According to the great authority that is Wikipedia, the past century has seen over 70 predictions of the Apocalypse come and go. Assuming that we’re not currently living in some kind of Matrix-esque afterlife, all of the predictions so far have been off the mark. But for Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), the protagonist of Netflix’s latest binge TV show offering Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, one of the Apocalypse predictions stole fifteen years of her life after she was kidnapped and imprisoned in a bunker by the charismatic Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm).
When she is finally rescued at the age of 29, Kimmy is filled with boundless optimism and is delighted about every aspect of non-bunker life. Determined to lose her “Mole Woman” label she leaves her home town of Durnsville, Indiana, and moves to New York City, shacking up with vain wannabe Broadway star Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) and his friendly criminal landlady Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane).
With a whole new life at her feet (and fifteen years of pop culture and slang to catch up on), Kimmy gets a job working as a babysitter/personal assistant/dog masseuse for the disgustingly rich Voorhees family, which is principally comprised of neurotic narcissist Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), psychopath-in-training Buckley (Tanner Flood) and stroppy teenager Xanthippe (Dylan Gelula). To be fair, anyone whose parents named them Xanthippe has the eternal right to be stroppy.
Once it gets going, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is really very funny. The showrunners are 30 Rock duo Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, which should give a good idea of the kind of humor on offer; and while Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t really find its stride until around episode four, “Kimmy Goes to the Doctor!”, once it starts striding there’s very little that can stop it.
The jokes can best be described as off-topical, being largely based on cultural phenomena from at least two years ago. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s catchy theme tune is an homage to the trend of autotuned remixes of news broadcasts, specifically the “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That” video in which poor Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins relayed her story of escaping from a fire in her apartment complex. Usually when mainstream media attempts to ape viral trends it just ends up being a bit awkward and embarrassing (yes, that means you, Grumpy Cat movie), but Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s theme successfully manages to take on a life of its own.
The show isn’t just funny, it’s fun. The color palette is bright, the lightness of it is broken up with splinters of incredibly dark humor that successfully shake up the tone enough to keep things interesting, and it has occasional flashbacks that serve a similar function to J.D.’s daydreams in Scrubs or the non sequiturs in Family Guy. It’s kind of the adult equivalent of jangling a set of keys in front of a baby’s face, but you can’t fault the writers for its effectiveness.
The gags come so fast and so frequently that even if one misses the mark there will almost certainly be a few hits among the next volley. It’s all held together by an excellent cast, with Kemper turning what could have been a very grating character into the source of some of the show’s best humor. In addition, there are enjoyable guest appearances from Martin Short, Tim Blake Nelson and Tina Fey herself.
The addictive fun of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is undermined somewhat by its dodgy racial politics. From the ground up it’s a show about stereotypes: the closeted gay country boy; the charismatic preacher; the wealthy WASP-ish wife who never sees her husband; the rude, spoiled, selfie-obsessed rich kid. But the fixation on stereotypes also means that the only Hispanic characters in the show are two maids and a subway mariachi band, and Kimmy’s love interest Dong (whose name is the source of the show’s worst jokes) is a Vietnamese illegal immigrant who proposes marriage in the hope of obtaining a green card.
Perhaps most uncomfortable of all is Jacqueline’s backstory as a Native American teen who dreamed of being a white airhead and achieved her dream with the help of colored contact lenses and hair dye. Every time Jacqueline has a flashback to her past there’s an underlying dread of seeing Krakowski in brownface (though thankfully that never happens).
It’s often unclear whether Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is supposed to be satirizing middle-class-white-girl feminism or genuinely espousing it. The big Girl Power moments of the show include Kimmy and Jacqueline breaking free of an oppressive spin class and Kimmy deciding not to get plastic surgery. There are a few token gestures of self-awareness, such as a news report about the Mole Women proclaiming “White Women Found” followed by “Hispanic woman also found” in smaller letters. There are also more subtle touches, such as Kimmy being handed a big wad of money to help start her life in New York and then immediately getting a high-paying job despite having no qualifications.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is an ideal watch for anyone who has a few hours to kill or is looking for some procrastination material. The theme tune is catchy enough to repeatedly tempt viewers into watching the start of the next episode just to hear it again – and then, before you know it, you’ll just be watching the entire episode. Luckily they’re only 25 minutes long, so the show isn’t as much of a time sink as House of Cards or Orange is the New Black.
With humor reminiscent of Community, 30 Rock and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt can be marked down as another win for Netflix’s library of original programming. While this first season has a few wobbly moments as it sheds the training wheels, it also has the makings of a long-running comedy staple.
Assuming, of course, that the Apocalypse doesn’t happen any time soon.
Kimmy: This place is hilarious. It’s so funny what people who have never been kidnapped think is scary. Talking crows? I would have loved to meet a talking crow!
Talking Crow: Death looms over us all!
Titus: I’m sorry, Myron, what are you looking for here?
Myron Affleck: I just want to see if you can continue acting after being struck by a falling Spider-Man.
Rick: I was always getting typecast as the funny gay guy who works at the police station…
Titus: That’s not even a thing.
Rick: …Or the sassy best friend who makes up words.
Titus: Like “snowbesity”. It’s when you don’t know if someone’s fat or not because they’re wearing a winter coat.
Titus: Wait, why aren’t you at the liberry?
Kimmy: My study group has already fallen apart. Can you teach me math?
Titus: Girl, didn’t you just hear me say “liberry”? I went to public school in Mississippi. They told us the dinosaurs went extinct because that asteroid turned them gay.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt season one is available now on Netflix.
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