Netflix recently released season 1 of their original show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The show, created by Tiny Fey and Robert Carlock, has been mostly compared to the duo's 30 Rock more than anything else, which may be why Netflix recommended the show to me. After reading the show’s synopsis, I thought I would like it too.
“After living in a cult for 15 years, Kimmy (Ellie Kemper, The Office) decides to reclaim her life and start over in New York City. Armed with just a backpack, light-up sneakers, and a couple of way-past-due library books, she’s ready to take on a world she didn’t even think existed anymore. Wide-eyed but resilient, nothing is going to stand in her way. She quickly finds a new job (working for 30 Rock's Jane Krakowski), a new roommate (Tituss Burgess, also of 30 Rock), and a new beginning.” —Official Netflix synopsis.
I’m all for doomsday cults, so I watched half of the first season the day that it was released, but struggled to finish the rest as the season went on. The verdict: I wasn’t nearly as impressed as I had hoped. I can see the comparison to 30 Rock in the setup of the show and the characters, but somehow it didn't quite compare to Fey’s hit. The main character—Kimmy—is a quirky and self-assured woman who doesn’t understand basic modern-day social skills because of her 15 years in the doomsday bunker. My boyfriend was quick to point out that Kimmy’s character is essential just a female rehashing of Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. He’s mostly right. If Sheldon Cooper was exceptionally optimistic instead of exceptionally pessimistic, then he would be Kimmy Schmidt. The show used the doomsday plot to create an eccentric and oblivious female character without having it so obviously mimic Sheldon Cooper’s Big Bang character. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since Sheldon's character is currently one of the biggest hits on prime time television, but there are only so many awkward social interactions I can stand on television before it gets old.
The other issue I had with the show is how much effort they put into trying to be modern and relevant. The intro for the show is a mash-up of auto tuned news interviews about the doomsday cult. It’s a blatant attempt to mimic viral videos from YouTube where people such as the Gregory Brothers transform news clips into songs for their popular “Auto-Tune the News” series. More often than not, the social content that becomes viral becomes viral out of happenstance. It is hard to recreate that.
On that point, the show seems to want to address the very relevant issues of race in American society. They do it well enough with the character of Tidus (Kimmy's roommate), who discovers during an acting job that he gets more respect when dressed as a wolf than he does as a black man. They flopped really hard (in my opinion) with Jane Krakoswki's character, Jacqueline Voorhees, who is for some unknown reason Native American. In the third episode, the audience learns Voorhees is secretly Native American. This revelation would be one thing on its own, but Jacqueline is played by the very white, very blonde Jane Krakowski. The over the top jokes made in reference to her draw more questions than laughs as we learn that Voorhees was so uncomfortable as a Native American that she completely changed herself to become a rich white woman. It's an exceptionally confusing and racist plotline.
All that aside, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has received huge praise. It's being lauded as “winning,” “very funny,” and “daftly effervescent.” Kimmy Schmidt's character could give Leslie Knope a run for her money in the relentless optimism department—a fact that is made even more clear by the New York City setting, where people are selfish and mean. The plot and characters are a little too clichéd for my taste, but most of the jokes are up there with the rest of Fey's work. I'm not sure I would call it the next 30 Rock, but the show certainly has the makings for prime time television and I'm sure Netflix will be pursuing more seasons.