I liked Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt a lot more back when it was called Don’t Trust the B—— in Apartment 23.
Tina Fey’s instant Netflix sensation owes a lot to Nahnatchka Khan’s own fish-out-of-water sitcom, which barely lasted two seasons on ABC before getting the axe with Hulu picking up the unaired episodes. Both shows feature a doe-eyed girl from Indiana who arrives in New York City with nothing to her name (Ellie Kemper’s Kimmy in Unbreakable, Dreama Walker’s June in Don’t Trust the B), a dramatic black gay man who’s fast approaching middle age (Tituss Burgess’ Titus in Unbreakable, Ray Ford’s Luther in Don’t Trust the B), and a status-obsessed Manhattan socialite (Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline in Unbreakable, Krysten Ritter’s Chloe in Don’t Trust the B).
Granted, Don’t Trust the B’s June has more than an eighth-grade education and she never lived in a bunker, although you might not know it based on the way that television depicts people from the American Midwest. And Jacqueline is admittedly quite a bit older than Chloe in her role as a stepmother and trophy wife. Unbreakable also lacks the magic of James Van Der Beek playing James Van Der Beek in the “meta-role of a lifetime.” But beyond that, it’s hard to chalk the similarities between the two shows up to coincidence.
There’s a reason that Netflix reportedly recommends Don’t Trust the B right after you watch Unbreakable. No Netflix algorithm has ever been more accurate than the one they used for that pick.
I’m not suggesting that Tina Fey plagiarized Khan’s show outright but maybe she binge-watched it on Netflix over a weekend like I did, forgot it existed, and then created Unbreakable a year later while fighting off a case of déjà vu. The Midwest to New York City migration tale may be as old as time but the character types are too uncannily close to ignore. I wouldn’t mind Fey and her team citing Don’t Trust the B as inspiration—I’d even be happy to call Unbreakable a “spiritual successor” to that beloved and prematurely cancelled show—if they had executed on the concept in a more entertaining way. But they didn’t. Don’t Trust the B still outshines its copycat in every way.
Let’s start with Jacqueline (Krakowski) and Chloe (Ritter), the queens of Manhattan. The Unbreakable writers can’t decide which hat they want Krakowski to wear: the sheltered Upper East Side housewife, the woman scorned, the self-hating Native American reconnecting with her past—wait, what? Yes, Krakowski’s ample talents are wasted on a bizarre backstory and a fractured character that feels more like connective plot tissue than a definable person. In the season finale, Jacqueline says that she’s “hoping to find out” who she is. It’s a telling line—I’m not sure the writers know who she is, either.
Jacqueline is at her best when she’s providing the stark, overprivileged contrast to Kimmy’s spartan bunker ways: throwing out an unopened bottle of water, teaching her what a selfie is, introducing her to plastic surgery under the knife of a Frankenstein-esque physician (Martin Short). As soon as Jacqueline’s character devolves into a stereotypical divorce subplot and an overwrought joke about casting white actors in non-white roles, that initial spark between her and Kimmy gets lost in the shuffle. Kimmy’s unique backstory is largely an excuse to make her a blank slate; she loses that all-important contrast if the supporting cast wanders too far afield.
Don’t Trust the B’s Chloe, on the other hand, plays a perfect foil to June’s naïveté for two seasons. She teaches June about the benefits of casual sex: “It’s how I clear my head and really figure things out.” (Cut to a post-coital Chloe shouting: “Aioli is just mayonnaise!”) She takes over June’s favorite magazine—People, because she’s from the Midwest, of course—with her “intimidation-confusion-submission” method: “You just gotta walk in like you own the place, fire the first person to ask you a question, fire the second person to ask you a question, and then gaze out the window and draw a peen on the board.” She is horrified to learn that June eats breakfast, lunch and dinner: “I don’t care what the street names are called.”
A character like Chloe or Jacqueline needs to be a sheer alabaster surface of a human to anchor the show, to serve as the human embodiment of the small-town girl’s unforgiving new environment. Chloe does this perfectly but Jacqueline is far too erratic to pull that off. She’s too busy fulfilling the writers’ need for zaniness to play her time-honored part.
Then there’s Luther and Titus, the resident gay men of their respective shows. Titus just barely comes across like a white girl’s projection of what a black gay male best friend is like: soft-spoken, fame-obsessed, and constantly being referred to by—and invoking his own—race in the way that Tina Fey Characters of Color™ are wont to do. (See, for example, Wayne Brady’s 30 Rock guest turn as a black man named Mr. Black who can’t stop talking about how he’s a black man. In case you didn’t realize it, he’s black.) Before Titus even appears onscreen, his landlord introduces him as being “like a wonderful French roll, but black.” Yup, we’re watching a Tina Fey production. We apparently need to know his race before we even lay eyes on him. It makes sense that Burgess also guested on 30 Rock because D’fwan is essentially Titus before he makes it big.
Luther, on the other hand, is introduced as James Van Der Beek’s “tailor and confidante, the man who weighs [him] in the morning” and not with the functional equivalent of “Get ready for the black gay guy!” Luther is who he is—he’s not surrounded by constant performative hullabaloo about his identity. According to an interview with Ford, the fact that Luther is gay might not have even been in the initial character breakdown he received, even though it’s obvious from the writing.
And although Luther is a relatively minor character in Don’t Trust the B, he does twice as much with a quarter of the screen time. When Chloe calls Luther “76 years old” because he uses “panda fat eye cream,” Luther bites back in a way that feels more refreshing and true-to-life than the weeping willow routine that Burgess is asked to perform. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s irrepressible positivity is part of what makes the show so appealing, true, but it’s sad that we never see Titus really show any teeth after he demands a refund for his off-brand Iron Man suit in the second episode. Luther simply feels alive in a way that Titus does not.
And as for the leads of these two sitcoms, Kimmy and June both are blessed with good writing and played to perfection by talented actresses. The problems with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt lie with the scenery that Kimmy must wander through and not with Kimmy herself. So let’s call this one a tie without getting into a discussion of whose earnest faces are cutest.
Point-by-point, Don’t Trust the B—— in Apartment 23 is like the full-flavored version of the weird diet soda sitcom that is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The latter half of 30 Rock had this problem too: it wanted to be so unconventional that it often forgot to stir in the tried-and-true ingredients that actually make sitcoms work. So if you aren’t nearly as sweet on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as the rest of the internet seems to be, don’t close Netflix just yet. Just scroll through your recommendations.
Samantha Allen is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast as well as a Daily Beast contributor. Follow her on Twitter.