by Josie Kafka
Abduction. Rape. Imprisonment. Day-Glo yellow tennis shoes. Those hardly sound like the ingredients for a rousing comedy, do they? But The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt takes a dreary premise—woman is rescued from cult leader who has kept her in a bunker for over a decade—and transforms it into an upbeat comedy evocative of both the best episodes of 30 Rock and the most life-affirming Beyonce song you can think of.
Originally created for NBC by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, TUKS found a home on Netflix, which has already signed it for a second season. Ellie Kemper (The Office) is the eponymous Kimmy Schmidt, abducted from her home in her tween years, and kept in a bunker by an apocalypse-prepping freak. Once freed—along with her co-captors—Kimmy moves to New York to start her new adult life, the focus of the series.
I discovered this show, oddly enough, the moment it premiered at 12:01am on a Friday morning. Worn down from a very, very long day at work, I did the familiar mental dance: “Oh, I’ll check this out for one 20-minute episode.” An embarrassing number of hours later, I finally went to bed.
Was it love at first watch? Not really. Kimmy’s exuberant optimism is grating at first. The theme song was troubling: what was I to make of the reductive statement that “females are strong as hell”? The supporting cast, including Titus Burgess as a sassy gay black musical-theatre aficionado who agrees to let Kimmy stay in his second bedroom (really a closet), seemed one-dimensional and clichéd.
But I should have trusted Tina Fey, who never met a trope she couldn’t undermine. Beneath the superficiality lurked some really heart-warming character arcs. Titus, in particular, is far more than a string of adjectives could denote. Ditto for Jane Krakowski’s wealthy Manhattanite, who employs Kimmy as a personal assistant and hand-holder.
This show is, at heart, about a series of unbreakable people realizing that they aren’t broken. They’ve been through the ringer, but they’re relying on each other to develop a sense that life can be changed. It can be mended. People can heal and become comfortable with their own scars.
That still sounds dour, but the show really isn’t. The comedy is wacky screwball, especially by the end of the season, which features Kimmy’s captor on trial. There are some great casting bits in that sequence of episodes—and I want to leave you unspoiled for them. Ellie Kemper draws on the apparent naiveté that made her character on The Office so endearing, but she doesn’t replicate Erin’s cluelessness. Kimmy’s cultural references may be stuck in the 1990s, but she understand the dark side of life. She just chooses to look on the bright one.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, I strongly recommend you check out TUKS. Give it a few episodes. Let it grow on you, and let its rhythms work their magic. You’ll be glad you did.
Caveat lector: I've kept this review relatively spoiler-free, but the comments are fair game for any event in the first season.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)