“I'm like a biscotti,” Kimmy Schmidt explains. “People act like I'm this sweet cookie, but I'm really this super hard thing, that nobody knows what I am or why I am.”
Kimmy – an exuberant Midwesterner who spent most of her adolescence and young adulthood imprisoned in an underground bunker by a doomsday cult leader – often confounds the cynical New Yorkers she meets, but she has a pretty good understanding of herself. And Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has an even better sense of what it is and why it is.
In the first season, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock made the exact show they wanted to make: a weird comedy populated with misfit characters, constantly juxtaposing Kimmy's sunny disposition with her horrific backstory, and taking place in a New York five or six times more cartoonish than anything Fey and Carlock attempted on 30 Rock. It was a terrific season, but one that NBC execs panicked about having to air and sold to Netflix instead.
Because that whole season was in the can before NBC ran screaming from it, there remained a question of what a Kimmy Schmidt made directly for Netflix would look and feel like. Would the show be more explicit in discussing the details of Kimmy's captivity, or its emotional aftermath? Would the tone be any darker and/or weirder? Would Kimmy's roommate Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) or her eccentric landlady Lillian (Carol Kane) begin dropping F-bombs and discussing their love lives in more graphic terms?
Instead, the new season (it debuts Friday; I've seen the first 6 episodes) is more or less the same show it was on NBC. Episodes run a little longer (but still finish under 30 minutes), but Fey has said that the writers still structure each one as if they were making it for network, even letting stories build to non-existent commercial breaks. When Titus swears at a construction worker, all the curse words are drowned out by a jackhammer (which was a gag Fey once used with Liz Lemon), and when he tries listing their apartment on Airbnb, he complains that Siri auto-corrected his description to “cozy uptown duck palace.” Lillian rekindles a relationship with childhood sweetheart Robert Durst (Fred Armisen, as perfect as you'd expect), but it's no more bizarre than anything the show did a year ago.
At the TCA press tour in January, Fey told critics that they heard from enough viewers who watched the first season with their 12 and 13-year-old kids that they didn't want to make the material any more explicit, “even if we went toward more difficult ideas.” Beyond that, between the first season of this show and seven seasons of their last one together, Fey and Carlock are spectacular enough at this particular style and tone that they shouldn't feel the need to change things just because they now have the freedom to do so. Creative limits aren't inherently bad – for an example of how a comedy can go off the rails when all network restrictions go away (albeit also because its actors weren't all available at the same time), see the Arrested Development Netflix season – and if Fey and Carlock made any compromises from their initial vision because they thought the episodes would air on NBC, the end result was so great that they're smart to leave it alone at the new home.
So the punchlines still go to unexpected places, whether Titus explaining, “Much like Icarus – a friend of mine who put too much stuff in his closet – I put too much stuff in my closet” or Kimmy saying of a search for a missing elderly friend, “I just checked the morgue; they say Sonia hasn't been there in weeks!” And the show's New York City remains a surreal delight, whether Kimmy is lined up with a group of nannies that includes a robot, or Lillian is battling a hipster takeover of their neighborhood that includes a shop called East Dogmouth Vapes. The show doesn't get any more serious in its talk of Kimmy's time in the bunker, but it hasn't forgotten it, either; one episode involves one of Kimmy's fellow survivors continually joining other religious cults (including The Church of Cosmetology) because she can't deal with not being ordered around.
Kemper continues to radiate joy in every scene, which makes the whole enterprise work, Jane Krakowski continues to eagerly play the fool as Kimmy's boss/friend/boss Jacqueline (to hide a chipped tooth in one episode, she sticks a Mentos in front of it), and Burgess finds the right amount of humanity underneath all of Titus' theatrical affectations. (There's a running subplot about Titus dating a blue-collar man who's just come out, and Burgess has a lot of fun playing Titus' struggle to stay in flamboyant character around the guy.)
In a few cases, the new season doubles down on things that didn't work in the made-for-NBC episodes. The show took some deserved grief for its stereotypical depiction of Kimmy's immigrant boyfriend Dong (Ki Hong Lee), and for a storyline revealing that Jacqueline was a Lakota woman passing as white. An early episode pulls an Aaron Sorkin and turns the people who complained into the show's latest satirical target, with a story where Asian-Americans obnoxiously protest Titus's one-man show about his past life as a Japanese woman, “Kimono You Didn't.” It's easily the weakest of these early episodes, though it does have a great joke where Titus, once again trying to put a modern concept into a '90s framework so Kimmy will understand it, tells her that “the Internet talks like Chandler.”
I thoroughly enjoyed Kimmy Schmidt's first season, but I couldn't help imagining the ways the show could change once episodes were being with Netflix in mind. Instead, Fey and Carlock have delivered basically the same show they did a year ago. Given how great that original NBC version was, I can't really complain. If your biscotti recipe is already deliciously weird, why change the ingredients?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org