Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” Is Great, Not Good, And That’s Okay
I wrote about Amazon’s Bosch, a show that I thought was good, but not great, mostly because I’d seen it before. Or at least, I’d seen things like it before. It was a Frankenstein’s monster of familiar parts. It was good enough for what it was but finishing the season felt like something I’d done but not something I’d want to do again.
Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is different. It’s great. And I’m already happily looking forward to revisiting it.
Let’s get the plot out of the way first: Kimmy Schmidt is one of four women conned into believing that the world has ended and that their bunker is keeping them alive. This ruse lasts for fifteen years. When police finally open the bunker, Schmidt re-emerges into the world close to 30. She is now one of the Durnsville Indiana Mole Women, a brief media sensation, but as the hubbub about them is dying down – they’re literally pushed into the street by an NBC news intern – Schmidt decides that she is not going home. Her life from that point forward is the show.
Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) lives with Titus (Titus Burgess), a gay black man, in a building owned by Lillian (Carol Kane), a widowed woman who keeps the husband she murdered in the building they all share. Kimmy works for Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski), a wealthy trophy wife (Native American by birth) who has two children, Buckley (her own) and Xanthippe (her husband’s). Kimmy is occasionally pursued by men including Charles (a doofy white tutor), Logan (a Connecticut native whose family forced him to learn British), and Dong (a Vietnamese delivery driver).
This show is diverse. No two people on it look the same, and better yet, no two people on it sound the same. It’s a testament to the show’s producers (which include Tina Fey) that its apparently commitment to diversity went as far as it did. There will be some that balk at this and it isn’t difficult to imagine that the show might have an easier time existing on Netflix than it would have on one of the networks specifically because of those objections. In fact, the show was oddly commissioned by NBC (presumably for broadcast) before being sold to Netflix. We’ll see if this is a model that continues. The show is also chockablock with guest stars: Martin Short, Nick Kroll, Dean Norris, Amy Sedaris, Jon Hamm, Richard Kind, Jerry Minor, and Tina Fey (herself!) show up. All of them do spectacular work is bolstering the show’s ensemble cast.
Beyond what it achieves in assembling a world that seems like the world (at least in appearance), there is also the show’s structure. Each episode exists individually, with stories beginning and ending, but each also forwards two separate plots: Kimmy’s reintegration into the world and what will happen in Durnsville. Plenty of sitcoms have told stories of course, but here episodes feel consequential. As a result, viewers can choose to drop in for a single episode but seeing them all in their intended order makes far more sense.
There are plenty of highlights, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was how rarely the show went for its most obvious joke: Kimmy’s discomfort with her new world. Yes, there are repeated instances of her boggling at technology, asking after long lost bands, and wondering about modernity, but in so many instances, it isn’t the show’s go to joke. She isn’t taken aback by her roommate’s sexuality. She isn’t taken aback by her diverse surroundings. She isn’t taken aback by the romantic interest of a Vietnamese delivery boy. The show ignores almost every obvious joke about a white woman from Indiana who has been hidden away from the world for 15 years.
That alone makes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt worth watching. But if that isn’t enough, consider this: this season was the show’s debut. Shows have a tendency to get better as they come into their own. If this was Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s baseline, it’s awfully fun to imagine where it might be going.
Update: I somehow went for the entirety of this without mentioning the show’s theme, which is awesome