Tina Fey’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Has All the Promise (and Some of the Problems) of Early ’30 Rock’

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the new show from 30 Rock team Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, and its first season appeared today on Netflix. The show sets up its concept in a tight two minutes: Kimmy (Ellie Kemper, best known for The Office and her supporting role in Bridesmaids) was abducted at 14. She has spent the past 15 years of her life in an apocalypse bunker. As the show commences, federal agents rescue her — news headline: “WHITE WOMEN FOUND”; below, “Hispanic woman also found.” A viral, Gregory Brothers-style Auto-Tuned video sweeps the country, and suddenly Schmidt and her fellow “mole women” are on the Today show, answering questions from Matt Lauer (perfectly deadpan in a cameo). Kimmy doesn’t want to go back to the Midwest, and in a sharply edited montage, she takes joy in all the little things New York has to offer: eating candy for dinner, buying light-up sketchers, taking the subway, her moon face looking like a gleeful kid on a sugar high.

The show is a fish-out-of-water comedy, featuring a frozen-in-time young woman sunnily moving past her half-life of trauma by trying to make it in a place built on misery and stress, New York City. Very quickly, she finds a roommate — aspiring actor Titus Andromedon (played by Tituss Burgess, best known for his 30 Rock cameos as D’Fwan from “Queen of Jordan”) — a landlord (Carol Kane, as ageless and as spritefully Carol Kane as ever), and a job, working for Jacqueline Voorhes (Jane Krakowski), a real housewife of Park Avenue embalmed in her own cocoon of sadness. Over the first eight episodes, the ensemble gels nicely, and there are funny cameos from the likes of Richard Kind and a truly demented one by Martin Short, in heavy makeup like the Julian Assange of my nightmares.

30 Rock has its place in the pantheon of the greatest sitcoms of all time, and even though it’s been off the air since 2013, its jokes — particularly its sharp-edged observations of what it means to make it in New York and how to “have it all” as a creative woman — have only gotten more prescient and cutting.

Naturally, expectations are high for this follow-up, as Fey is a trusted brand name and Carlock is decently funny. (He’s no Conan O’Brien, but who is?) Kimmy Schmidt was developed for NBC, but ended up on Netflix, perhaps because NBC didn’t know what to do with the show’s darkness or the fact that it has a cast full of outsiders and weirdos, with no status quo straight white guy to be found. Rather, Kimmy Schmidt is telling the stories of women and men on the margins — young, old, black, gay — and how they function in a beautiful, cruel city like New York.

As in the early seasons of 30 Rock, the characters on Kimmy Schmidt feel a bit under-drawn right now. Effortlessly likable Kemper is charming as the trying-to-be-sunny Kimmy, smiling her giant, wide smile no matter what the city throws at her, and Burgess is amazing as Titus, spinning each of his lines in a manner that’s constantly surprising and funny. Krakowski, on the other hand, is a bit unmoored — some of that may be my lingering affection for Jenna Maroney, one of the best sitcom characters ever. Her lonely trophy wife has quite a bit of potential for satire in a Real Housewives world, and yet, she’s not as daffy as she could be.

Fey and Carlock have been through this process before, though. The early episodes of 30 Rock had a similar feeling, of a concept finding its feet before the slapstick, screwball elements could really take flight. The quips are there, the social observation is alternately spot-on and a bit awkward (in order for Krakowski’s character to “make it” in New York, she has to “become white,” let’s say, in a tone-deaf plot). As a character in the show, New York is already vivid and interesting, and you can see how it can and will clash with Kimmy’s optimism and tendency for day-glo clothes.

Fey and Carlock are very good writers when it comes to location. Their acid observations of New York are akin to what Tom Wolfe was pulling off circa The Bonfire of the Vanities, and it is inherently funny to place a yellow-cardigan’ed, cheerful redheaded girl with a past inside of this loony bin. We need art coming out of New York that tells us just how insane New York is at this exact second, because self-parodying New York Times Style pieces only get us so far. Kimmy Schmidt, a show that has a pilot that pivots on Kemper’s ability to hold a squirming rat in the air — why wouldn’t NBC air it? — is as New York as it gets, and it’s easy to feel as optimistic as Kimmy regarding the humor in the show’s future.