TV Review: ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’

With:
Ellie Kemper, Jane Krakowski, Tituss Burgess, Lauren Adams, Sara Chase, Sol Miranda, Carol Kane, Dylan Gelula

Why NBC chose to cut loose “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” — a series with fine auspices but an uncertain commercial outlook — and hand it to Netflix, which gave the program a two-season commitment, makes considerable business sense. What Netflix gets from acquiring such a relatively conventional property is more questionable, and given the company’s tightly held metrics, unlikely to be satisfactorily answered. In commercial terms, there’s some smart writing in this fish-out-of-water premise, which bears a more-than-passing thematic resemblance to the 1999 movie “Blast From the Past.” But there are also irritating sitcom-like elements, and a nothing-special quality as the show progresses.

Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock in a “30 Rock” reunion, “The Office’s” Ellie Kemper is perfectly cast as the wide-eyed title character, who in the opening moments emerges from an underground bunker where she’s lived for years, having been told by her cult leader that the world above has been destroyed. (“Apocalypse, apocalypse, we caused it with our dumbness,” they sing brightly.)

Soon enough, the so-called “Indiana Mole Women” are on the “Today” show (“Thank you, victims,” the producer says as they leave), and Kimmy impulsively decides to stay in New York. In short order, she picks up a gay black roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess) employed, if you can call it that, handing out flyers in Times Square; and a job working for the wealthy Jacqueline (fellow “30 Rock” alum Jane Krakowski, playing almost exactly the same role she did in that earlier series), who is left to neurotically tend to the kids by her absentee husband.

Kimmy’s acclimatization to modern life thus becomes the ongoing through line to a pretty conventional comedy, yielding lots of jokes tied to dated references and her general cluelessness about modern culture. Those riffs proceed through the first half-dozen episodes, which find Kimmy tentatively braving romance as well as receiving a visit from one of her former underground companions. Periodic flashbacks illustrate what life was like during their confinement.

Carlock, Fey and company produce plenty of amusing lines, many of the non sequitur variety, like Kimmy’s landlord (Carol Kane) telling Titus he’s dressed “like a USC cornerback on draft day.” Kemper is also once again the ultimate cock-eyed optimist, to the point where her complete lack of guile leaves a sidewalk construction worker apologizing after harassing her with crude remarks; and there are fun guest shots by Martin Short and Richard Kind in later episodes.

The net effect, though, has a slightly tired feel to it — or at least, one that doesn’t feel wholly worthy of Netflix’s premium-TV niche. Indeed, in terms of laughs, the show essentially peaks in its first few minutes, which feature the “Today” bit and a mock news headline that reads, “White Women Found.”

While “Kimmy” should benefit from having a celebrity producer to help promote it, the prevailing sense is the streaming service was bamboozled into taking a property about which NBC harbored understandable concerns regarding its broader appeal. (The show would actually be more compatible with “The Last Man on Earth,” an upcoming Fox comedy with a post-apocalyptic theme, than with anything on the network’s current lineup.)

The “unbreakable” part of the title comes from Kimmy’s cheerful, indomitable spirit, which tends to triumph over the obstacles thrown her way. For Netflix, however, the more immediate concern should be whether its subscribers will be equally enthusiastic about a menu item that feels a bit too much like NBC’s leftovers — worth tasting, perhaps, but not binge-ing.

TV Review: 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt'

(Series; Netflix, Fri. March 6)

Production: Filmed in New York by Little Stranger, 3 Arts Entertainment and Bevel Gears in association with Universal Television.

Crew: Executive producers, Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, Jeff Richmond, Jack Burditt, David Miner; director, Tristram Shapeero; writers, Fey, Carlock; camera, John Inwood; production designer, Teresa Mastropierro; editor, Ken Eluto; music, Jeff Richmond; casting, Jennifer Euston. 22 MIN.

Cast: Ellie Kemper, Jane Krakowski, Tituss Burgess, Lauren Adams, Sara Chase, Sol Miranda, Carol Kane, Dylan Gelula

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