Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”: The Good, the Bad and the Dong

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Tituss Burgess and Ellie Kemper in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
Photo: Netflix

Much has been said about the way Netflix is changing television. That may be true in terms of we watch TV, but their actual programming has not been the stuff of water cooler talk. Sure, they have their successes in “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black“, but when was the last time you and your friends had a lengthy talk about “Marco Polo” or “Hemlock Grove“? Yeah, me neither. Even the return of “Arrested Development” didn’t get people talking for much time. However, on March 5th, they put out a show that has entered the public consciousness, both for how funny it is and, of course, some controversy. That show is “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt“.

I do not watch a lot of television. I keep up with “Game of Thrones”, “Community”, and “Louie”. That’s it. I still have never watched “The Sopranos”, “The Wire”, “True Detective”, “Fargo”, “Sherlock”, “Breaking Bad”, and a whole host of other shows people hound me about watching. I put my foot down and said to myself, “Mike, you will not let another show get away from you.” I don’t know why all the people on the bus looked at me like a crazy person, because it needed to be said. So, I watched the half-hour comedy’s first season from creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock and thought it was some of the finest TV comedy I’ve seen in awhile.

Ellie Kemper (“The Office”, Bridesmaids) plays the titular Kimmy, a woman who has been trapped in an underground bunker with three other women for fifteen years. They’ve been held there by the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, whose actor identity I won’t reveal here but is easy to find if you don’t mind spoilers, a preacher who has told these women he is saving them from the apocalypse. After getting rescued, Kimmy decides to move to New York to start her life over again. You know, the obvious premise for a sitcom.

What Fey and Carlock do so brilliantly here is they never make Kimmy a victim. She never wants to be victimized and will do anything in her power to stay positive, even when putting on a smile is incredibly difficult. The easy route for sympathy would be to pity her, but we are rarely allowed to do that. We are infected by Kimmy’s positivity, and that is our way into her head, rather than feeling sorry for her from a distance.

Kemper is no stranger to playing an upbeat, happy, naive person, but Kimmy is the first character she has been given where that personality does not just come from needing that type of character in a cast. She is repressing a huge list of awful things, where if she could erase them from her mind, she would. In one episode, she tells Jane Krakowski‘s vain socialite housewife Jacqueline Voorhees that in order to feel better she should jump up and down saying, “I’m not really here!” While it is a silly joke and played very happily, it digs at some really dark trauma Kimmy clearly is dealing with. Meshing the silly and the dark is a hard tight rope to walk, and the writing and Kemper’s performance perfectly capture that.

The rest of the cast are able to reconcile their dark pasts by putting on a good face very well. Tituss Burgess as Titus, Kimmy’s flamboyantly gay aspiring actor roommate, comes from a place of being ostracized from all sides. He has been pushed to the fringes for being black, being gay, his ego, and just never getting an acting job. That doesn’t stop him from trying. He gets discouraged, sure, but he will always make an effort to make his life better. When he gets a job at a monster themed restaurant, he discovers being dressed as Frankenwolf (yes, we know his name isn’t Frankenwolf and was just created by Dr. Frankenwolf) allows him to be treated better than being a black man. Again, tackling serious things goofily. It is an effective form of dealing with these issues. The aforementioned Krakowski and Carol Kane, as Kimmy’s criminally suspect landlord who’s never been off the island, round out the series regulars very well.

The bare minimum of a sitcom is it should be funny, and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is definitely that. You rarely know where the joke is going to come from, and the anarchic, fun spirit of it all keeps you smiling. Fey, Carlock and company are never beholden to a certain type of joke. The humor ranges from sly wit to broad slapstick to the complete absurd, where Kimmy and Titus engaging with a puppet on television seems like it could plausibly happen. It’s a bright and exciting world you are happy to spend time in.

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