This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
“We need Kimmy. Stat.”
That was the verdict when a bunch of us emerged battle-worn from a screening of the emotionally draining Room, the Fritzl-inspired story of a woman kidnapped as a teenager and held captive for many years.
Room is a powerful and distressing film. Thanks to actors Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, perhaps even more so than the novel from which it was adapted. It’s a film that leaves you feeling as if you’ve been staring too directly at a bright light. When you blink, the anguish remains imprinted in negative inside your head.
To shake the lingering wretchedness, we needed a Newtonian solution. A reaction opposite and equal to the poignant pain of Room. And in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, also the story of a woman kidnapped as a teenager and held captive for many years, we found one. Laughter, it so happened, was absolutely the best medicine.
Despite having the sort of edgy premise that suggests comedy grown in the uncomfortable am-I-really-allowed-to-laugh-at-this hinterland, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a million watts of sunshine. The final product is so joyously far from its troubling starting-point, it’s as if creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock wrote it for a bet. Like someone stabbed a finger closed-eyes at a national newspaper and told them “make a genuinely feel-good comedy from… that! Make the Ohio Kidnappings funny, and I’ll give you a billion dollars.”
It’s much less crass than it sounds. There’s zero sense that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is laughing at victims or belittling their plight.
That’s partly to do with its focus. The laughs come less from Kimmy’s trauma and more from her being a fish out of water. Like Josh in Big, or Buddy in Elf, Kimmy’s a kid trapped inside a thirty-year-old’s body. Her development was arrested around the age of Babysitter Club books and light-up Skechers, so depositing her in the big, bad, modern city is a classic comedy recipe.
Not that the trauma is ignored. The combination of the darkness Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) has endured (“Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker”) and her irrepressibly sunny outlook is what makes her such a brilliantly unpredictable creation. She’s inspiringly tough for a skinny greenhorn in Day-Glo trousers. Kimmy is gullible but fierce, as likely to get you in a choke-hold and scream at the sound of Velcro ripping as thank that nice bra-salesman who gave her that free fitting in the back of his truck.
As she says in season one, the worst thing that ever happened to her happened in her own front yard, so what’s left to fear? Through bizarre coping mechanisms and sheer force of will, Kimmy Schmidt is a survivor. She’s unbreakable.
Kimmy’s aided in her transition to the world she and her fellow mole women (“honestly, we don’t love that name”) had been told expired in a “nucular apocalypse,” by her roommate Titus. Played by Tituss Burgess, he’s a perfectly shallow out-of-work actor who, by dint of his self-absorption and own arrested development, makes the ideal playmate for Kimmy. “I’m pretty, but tough like a diamond. Or beef jerky in a ball gown.”
It’s Titus who inducts Kimmy into life in New York City, explaining the dos and do nots of modern living with the help of streetwise landlady Lillian (Carol Kane). But season one really tells the story of spoiled Manhattan trophy wife Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) who hires Kimmy as a home-help.
Kimmy’s experience having fine-tuned her to the signals of people who need rescuing, she sets about coaching Jacqueline out of her rich girl dependencies and to her own freedom. Through coping strategies that include jumping up and down shouting “I’m not really here. I’m not really here” and knowing that a person can stand anything for ten seconds, Kimmy leads Jacqueline out into the world, dealing with some of her own demons along the way.
The characters’ journeys provide Fey and Carlock with ample room for absurd humor (check out musical numbers Daddy’s Boy and earworm Peeno Noir on that front), wry comment and stinging satire.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s sunny outlook, channelled through the power of Ellie Kemper’s mile-wide smile, is part disguise. Yes, the show is uncomplicatedly uplifting, but that’s by no means code for “stupid.” There’s more smart cynicism here than in an Indiana bunker full of alternative stand-ups.
It’s the same kind of alchemy practiced by Father Ted, a sitcom that told jokes about the hypocrisies of the Church with such brilliant silliness it got away with an excoriating commentary on modern Catholicism. A wolf in cartoony clothing, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s utterly inoffensive lead and the wattage of Ellie Kemper’s grin let it get away with material on race, sex and class so-called shock-comics might balk at.
On the subject of wolves, one such clear-eyed moment is Titus’ realization that he’s treated better dressed as a werewolf in New York City than as a black man. A subtler comment is the observation by the talk show host interviewing Kimmy and her fellow escapees, one of whom fell victim to kidnapper Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne because she didn’t want to offend him, that he’s “always amazed at what women will do because they’re afraid of being rude.”
The gag-rate comes thick and fast in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Like a band flinging out potential hits on B-sides, 30 Rock, its creators’ previous joint, regularly tossed out better jokes in its pre-credits sting than other sitcoms managed in their entire run-time, and they haven’t slowed down any.
Ditto for the guest stars. There’s a tonne of surprises awaiting anyone new to the show that won’t be spoiled here.
In short, it’s a remedy for whatever ails you, this sitcom. Its first thirteen episodes can be stacked up and squished down into a single, delightful mouthful. Better on every re-watch, it’s a guaranteed pick-you-up made from bright, clever, ridiculous fun.
Welcome back Kimmy. Watch out world.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt season two lands on Netflix on Friday the 15th of April.