Netflix is stellar when it comes to its original dramas (“House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” in particular), but what about comedy? Could the streaming gods secure an original comedic show with wit and laughs? Enter “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” born from the mind of comedic genius Tina Fey.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” was released to Netflix on March 6 and has since received rave reviews. Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker wrote, “It’s not the type of experience that you’d think would inspire comedy, but that’s the key to Kimmy Schmidt’s ambition: by making horrible things funny, it suggests that surviving could be more than just living on. It could be a kind of freedom, too.”
Executively produced by Tina Fey, this quirky comedy focuses on the life of Kimmy Schmidt, a woman who was kidnapped by a crazy post-apocalyptic cult and held in a bunker for 15 years before being rescued. Once she and her three “sisters” emerge from the bunker, there is a big hoopla about their rescue in news, in particular an auto-tuned viral video made from an eyewitness’ interview. Following all of the media attention, Kimmy decides to make a new life for herself in New York City. She moves into a basement apartment with a gay African American actor named Titus Andromedon and gets a job as a nanny for a rich New York family.
From there she cheerfully navigates through life in, as Arthur Chu of Slate magazine likes to say, a “13 going on 30 ‘90s refugee” way. She has an eighth grade education, and is very naïve about life in general, particularly adult life. Though her naiveté would be extraordinarily annoying in real life, in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” it is endearing and hilarious to watch.
One of the best things about “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is the cast. Ellie Kemper (“The Office,” “Bridesmaids”) makes Kimmy Schmidt loveable and sweet in her unbreakable optimism. Her post-bunker roommate, Titus Andromedon, is one of the most dynamic and interesting characters on the show. Aside from being fabulous and flamboyant, Titus also has some of the best scenes throughout the first season (the scenes in which Titus and Lillian are shooting his music video for his original song “Pinot Noir” is a killer example). The man who portrays Titus Andromedon is actor and singer Tituss Burgess (“30 Rock”, “You Must Be Joking”). Burgess is better known on Broadway as the originator of the role of Sebastian the Crab in Disney’s Broadway production of “The Little Mermaid” in 2007. Burgess’ theatre background allows Titus Andromedon’s vocal trills and stage auditions to feel authentic. The fact that Tina Fey wrote the character of Titus Andromedon with Burgess in mind adds to the brilliance of this character.
Jane Krakowski (“30 Rock”, “Ally McBeal”) plays Kimmy’s employer, Jacqueline Voorhees, a self-obsessed, insecure trophy wife to a very rich man, Mr. Voorhees. Her character is interesting mostly because of her backstory. Jacqueline is Native American, but she left her home and heritage behind because she felt as though she’d never get anywhere in life if she was true to herself. Her flashback scenes provide a very poignant commentary of the prominence of “whitewashing” in American film culture. Rounding out the main cast is Carol Kane (“The Princess Bride”, “Annie Hall”), playing Kimmy and Titus’s kooky landlady, Lillian.
Like many other comedies, special guest stars add more pizzazz to shows, and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” has its share of stars. Jon Hamm in particular hams up the screen as the deranged Reverend who kidnapped Kimmy Schmidt; while he is charming, he is infuriatingly manipulative and preys on the stereotypically simple minds of midwesterners. Martin Short’s characters are always zany, and his Dr. Franff (Mrs. Voorhees’ plastic surgeon) is no different. James Monroe Iglehart, who plays Titus’ rival Coriolanus Burt, just won a Tony award for his performance as the Genie in Broadway’s “Aladdin”, and because he is a fellow Broadway star like Burgess, their on screen rivalry becomes all the more entertaining to watch. Likewise, Jefferson Mays, who plays “Daddy” on the show, was nominated for a Tony this past season for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” and his bit part in the fake “classic” movie “Daddy’s Boy,” along with a special appearance by Robert Osborne (host of the channel TCM) is hilariously tongue-in-cheek. With all the Broadway nods and references, along with other New York references peppered throughout the first season, there is a clear love and knowledge of New York within Ms. Fey (which is to be expected). The attention to detail helps ground an otherwise cartoonish-feeling show in something concrete.
However, with all of the greatness of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the show has a few shortcomings. Most of the characters, while they are well written, lack a level of reality and believability , which may be a turn off for some viewers. Also, there is no denying that all of the minority characters portrayed in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” are stereotypes, even if they are “positive” ones that facilitate the comedy in the series. This is not to say that this show isn’t entertaining, but rather to say that characterization of minorities in this first season could be construed as lowbrow and offensive. For example, the character Dong is an immigrant from Vietnam who is good at math (Kimmy is chided for pointing that out), speaks with broken English, and is completely naive about sex and romance, as Arthur Chu puts it “model minority stuff.” However, Chu points out these jokes aren’t “offensive enough” to cause an uproar. While perfection may not exist, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” possess an endearing, funny charm; hopefully the second season will hit closer to the mark.
Claire Farrow can be reached at Claire.email@example.com.