We try to keep up on TV as it happens, but with the sheer number of shows out there, it’s not always possible. And so, as Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Captain Ray Holt famously put it, we have to spend the weekend bingewatching media content. This time, it’s the Netflix original series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The first thirteen-episode season is all sitting there on your Netflix, waiting for you.
First off, we have to address how odd it is that this show is on Netflix. NBC had originally announced it for midseason, and we even included in our Snap Judgments for the 2014/2015 season. And then for some reason, NBC passed on it after all thirteen episodes were complete. That’s weird enough on it own, but when you consider that this is Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s follow-up to 30 Rock, it’s just bizarre. I have theories, but I’ll get to them later.
Unbreakable is sort of Mary Tyler Moore meets Heaven’s Gate. The Office‘s Ellie Kemper plays Kimmy, a young Indiana woman who spent the last fifteen years in a bunker after being kidnapped by the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. She and three other women believed that the world had ended and they were just waiting out the Apocalypse. Once rescued by the ATF, she heads to New York City to start a new life. (The original title was Tooken, which cracks me up.)
She moved into a terrible basement apartment owned by Lillian, a crazy lady. (Played by Gotham‘s Carol Kane, if that gives you any indication how crazy she is.) Her roommate is a wannabe actor/singer named Titus Andromedon. You may recognize actor Tituss Burgess from a memorable 30 Rock role as D’Fwan. Titus is basically who D’Fwan would have been if he hadn’t been lucky enough to fall in with the Queen of Jordan. Jacqueline Voorhees (30 Rock‘s Jane Krakowski) hires her as a nanny/housekeeper, and there you go.
You can see the 30 Rock DNA all over it. That love of wordplay, failed insults, and truly ridiculous visual gags is clearly evident. And it’s a weird show It’s weird in the 30 Rock way, but it’s at once both darker and more positive. It’s such a great showcase for Kemper’s unrelenting optimism, but it never backs away from the fact that she lived in a bunker for half her life, thinking everybody else had died. There’s a reference in one episode to her “scream lines” that’s instantly funny and then disturbing. If, like me, you miss 30 Rock every day, this is the show for you.
It’s difficult to talk too much about without spoiling jokes. Jacqueline’s backstory, for example, is a killer gag that comes out of nowhere and then keeps building throughout the series. Kimmy’s constant culture shock is similarly great. Not only is she baffled by everything that’s happened in the last fifteen years, but the move from Durnsville to NYC brings its own share of surprises. (There’s a joke where she carries an old oar with her in the event she falls into a manhole. Sorry to spoil that, but it’s amazing and I need to share.) One episode has Titus, working at a monster-themed restaurant, learning that it’s easier to be a werewolf in NYC than a black man. I love the scene where he steps out in werewolf garb and suddenly a bunch of cabs stop for him and a woman runs up and asks him to hold her baby. Or, holy smokes, the best ever version of the “(year) called and it wants its (style element) back” joke. It’s a funny, funny show.
And much like its Netflix pal Bojack Horseman, it starts out as a funny show and then just keeps building. There’s a really satisfying story that develops through the season, and the last four episodes are absolutely amazing. I don’t want to get into it, but it’s got Tina Fey playing a surprising role and Jon Hamm in maybe his best comedy performance yet. (People who think about Hamm as much as I do will probably figure out his role long before he actually appears.) And there’s the idea that Kimmy is trying to keep people from finding out about her past as a Mole Woman (she only confides in Titus), but ultimately it doesn’t matter to anybody else. The other characters are so caught up in their own problems that Kimmy’s backstory couldn’t be less important. Even when her past takes center stage, it barely registers for Jacqueline and Lillian. I love that.
But if it’s so great, why did NBC pass? I’ve heard a lot of theories. The uncharitable one is that NBC wasn’t interested in a show without any straight white males in the regular cast, but I don’t think that’s it. Basically, it’s a show that’s like 30 Rock but without the things that NBC liked about 30 Rock. I mean, that was a series about NBC. And it had Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan, and Fey brought in her SNL friends early and often. Kimmy is light on the famous guest stars until it gets to the end of the season when Fey, Hamm, Dean Norris, Nick Kroll, Tim Blake Nelson, and others start to show up.
It might have had a place on NBC if Parks and Recreation and the broadcast TV version of Community still existed, but it just doesn’t fit into NBC’s current “one hour of comedy a week” schedule. And it’s the kind of show that NBC just doesn’t know how to market. They never figured out how to sell 30 Rock, and it probably wouldn’t have lasted if it didn’t rack up Emmys. This is the network that couldn’t get people to watch Parks and Recreation even after two cast members wrote bestselling books and one starred in two of the biggest movies of the year. It would seem to be easy to tell people “Hey, you know all those Internet memes you like? This is the show that they came from! Also, we’ve got Star-Lord. He’s on our show, every week!” NBC couldn’t communicate to people that they had Donald Glover and Alison Brie on a show. Basically, they’re bad at their jobs and there’s no way they could have begun to market Kimmy. NBC never would have aired all thirteen episodes.
But the fact that NBC bailed shouldn’t be taken as a strike against Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It’s unique, joyous, and funny. If you’ve been missing 30 Rock (and you have), this is exactly what you need. Heck, you need to at least hear the theme song. Trust me. You will never get it out of your head.