Tina Fey has built her non-acting career on creative bankruptcy without actually going creatively bankrupt herself. In the seven years 30 Rock spanned, her show went from widely beloved Emmy winner to barely afloat cult favorite, and the show frequently reflected that status self-referentially. No network decision was too poor for them avoid mocking, lending the show anarchic spontaneity that saw devoted fans through to the strained, but not unenthusiastic, conclusion. Even at its best and brightest, though, the show was willingly doomed to a slight sense of invalidation. Much as it made fun of destructive stereotypes and backsliding in the network television industry, it never strove to break those trappings. That was a world confined to a snowglobe, with no hope of unironic escape.
It feels both fitting and refreshing, then, that Fey’s new series (co-created with 30 Rock writer Robert Carlock) begins with its main character being freed from cult captivity. For a moment it’s conceivable that this is just an absurdist sketch like the kind Liz Lemon’s crew would concoct, it soon takes root in Fey’s only slightly warped reality. That the wider world is signified by an overly catchy songified news story of an ebullient black man keys us into the kind of all-encompassing media satire our main character works to resist Unwilling to submit to her manipulated role as a victim, Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper, wearing a foot wide smile that’s bound to wreak havoc on her face should the show run long) refuses to join her fellow cult members back to Indiana. Instead she tackles 2015 New York City with a small town 1999 mindset, triggering a cross-generational coming of age that viewers still nostalgic for the false innocence of the 90s will empathize with.
Hinging your next bright, enthusiastic sitcom on a plot that Martha Marcy May Marlene made jaw-clenchingly terrifying is fairly a counter-intuitive choice for Fey, but the show manages to validate her last trauma while spinning unblinkingly giddy comic gold out of it. Each episode centers around Kimmy breaking down a different wall in her lingering psychological confinement, while the show’s scope spans out to encompass other intersectional minorities struggling to find their truth in the city’s competitive glut. Foremost is Tituss Burgess’ Titus Andromedon, a black gay man whose performance career has laid dormant, but suppressed, until Kimmy brings it soaring out. Needless to say his nonsensical music video on black gay identity, “Pinot Noir”, joins the ranks of wacked-out music videos which surpass the majority of any live-action short Oscar field. Similarly aided by Kimmy’s genuine enthusiasm to break through the confines of her own life, Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline Voorhees, an upscale Manhattan housewife whose social climbing aspirations have distanced herself from her culture, mines the same air-headed denial she had in 30 Rock, but with a capacity to transcend her circumstances that feels exciting.
There’s a sense of hope and perseverance to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that works deliberately against the cynicism that 30 Rock antithetically thrived on. In spite her indomitably cheery disposition, Kimmy is rarely in the positive, successful space that she’d like to be. She’s uneducated, naive about social and romantic cues, and plagued with fear about returning to the origin of her decade long captivity. The show isn’t above having a laugh at how unrealistic some of her goals are – a smoothly hysterical pilot-ending rendition of Lion King‘s “The Circle of Life” in Times Square is about as romanticized as it would be in real life – but repression, submission and defeat are not in this Kimmy Schmidt‘s vocabulary.
Another exciting break in the typical sitcom formula is its outright refusal of formula. The show’s plot and circumstances ebb and flow throughout the season, rarely forcing the characters into the same positions they’ve been in before. Kimmy’s original state dominating her job for Mrs. Voorhees is soon transitioned into, but not eclipsed by, her GED education. Titus’ acting career has as many small successes as it does embarrassing sellouts. And Jacqueline’s search for self-actualization is notoriously hard-earned, her affluence-seeking instincts often suppressing her rather ludicrous heritage. This show stands to change shape and focus as its characters’ lives do, giving it long-lasting potential that more confined network shows often fail to capture.
There’s also a smart eye for casting, recurring and guest stars alike. Inherent Vice fans would be happy to see Martin Short play another lunatic doctor, presuming they recognize him under a grotesque glut of gummy prosthetics. Mad Men standout Kiernan Shipka pops up halfway through the season as a meaningful reminder of what Kimmy’s left behind, potently enduring the show’s ongoing investigation into the struggles and regrets of starting your life anew. The show finally stumbles into genius levels of star casting and self-casting alike in its final stretch, where Tina Fey herself pops up as half of an embarrassing legal team based not so subtly on OJ Simpson prosecutors.
And without giving away the ace pick for the villainously persuassive preacher responsible for Kimmy’s imprisonment, they could’ve hardly picked a better actor to utilize manipulative spin tactics. Not that the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne needs much in that department to smokescreen the most naive tertiary characters. The show delves even more perniciously indoctrinating practices of modern media culture than it does into the squalid cult life Kimmy’s left behind. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t presuppose entrapment as being behind these characters. The show depicts a wide variety of brainwashed environments falsely labeled as self-improvement, and it’s both dramatically satisfying and hilarious to see those broken down, only to reveal a new confiscating wall behind them. The walls aren’t endless, but they hopefully go on long enough for Kimmy’s adventures to reassuringly accompany college-graduating viewers well into their arduous twenties.
Bottom Line: Persistently funny and wildly optimistic, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a joyous comic blend of social satire and genuine upbeat perseverance.