Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is the latest Netflix-exclusive show to premiere on the streaming service, and its first original comedy. “Schmidt,” co-created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the creator and show runner, respectively, behind “30 Rock,” is extremely similar to “30 Rock” in everything from tone and pacing to the score, location, and cast. Because of that, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” might be one of the most unoriginal shows I’ve watched in years. It might also be my new favorite.
I went into “Schmidt” worried that my over-familiarity with the cast, crew, and tropes would breed contempt and laziness. Stop me if you’ve already watched a television show with any of the following: a single midwestern girl trying to make a life for herself in the big city; a curmudgeonly, older landlord with a soft spot for her wacky tenants; a flamboyantly gay best friend; an insanely vain, spotlight-obsessed supporting character played by Jane Krakowski, and an impossibly naïve but kindhearted character played by Ellie Kemper. “That Girl” finds “Three’s Company” with “Will & Grace” in “The Office” at “30 Rock” isn’t the worst pitch in TV history, I suppose. But worry set in when NBC, a channel once known as a comedy powerhouse and currently starved for buzz, turned down the first season order from Fey, their former multi-threat comedic genius, before seeing it scooped up by Netflix.
Oh, NBC. The hits just keep on missing. I should have never misplaced my faith in Fey. Her well-documented love, knowledge and respect for television history (who else would plant a highly meta inside joke about a 25-year-old episode of “M*A*S*H” into an episode of “30 Rock”?) makes “Schmidt” yet another outlet for Fey and her lightening-quick writing staff to subvert and then refresh all the tropes they’re propping up.
Played by Kemper, Kimmy is just your average single gal trying to make it in the Big Apple. Incidentally, before arriving in NYC, this average single gal had been held captive in an underground bunker in Indiana with three other women by an apocalypse-obsessed reverend. Kimmy’s pop-culture life came to an effective end in the mid-’90s and her captivity left her with an eighth-grade education. Think how easy other TV comedy heroines had it — Ann Marie in “That Girl” just wanted to fly a kite in Central Park! I may not be as well versed in “Sex and the City” as some, but I don’t recall Carrie Bradshaw worrying about the stigma of being branded as one of the “Mole Women” by the national media.
Has Kemper played this type of character before on both TV in “The Office” and on the big screen in “Bridesmaids”? Yes. Does it matter? No. She’s perfect.
Kimmy, forever mangling 2015’s alien phrases (“hashbrown no filter”) or unsuccessfully trying to update her old lingo (“just suckin’ on a chill pill”), is as adrift in “the future” of 2015 (her roommate, Titus, admonishes her: “Stop calling this the future!”) as Marty McFly was 26 years ago.
Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess, playing a more down-on-his luck, but just as fabulous, version of D’Fwan from “30 Rock”) is Kimmy’s unreliable guide to the big city. With his talent repeatedly ignored by Broadway (he missed his big break when he failed his audition for “Alabama,” the all-black version of “Oklahoma”), Titus has a chip on his greasy shoulders (he “fell asleep with a Hot Pocket”), irked that his dreams, looks, and passion have passed him by.
Burgess is the breakout star of the show. Krakowski offers a delicious portrayal of the tortured nouveau riche Jacqueline Vorhees (a.k.a. Jenna Maroney 2.0), who dines at posh Manhattan eateries like “La Gargamel” while evil step-mothering the horrific — but accurate — caricature of entitled teenage stepdaughter Xanthippe. But it’s Titus’ over-the-top lines you’ll be quoting to your friends and dropping on social media. I won’t spoil how, but I promise you this: you’ll be eternally grateful for Titus teaching you the words that rhyme with pinot noir — including caviar, Myanmar, and Jamie Farr.
Kimmy’s journey isn’t about proving how true the show’s title is, but to instill some steel in confidence-deficient characters like Titus and Jacqueline. Has Kemper played this type of character before on both TV in “The Office” and on the big screen in “Bridesmaids”? Yes. Does it matter? No. She’s perfect.
Fey also smartly casts the net across small-screen history to fill rolls with Emmy-winning comic ringers. Martin Short plays a horrifically androgynous and indecipherable plastic surgeon who answers the never-asked question, “What would the offspring of Jackie Rogers Jr. and Ed Grimley look like?” And Carol Kane plays Titus and Kimmy’s loopy landlord Lillian with a touch of her famous “Taxi” character, Simka.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” borrows liberally from sitcom history, and with it, Fey has created something originally unoriginal — which happens to be the funniest show on television.