In the hands of lesser showrunners, the concept for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—a young woman is freed from a doomsday cult after years of living in an underground bunker only to find the world is still around and has evolved rapidly since she saw it last—would be unbearable; a chance to beat viewers over the head with “hilarious” scenes of the ignorance and culture shock experienced by its titular character.
But this is Tina Fey and Robert Carlock we’re talking about. As the creators of 30 Rock have envisioned it, Kimmy may be ignorant, but she’s almost entirely shock proof. Even in one of the world’s most overwhelming cities, she embraces every opportunity with a huge toothy grin and a “can do” attitude. Place her among some of the most cynical and entitled people on TV, and you’ve got the perfect raw materials for comic mishaps and sharp-tongued banter. And what ignorance she does reveal—telling an iPhone wielding character to put their Game Boy down, dancing like a spindly In Living Color Fly Girl in a modern dance club—is used for quick comic effect before moving Kimmy through her next adventure.
In true sitcom form, the show wastes little time giving our protagonist a crumbly but necessary foundation. She stumbles into an apartment with Titus, a roommate that dreams of starring on Broadway (played with witty grace and strength by Tituss Burgess) and a job catering to the whims of Jaqueline, a depressed trophy wife portrayed with a kind of post-Jenna ennui by Jane Krakowski, and her snotty children. Neither are ideal, but our plucky heroine embraces them as if she was given a corner office and penthouse suite.
In these first two episodes, Fey, Carlock and the show’s writers are sticking to a pretty simple story arc: Kimmy faces the challenges of the day with open arms, gets repeatedly beaten down, considers giving up, and then comes up with a solution that lifts her spirits and saves the day. It’s a fine framework that the show is going to play around with or completely abandon when necessary. For now, though, it’s a perfect blank slate to throw in some cutting commentary on the vapidity of many female teens (Jaqueline’s stepdaughter Xanthippe and her friends are a modern day version of the Mean Girls of Fey’s 2004 feature film), and the nouveau riche.
And with a smaller cast than their previous sitcom, Fey and Carlock can zero in on each character. Inspired by Kimmy’s spirited enthusiasm, Titus starts re-asserting himself toward a goal of being a stage star, while also staging a revolt of the various Times Square performers against the company that rented them their off-brand costumes. We also get to see more fully the desperation behind the actions of Jaqueline, as she throws herself at the mercy of a dermo-gynecologist to be ready for the return of her absentee husband. There’s some actual tenderness in the eyes of Krakowski and she opens up to Kimmy about her fears that she’s lost him.
What is also evident is how perfect a star vehicle this is for Ellie Kemper. Though it feels like a more blown out version of her work on The Office, her enthusiasm is infectious here rather than pitiable. You may laugh at her obsession with a Babysitter’s Club book (one of only two pieces of reading material she had with her in the bunker) and her general naiveté, but you also can get swept up in her sunny wake and cheer for her as she joyously raps and booty dances through life. She’s another in an ever-growing cadre of feminist TV heroes, indefatigable even after spending years subjugated and made to do “weird sex stuff” by a domineering male. Anything she wants to do, baby, she’ll do it naturally.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.