Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the first great sitcom of the streaming era
The streaming video wars have been fought with dramas — the kind of murky, morally ambiguous prestige dramas on which the modern television era was launched. Netflix's House of Cards, with its big-name stars and sky-high production values, was a shot across the bow of networks like HBO, Showtime, and AMC. Two years later, streaming rivals Amazon and Hulu are still scrambling to catch up.
The comedies of the streaming era have been less successful. Netflix's Arrested Development revival was ambitious but uneven. Amazon's Alpha House underwhelmed. Shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent, while terrific, straddle the line between drama and comedy so tightly that they befuddle Emmy voters and rely on unwieldy portmanteaus like "dramedy."
That's a big part of why Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — arriving last Friday, in the Netflix style, with all 13 episodes at once — is such a breath of fresh air. The streaming video era finally has its first great sitcom: witty, surprisingly edgy, refreshingly feminist, and poised to get even stronger as it hones its voice on the cutting edge of television.
Netflix's official press release for Kimmy Schmidt describes a series about "a woman who escapes from a doomsday cult and starts life over in New York." The first episode opens with Kimmy and her "mole women" compatriots being pulled from a hatch in an Indiana field, but it doesn't waste much time; by the end, Kimmy has planted tentative roots in New York City. Having survived 15 years in an underground bunker, Kimmy is "wide-eyed but resilient," says the Netflix press release. "Nothing is going to stand in her way."
All of that is accurate — but it also sounds a lot more conventional and cloying than Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt turns out to be. It's easy to see why Kimmy Schmidt was a poor fit for NBC, where it was originally slated to air after earning a 13-episode straight-to-series order. This is a weird show, blending the rapid-fire gags of 30 Rock — a style that has already proven to be a difficult mainstream sell — with a premise that raises the uncomfortable specter of isolation, abuse, and PTSD. Kimmy Schmidt finds a refreshingly nuanced take on optimism, celebrating the tireless spirit of its main character without pretending her persistence has the power to change the world.
Fortunately, as difficult as it might have been to find a place for it on NBC, it's just as easy to see why Kimmy Schmidt was such a no-brainer for Netflix, which committed to hosting two seasons before premiering a single episode. (Netflix doesn't release viewership data, but I suspect their decision was influenced by strong streaming figures for similarly pitched sitcoms like 30 Rock and Parks & Recreation.) This is a show best binge-watched — and then re-watched, to catch the barrage of jokes you missed the first time around.
The most obvious analogue for Kimmy Schmidt is 30 Rock, which shares a creator (Tina Fey), several actors (Jane Krakowski and Tituss Burgess, among others), and even what appears to be the same minor character. It also takes place in the same candy-colored, poison-laced version of New York, romanticizing and viciously satirizing the city in equal measure. But beyond its glossy surface, Kimmy Schmidt is a very different animal than 30 Rock, which centered its narrative almost exclusively on a subset of the city's cultural elite.
Kimmy Schmidt's band of characters have more in common with another beloved sitcom from the past decade: Starz's Party Down, which followed a group of deluded showbiz hopefuls working at a catering company in Los Angeles. Kimmy's roommate Titus, a wannabe actor who failed a string of auditions for The Lion King on Broadway, begins the series as a promotional tool for an arcade, standing around while wearing a robot suit in Times Square. Titus has big dreams, but he's nowhere close to achieving them, and Kimmy's unbreakability is the only thing that motivates him to put in the insane hours that eventually move him from the D list to the D-plus list. Lillian Kaushtupper, the gravel-voiced landlady played by Carol Kane, is desperately trying to protect her dilapidated New York brownstone from the forces of gentrification. Even Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski), Kimmy's one-percenter employer, turns out to be a miserable mess on a downward slide.
Kimmy herself is an intriguing mess of contradictions — a sunny optimist in the Leslie Knope mold despite the 15 years she spent as a prisoner in an underground bunker. Kimmy's past is generally played for laughs, but the show never completely shies away from the actual trauma roiling under her surface; her life mantra relies on surviving unbearable experiences by taking them 10 seconds at a time, stacking microscopic miseries together without acknowledging the terrible whole they represent.
Of course, none of this would be effective if Kimmy Schmidt wasn't so funny. But few sitcoms begin this strong — and best of all, there's every reason to believe Kimmy Schmidt will get even sharper and funnier in its second season. With the high-concept premise and the characters firmly established, the series can get out of its own way and focus on advancing its warped story. And developing the second season with Netflix in mind will give Kimmy Schmidt much more creative freedom to play with its own content and format. The constraints of network television aren't always a problem, but for a show with such a unique blend of warmth and darkness, the freedom to dig deeper into both subjects can only be a good thing.