It helps to give almost anything time. A book. A relationship. A slow-cooked rump roast. And it’s often true for a TV series like The Wire, which takes about six hours before you realize you’re watching a filmed version of a modern-day Nicholas Nickleby.
If anything, the first 13 episodes of the new Netflix-bingeworthy series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt were a roller coaster ride for me. Loved the pilot, liked the second episode a little less, and by the sixth or seventh 25-minute escapade in the New York life of one of Indiana’s famous rescued “Mole Women,” I was ready to bail.
Then I took a few weeks off, started watching again, and by the penultimate 12th episode, thought I was witnessing one of the zaniest and most inventive situation comedies ever filmed. Kimmy just has that power to break your misgivings.
For those not in the know yet, the show is about a spunky, understandably naive young redhead named Kimmy who has been imprisoned with three other women in an underground bunker in Durnsville, Indiana for 15 years by an insane (and unseen) preacher named Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. Preacher Wayne told them the apocalypse had happened and there was no reason to go back outside, and who knows what kind of psychological and sexual abuse may have occurred during their captivity.
After being freed, Kimmy travels to New York City for the first time with her fellow “mole women”, decides she digs the place and climbs off the bus to begin a new life. A liberated fish out of water, Kimmy smiles from ear to ear at practically everything, somehow lands herself a low-rent apartment with a furiously gay actor/singer wannabe named Titus, a nanny job with a hideously rich and uptight millionaire’s wife named Jacqueline Voorhees, and non-stop hijinks ensue. Mrs.Voorhees is beyond demanding, and her son and teenage step-daughter are different kinds of monsters. As Kimmy tries to adapt to the modern world, it’s only a matter of time before members of her imprisoned past return to plague her life even more.
The premise is not exactly a laff riot, and despite sharp characters, hysterical dialogue, and a frantic comic pace that co-creator Tina Fey seemed to have airlifted from the earl seasons of 30 Rock, I was having a major problem early on with the show’s tone. Abuse is a very serious problem in our society, and filtering it through a goofy, rapid-fire joke fest seemed wrongheaded and often squirm-inducing. What’s more, the story just seemed to be running in place and recycling the same Kimmy Out of Her Element gags.
Things pick up a bit when Kimmy finds herself in an odd love triangle with an Asian math student named Dong and handsome phony Brit from Connecticut named Logan. One episode later, the trial of Reverend Wayne gets underway in Indiana and the show takes a speed line to a higher level. With Jon Hamm playing the narcissistic, self-defending preacher and Tina Fey going full Marcia Clark as one of the inept prosecuting attorneys, the final three episodes are astoundingly good. For the first time I realized that Kimmy Schmidt was not just a weird 30 Rock knockoff, but a biting satire of our judicial system, carnivorous media, self-absorption and religious zealotry, all wrapped up in one beautifully acted, written, photographed and directed package. I was also wrong about the brand of humor; without one wasted joke-free moment, it’s actually closer to a Zucker Brothers movie than it is to 30 Rock.
Ellie Kemper as Kimmy is a career-making role. As the spunky, naive redhead receptionist on NBC’s The Office, she was one of my favorite characters in the last few seasons I was able to endure of that show, and here she’s spot-on perfect, certainly one of the easiest comedy characters to root for in recent memory. Tituss Burgess is way too flamboyant at times, but his sweetness and caring for Kimmy comes through, and some of his later episodes when he travels to the trial with her are some of the season’s funniest moments. As Mrs. Voorhees, Jane Krakowski, who also played 30 Rock‘s insecure actress Jenna Maroney, is an annoying joy, while her daughter Xanthippe (I can’t pronounce it either) is a masterpiece of morose ennui in the hands of Dylan Gelula.
The series has already been renewed for a second season, and after the events of the finale I just saw, it’s hard to tell what direction the tale will now go, but I think it’s safe to say that if you have a spare 325 minutes to binge watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, do so. Damn it.