Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—the new comedy from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the tag-team behind 30 Rock—was originally supposed to air on NBC. The show does not have the most network-friendly premise: as it begins, the titular Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) is rescued from an underground bunker where she and three other women have been held against their will for nearly two decades by an apocalypse-minded cult leader. (And, “Yes, weird sex stuff happened,” you nosy parker.) The deep onyx of this premise may explain why NBC ultimately passed on the series, leaving it to be snatched up by Netflix, which debuts the show’s entire first season Friday. And yet whatever excuse NBC has for passing—hey, we really don’t want to air a show that references Josef Fritzl, Warren Jeffs, and the end of the world in its opening minute!—is not good enough: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt would instantly have been funnier than any show it currently has on the air.
Despite the darkness of its premise, Schmidt’s tone, like that of its heroine, is indomitably sunny: She is unbreakable, and don’t you forget it. In the time it takes most sitcoms to set up a decent joke, Kimmy is rescued, has her plight auto-tuned, becomes famous as one of the “Indiana Mole Women,” and decides she is not going back to Indiana, where she will “always be a victim.” Instead, she’ll tough it out in New York City. With Kimmy Schmidt, Fey and Carlock may need some time to find their go-to themes and develop their supporting characters, but they still have complete mastery of their rhythm: cracks, asides, observations, and goofy references fly by so quickly, as a viewer you start to play a kind of reverse dodgeball—desperately doing whatever you can to get pegged by a punch line.
Kimmy, defiantly setting out into New York City, swiftly assembles for herself a supporting cast. She finds an apartment listed by Lillian (Carol Kane) and moves into a basement apartment with the gay Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess, who appeared on 30 Rock as reality TV personality D’Fwan, co-star on Queen of Jordan), a frustrated actor working Times Square in an off-brand superhero costume.* To help pay Titus’ rent, she gets a job working as a nanny for a brat named Buckley, whose mother is the deeply narcissistic, but not entirely cruel, Jacqueline Voorhes (30 Rock vet Jane Krakowski. Presumably her new name is a shout out to Jackie Jormp-Jomp).*
Over the next six episodes—all that was available to critics in advance—Kimmy Schmidt both aligns itself with and separates itself from 30 Rock. It feels like 30 Rock. There’s the same deadpan, high-octane pacing, penchant for the completely silly, love of weird names, and passion for bizarre pop-culture reference. Kimmy shouts “urethra!” instead of eureka; The Babysitter’s Club Mystery: Dawn and the Surfer Ghost is an important plot point; the Affleck’s are revealed to have a third brother, named Myron; a teenager gripes “I’m being bullied and I’m not even fat”; and Martin Short makes a cameo as Dr. Grant, which is pronounced “Dr. Framph,” because his own face has become so disfigured by plastic surgery, he can no longer speak clearly. (He is probably a work acquaintance of Dr. Spaceman.) As with 30 Rock, the desire to just quote lines back at your television or computer screen is irresistible.
But Kimmy Schmidt has a bigger heart than 30 Rock. This is the irony of the show’s premise: Despite being based on something far more macabre than the inner-workings of a major media conglomeration, Schmidt is more optimistic and less cynical than 30 Rock. If 30 Rock owes its very form to The Mary Tyler Moore Show—hijinks at a TV station—Kimmy Schmidt shares its spirit. It’s a show in which an unstoppable young woman helps not only herself, but everyone around her by the sheer force of her good nature.
Yes, Kimmy is damaged in small ways and big. She’s never kissed a boy and she keeps says things like “word up.” Also, she has horrible recurring nightmares. Yet despite all of this, she remains a cheerful person whose positivity and gumption don’t seem like just a cover-up for her pain. With her light-up sneakers and her can-do attitude, she faces optimistically approaches her future because, honestly, what’s the worst thing that could happen there? As Kimmy says, “The worst thing [already] happened in my own front yard.” Unlike Liz Lemon, Kimmy’s best intentions are not constantly being derailed, undermined, and reconfigured by baritone conservatives, egomaniacs, crazies, politicos, and bureaucrats. Instead, more often than not, she is the force changing the zany oddballs assembled around her.
None of those oddballs are quite as vivid as 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy, Tracy Jordan, or Jenna Maroney. To be fair, who could be? But Kimmy Schmidt has a different structure from 30 Rock: Its protagonist, Kimmy, is both the show’s straight man and also its ultimate, lovely little weirdo. It’s Kimmy Schmidt, not every one around her, who is unbreakable, after all.
Correction, March 6, 2015: This review originally misspelled the last name of the 30 Rock character Jackie Jormp-Jomp. (Return.)
Correction, March 9, 2014: This review originally misidentified the character Titus Andromedon as Titus Andronicus. (Return.)