for the first time. It is among the biggest, widest, happiest smiles I have ever witnessed, on screen or in real life, Kemper opening her mouth so widely that you can practically count all her teeth.

It is a smile that holds nothing back, and it's emblematic of the rest of “The Office” alum's performance. Whatever Kemper is asked to do by “Kimmy Schmidt” creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, she commits to fully, like a scene at a club where she hurls her body across the dance floor with abandon. It is a great, overjoyed lead performance, and I can't imagine this show working at all – even on Netflix which scooped up the 13-episode first season (all episodes will be released after midnight Pacific tonight) after NBC decided it was too weird to air – with anything less than the energy level Kemper brings.

With her, though, it's terrific: a comedy so funny and silly and brimming with unexpected jokes that after an episode and a half, I stopped taking notes altogether because I wanted nothing to distract me from the experience of it.

Before Kimmy came to New York, you see, she spent 15 years trapped in an underground bunker run by a cult leader who convinced Kimmy and the other three women inside that the world above had been destroyed. She was in the eighth grade when she was abducted, and as she admits to her new roommate Titus Andromeddon (Tituss Burgess), “Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker.” Finally rescued (and dubbed one of the “Indiana mole women” by the news media), she decides to start her life over in New York.

This is an incredibly dark, sad backstory to hand a sitcom character. The show doesn't exactly use Kimmy's ordeal as its primary subject, but nor does it hide from it, either; to survive in the big city, she often flashes back on lessons learned in the bunker, like her belief that you can stand any bit of suffering if you view it as a bunch of 10-second increments all in a row. Without Kemper's irrepressible sunniness, Kimmy's origin would probably too much to allow the show to function even as a black comedy.

With her open, giddy presence, though, the series is a showcase for the kind of quick, absurdist writing that Fey and Carlock did so well for years on “30 Rock.” It's at once a twisted parody of every “plucky single gal in the big city” story ever told, and an often hilarious version of the real thing.

In short order, the pilot episode gives her a roommate in the theatrical Titus (Burgess had a recurring role on “30 Rock” as Angie Jordan's sidekick D'Fwan), a kooky landlady in Lillian (played by Carol Kane, who somehow never appeared on “30 Rock” despite her acting style being a perfect fit for Fey and Carlock's sensibilities) and a boss in unhappy trophy wife Jacqueline Vorhees (Jane Krakowski, playing to her strengths, even if Jacqueline's not a huge leap from Jenna Maroney), who needs Kimmy to play nanny to the kids she'd rather not deal with. (When her son complains about his birthday party, she tells him, “Actually, Buckley, this isn't your worst birthday ever. Your worst birthday ever was when you busted my genitals.”)

It's a pretty small cast (Buckley all but vanishes after the second episode, which seems like a wise move), and that allows the focus to remain on the title character and the off-kilter way she views the world. She's not only missed 15 years of current events and changes in technology and popular culture, but grew from girl to woman in extreme, isolated circumstances. She's not quite Unfrozen Cavewoman Nanny, but our modern world both confuses and delights her – “Titus!” she announces during the club scene, “Dancing is about butts now!” – and the fact that she's thrown in her lot with a group of exaggerated characters like Titus (Burgess and Kemper are a terrific study in contrasts both physically and in demeanor, yet it makes sense that they so quickly become friends) and Jacqueline only enhances that sense of displacement.

There are some bumps and inevitable growing pains in the six episodes Netflix made available to critics, just as there are in most young comedies. (“30 Rock” didn't really turn into the show we know and love until around the half-dozen mark.) But they establish two things: 1)This is by far funnier than any of NBC's current or upcoming sitcoms (especially with “Parks and Rec” retired), and 2)It's so idiosyncratic, and with such a potentially off-putting backstory (a friend I watched a few episodes with laughed a lot, then said she'd rather not keep going because the compound flashbacks made her sad), almost surely would have been canceled in a season, if not within a few weeks, if the network had actually gone ahead with airing it. NBC has no comedy brand at the moment and minimal ability to launch half-hours, so this becomes a strange win-win: Netflix ordered a second season as part of the deal, which means NBC gets to own a show that it would have otherwise killed, and Fey and Carlock get to keep making it without the pressure of trying to succeed where the likes of “Bad Judge” and “A to Z” failed. 

As good as this version of “Kimmy Schmidt” is, I'm actually more eager to see the second season, which won't be produced with a broadcast network timeslot in mind. These episodes suggest an even darker, weirder show lurking just under the surface of this one, which NBC standards and practices never would have allowed, but which I suspect Fey and Carlock could pull off, given the bright, endearing and extremely funny star they've placed at the center of things.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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