They Alive, Dammit

The latest from the comedic mind of Tina Fey (and her less media-friendly writing partner, Robert Carlock), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt made its Netflix debut this week, inviting fans missing the golden days of 30 Rock to binge-watch its 13-episode first season.  Unfortunately, I was not among the 30 Rock faithful; I thought it was a good, sometimes verging on great, show that was never consistent enough to really live up to its potential.  Kimmy Schmidt has some of the same strengths and some of the same weaknesses — often embodied in the very same actors — and might be a cautionary tale about the drawbacks of burning through an entire season at a time.

The show is focused on Kimmy Schmidt, a small-town Indiana teen who is kidnapped by a deranged Doomsday preacher and kept against her will, with a handful of other women, in an underground bunker for 15 years.  (There are a few jokes about the nature of her imprisonment which border on extremely creepy, but they’re thankfully few and far between.)  Once she’s released, she decides to make a new life for herself in New York City, trying to balance her anachronistic if extremely chipper worldview with her desire to put her past abuse behind her.  The show gets a lot more laughs out of the fact that all of Kimmy’s pop-cultural touchstones are from the late 1990s than it does fish-out-of-water gags about her unfamiliarity with modern contrivances, but after a bit, it settles down into a relatively familiar Mary Tyler Moore narrative about a scrappy young gal in the big mean city.

The three main characters are by far the show’s strongest points.  Elle Kemper, as Kimmy Schmidt, really gets a chance to show off her comedic chops, and she’s wonderful:  spunky, relentless, joyfully bewildered, and open to anything.  Kemper nails exactly what’s required from the role, and she’s always a pleasure to watch.  Tituss Burgess, as her flamboyant failure of a roommate, is more of a mixed bad; Burgess is superbly talented at almost everything he does, from legitimate singing to blundering physical comedy, but he’s not often given much to do; too many of his subplots revolve around either being supportive of Kimmy in the shopworn gay-best-friend role or around him being a gay stereotype so egregious his self-awareness is barely able to salvage it.  (His parts improve as the show goes on, and he gets a lot more laugh lines as well as the show’s hands-down best attempt at a catchphrase with  “What white nonsense is this?”; hopefully the writers will know more about how to handle him in season 2.) Carol Kane fills out the triumvirate as their sketchy landlady, and does an amazing job just by being Carol Kane; her story about the way her late husband died gave me one of the biggest laughs of the whole series.

Whenever Kimmy Schmidt strays beyond these three, however, it’s on much shakier ground.  I was never much of a fan of Jane Krakowski on 30 Rock, and she’s even worse here, playing a similar role in an identical way and never doing much to surprise me.  Dylan Gelula plays Krakowski’s daughter, who’s supposed to be 15 and looks about 30, and is given no personality whatsoever beyond an entirely unmotivated dislike of Kimmy; later, the series completely wastes the fine Kiernan Shipka in what is essentially the same role with the same non-motivation.  Tanner Flood and Andy Ridings, as Kimmy’s charge and his tutor, basically disappear midway through the series; Adam Campbell as a rich suitor is a complete dud who also vanishes early on, and his replacement is Ki Hong Lee, who is played so much as a cornball Asian stereotype that even the scriptwriters get sick of it after a while.  And worst of all is Tim Blake Nelson as Kimmy’s stepfather, playing a dumb hick stereotype that would have been considered way too broad for Hee Haw.  Fey’s apparent belief that anyone living anywhere between New York and L.A. is an irredeemable rube led to some of 30 Rock‘s worst moments, and Kimmy Schmidt does nothing to suggest she’s grown past the idea.

In fact, when the series shifts back to Indiana for the trial of the evil doomsday preacher (played with a mile-wide smirk by Jon Hamm), it really reaches its nadir, overselling the stupidity of the dumb flyover dolts in an idiot plot that makes them seem like they’d lose a gullibility contest with the people of Springfield.  That would be forgivable if it didn’t go on for nearly four episodes, as would a pair of recurring gag characters played by Fey herself and the reliably great Jerry Minor as Marcia Clarke and Chris Durden.  It’s not a bad gag so much as it is one that goes on far too long, especially given that it’s likely to go over the heads of most of its target audience, for whom the O.J. Simpson trial isn’t really fresh in their memories.  It’s unfair to both shows to compare Kimmy Schmidt to 30 Rock, but both get bogged down the broader they go, and both are on thin ice when they stray too far from the three central characters.

On the other hand, also like 30 Rock, when it’s on, it’s really on.  Titus gets many of the best moments, including an audition for a Spider-Man musical on Broadway, a total meltdown during a television interview, and a fun bit involving Dean Norris as an acting coach who tries to get him to act straight.  Kimmy is consistently charming, and her positive outlook gives her a whole different dimension than Liz Lemon; Kemper is a great comic actress, and also knows just how to react off people, including a fantastic episode where she butts head with the great Richard Kind as a sublimely lazy high school teacher.  Lauren Adams is reliably fun as one of the cult’s kidnapping victims who still believes the whole doomsday prophecy was legitimate, and Nick Kroll turns in a killer cameo towards the end of the first season.  Most importantly, even in the weaker episodes, which are more plentiful as the show progresses, there’s always at least one killer line or scene that comes at just the right time to seem to salvage the whole thing.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt isn’t a great sitcom — not yet, anyway — and it made a lot of missteps it will have to rectify in season 2.  It’s also a show that probably would have benefited from a network-style once-a-week model rather than the Netflix binge structure; many of the cracks in the show’s armor would have been a lot less visible if it were doled out a little bit at a time rather than burned through all at once.  But it’s also a show with three dynamite leads, who are all appealing enough to generate a tremendous amount of goodwill and build up interest in seeing where it all goes from here.  It’s not the kind of show that’s going to revolutionize comedy or make any kind of big statement, but whenever those credits roll, you’re happy to see it come out of that hole in the ground.

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