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‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ is refreshing take on sitcoms

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After finishing the first season of Netflix’s newest original series “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the image of “Office” alum Ellie Kemper’s infectious smile as Kimmy is one that stuck with me even after episode 13 ended. That, and the show’s unbelievable catchy theme song. You’ll watch the next episode if only to listen to it again, trust me.

Great theme song or not, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” created and produced by 30 Rock team Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, is delightfully irreverent and able to deftly manage the balancing act between its dark and light moments. Through it all, it’s Kemper’s enigmatic performance of Kimmy’s unending positivity in the face of her failures, faults and most importantly, in the face of her deeply troubled past, that really makes this show worth watching.

The first time Kimmy steps foot in New York City is really the first time she’s encountered the streets of any city. At least since she, and three other women, are finally rescued after 15 years of being held prisoner in an underground bunker by Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm). Abducted when she was in eighth grade, Kimmy and the other women were convinced by the Reverend that the entire world above them had ended in a fiery apocalypse. But, after being rescued and dubbed one of “Indiana Mole Women,” Kimmy decides to begin a new life in New York City.

In New York, Kimmy soon becomes friends with Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), a struggling actor and unlikely roommate. Their friendship is surprising if not completely refreshing. Their characters appear to be a study of contrasts, though. Kimmy is naively generous and open while Titus is realistically snarky and self-interested, and yet their friendship somehow makes perfect sense.

Usually shows don’t hit it out of the park every single episode, especially in their first season. Comedies like “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” didn’t even  hit their stride until season two. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” does have some missteps along the way of what is an otherwise very strong first season. There are episodes in the middle of the season where the jokes fall flat and the show begins to lose focus. It’s fitting, though, that the show doesn’t rely too heavily on a large cast of characters because the show works best when Titus, Lillian (Carol Kane, Kimmy’s gritty landlord) and Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski, Kimmy’s socialite boss) have Kimmy to play off of. Apart from Titus, particularly his subplot where guest star Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”) attempts to teach him how to “pass as straight” for an acting gig, the show loses focus when it shifts away from Kimmy and her relationships with the other characters.

The biggest head scratcher was the subplot about Jacqueline’s Native American heritage. It felt a little out of left field, if only because as the show progressed it seemed to lack real purpose in the narrative. As a reach, I suppose, it was meant to show parallels between the kind of “finding yourself” narrative in both Kimmy and Jacqueline. However, I think that particular story is much more effectively (and more comically) served in Jacqueline’s marriage and divorce to her husband Julian. There is a point when a show bites off more than it can chew, especially in a half-hour comedy. The show is already concerning itself with big themes regarding the portrayal and treatment of women, black men and gay men, along with the kidnapping narrative. So any real commentary it’s attempting with the fleeting glimpse of Jacqueline’s Native American heritage comes off, at best, irrelevant, and at worst, harmfully playing into stereotypes. Although the representation of marginalized groups like Native Americans is important, it’s doing that representation a disservice to both have the character be played by a white woman and making it be such a small part of the narrative.

The show is at its best when it displays real, genuine moments amid the fast-paced comedy. These moments where Kimmy gains some clarity and draws lessons from her time in the bunker, lessons she can use to help the people around her, stand out against both the deeply sad backstory and the irreverent comedy. Kimmy’s “fish-out-of-water” narrative is the source of much of the comedy of the show, but it also isn’t heavy-handed and dark about her situation either. This couldn’t be pulled off without Kemper’s spot-on portrayal of Kimmy’s determination and optimism in the face of her struggles.

An interesting aspect of the development of this show is that it originally was produced to air on NBC, but when the network didn’t pick it up, Netflix did, along with an ordered second season. With the promise of a second season produced for a platform like Netflix rather than NBC, I am eager to see what Fey and Co. do with the storytelling freedom this gives them.

“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is a welcome addition to today’s particularly flat comedy lineup. Especially with the end of “Parks and Recreation,” it’s terrific to see another show that doesn’t shy away from the type of humor that comes from the charming naïveté and reckless optimism in its lead character, rather than the persistent cynicism that is present in a number of current comedies. Despite a few missteps along the way, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is a solid and endearingly funny comedy that is more than worthy of a spot at the top of your binge watch list.

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