Friday, Netflix debuted Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s first post-30 Rockproject. Originally slated to air on NBC, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt actually benefits from NBC’s involvement and ultimate decision to pass airing duties off to another entity. Access to NBCUniversal’s properties served Tina and Robert well during their time on 30 Rock just as it does with this series. Matt Lauer (“Thanks, Bryant.”) and The Today Show are the major media spotlight for the “Indiana Mole Women” of which the titular Kimmy Schmidt hails.
WARNING: Series recap and spoilers ahead.
The series opens on the police raid that frees Kimmy—played by The Office’s perpetually sunny Ellie Kemper—and her fellow captives of Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne’s “Apocalypse” bunker. The subsequent segment is a mash-cut of news coverage and an interview from a local neighbor, which gets the full Sweet-Brown-Lord-Jesus-There’s-A-Fire viral video treatment (made by the Gregory Brothers of Schmoyoho, no less) and serves as the theme song for the rest of the series. Standup comedian Mike Britt plays aforementioned neighbor Walter Bankston, and his is the voice that will be stuck in your head when your mind grapes are looping those lyrics. Fey’s husband and 30 Rock composer/executive producer Jeff Richmond is back on music duties in Schmidt, and his work here is every bit as awesome as anything he’s done thus far.
The first few episodes are the stories in which Kimmy finds her footing. Kimmy searches and finds an apartment listing in the newspaper, which has been arranged by landlady Lillian (the wonderfully brilliant Carol Kane) for woefully behind-on-the-rent and unwitting participant Titus (Tituss Burgess A.K.A. 30 Rock’s D’Fwan). When she parted from her fellow Mole Women, Kimmy received a chunk of the relief fund money from Cyndee, her closest friend for the past 15 years. Backpack thievery resulting in the loss of that money late in the first episode prompts Kimmy to reconsider her decision to start fresh in The Big Apple. She decides to stick around, though, and receives a job after escorting a little candy thief back to his home for a reprimanding from his parents. His mother just happens to be Jacqueline Voorhees (played by Jenna Maroney herself, Jane Krakowski.) The chance encounter gives Kimmy her first NYC job and the impetus to stay in the City and not run back to Durnsville after her money loss mishap.
If there’s a theme that runs through this series—which has very dark moments that you hardly catch because of the quick-worded protagonists—it’s that victimhood doesn’t define the victim. If 30 Rock was about balancing equally extreme parts of life, and if Parks & Rec was about the power of optimism, Unbreakable is most certainly about unwavering perseverance, even when you don’t see the light at the end of the (in this case, literal) tunnel. Early in the second episode we discover Kimmy’s coping mechanism that keeps and has kept her propelled: taking life 10 seconds at a time. “Do you think you can make it for the next 10 seconds?” she asks Jacqueline after cracks in the Voorhees marriage start to become apparent. “Just take it 10 seconds at a time. Everything will be okay.” Because Jane & Ellie are such enthralling comedic actors, it’s easy to completely gloss over the deep emotional reveal for these characters this moment provides. For 15 years, Kimmy was essentially living 10 seconds at a time, and now she’s passing along her tactics to a woman who still hasn’t found her true self and is lost in an Upper East Side way of life.
The flashback is a favorite tool of Fey, Carlock & Co., and here, the largest number of backward glimpses are reserved for Kimmy & Jacqueline. Despite some of Krakowski’s dialogue sounding much like Jenna Maroney’s greatest hits, and despite similar reinvention backstories, Jacqueline (born Jackie Lynn) is attempting to find happiness. The problem, is that she is ill-equipped to find it anywhere besides the surface. Speaking of surface, Martin Short makes a guest appearance planting this series’ reality firmly in absurdist territory when his overly-botoxed character Dr. Sidney Grant (pronounced “Framfph”) re-inflates his own broken nose with a Looney Tune’s style blowing-on-the-thumb trick.
Kimmy’s aforementioned roommate Titus is a true gift to the series. Not nearly as aloof as D’Fwan, Titus serves up his life severely on a platter. Every moment is grand and grand moments are his mana. By the time he finally settles into a steady job as a werewolf waiter at a theme restaurant, he has already accomplished so much, and so so little. His foil is the wonderfully mind-melted but somehow sharp Lillian, a landlady who has lived life fully (and has most likely ingested plenty of hallucinogens along the way.) In her zeal to help, she accompanies and inadvertently forces Titus to sing at a funeral, helps Titus film a music video for a song he hasn’t quite written yet, and at the end of the season accompanies Jacqueline to Durnsville in support of Kimmy.
Cyndee makes another visit to NYC to reconnect with Kimmy and exposes an interesting parallel between the two former Mole Women. Cyndee, upon returning to Durnsville after the media blitz, has had much given to her since her release, including a boyfriend—who, despite being gay and not willing to have a sexual relationship with her, is doing what he can to help her find happiness after 15 years of her life were essentially stolen from her. She’s getting much handed to her out of pity, but it ostensibly seems to be providing her with a real sense of happiness. Kimmy, at first finding fault with the facade, concedes that even though she could never take a shortcut like that, she also can’t fault Cyndee for her for her own reclamation of hapiness.
After that visit, Kimmy enrolls in a GED course and bands together with her fellow students to teach themselves after it is revealed the GED instructor is tenured and is looking for a way to get sent to “limbo.” In this case “limbo” is the Rubber Room, the lounge where un-fireable tenured instructors get paid to do nothing. Never one to give in to her circumstances, she and her fellow students instruct each other with their shared knowledge.
Towards the end of the season we begin to glean more information about why she was so keen to stay in NYC rather than returning home to a family or friends. It turns out, she had an absentee mother. A mother who after marrying the least effective detective on Kimmy’s kidnapping case, disappeared again. The hopelessly inadequate Detective Randy (a hilarious Tim Blake Nelson) provided Kimmy with a half-sister (Kymmi, pronounced “key-mi”), but little else. He even managed to find himself talked into doing heroin in NYC. Durnsville’s Finest, he is not. Tina Fey makes a cameo as one half of a disgraced California prosecutorial team tasked with sending Kimmy’s kidnapper to jail. Unfortunately, her character is nearly as bad at prosecuting as Randy is at police work. The Reverend Richard also proves himself to be remarkably able to sway the jury and public to his side, and this may be partially because once his beard is shaved he looks like Jon Hamm. (Because he’s played by Jon Hamm.) Fancy wordplay and suave presentation are almost enough to turn the trial to The Reverend’s favor, but one last trip to the bunker by the Mole Women provides a video tape which destroys his entire case.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has already been renewed for a second season, which will air next March. There are many similarities with 30 Rock to be found here, but UKS stands firmly as its own entity. Just remember that if you find yourself facing a difficult task, live life 10 seconds at a time.
What say you, readers? Have you finished the series and want a place to geek out over it? Feel free to comment below or chat about the series with me on Twitter!