“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the Tina Fey-produced sitcom released on Netflix this weekend, has an almost unbearably dark premise: Girl spends half her life trapped in an underground bunker by a cult leader; girl is rescued from bunker; girl moves to New York City to try to live a normal life. A kooky sitcom about a kidnapping victim’s slow recovery sounds like a disaster. But “Kimmy” is brought to us by the twisted minds behind “30 Rock,” and Kimmy herself is played by an effervescent Ellie Kemper. Somehow they’ve produced the year’s most joyous new show, an exuberant paean to New York and a weird and inspiring tale of survival.
Like “30 Rock,” “Kimmy” is a funhouse mirror version of the single-girl-in-the-city sitcom. (If Tina Fey’s first show was a cynical twist on “Mary Tyler Moore, ” “Kimmy” is more of an absurdist “That Girl.” Marlo Thomas also loved bright yellow, after all.) After a dramatic rescue (“BREAKING NEWS: WHITE WOMEN FOUND” the TV news chyron flashes, followed by “Hispanic woman also found” in smaller type), Kimmy and her fellow sister-wives become media obsessions and are flown to New York City for an interview with Matt Lauer.
The other three “Indiana mole women” return to their small town, but Kimmy decides to stay. She quickly finds a roommate—a flamboyant failed Broadway actor named Titus (Titus Burgess, who played hairdresser D’Fwan on “30 Rock”)—and a job, as a nanny for the bratty progeny of Jacqueline Voorhes, an oblivious trophy wife played by Jane Krakowski as a richer, somewhat more sympathetic version of her “30 Rock” character.
Despite its heavy themes, “Kimmy” is a traditional sitcom, with a wacky roommate, a crazy landlord (Carol Kane), and an unreasonable boss. Fey and her writing partner, Robert Carlock, created the show for NBC, which kept it in limbo for months until Netflix swooped in. This might be the final death knell for NBC’s comedy brand, the quirky, urbane, sensibility that brought us “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “Community,” and “Parks and Recreation.”
This isn’t a “30 Rock” retread, though it shares that show’s loopy, rapid-fire rhythms and its spot-on satire of media, celebrity, and wealth. (“Rich New Yorkers are the worst,” D’fwan tells Kimmy in one episode. “They’re always inventing new types of dogs that no one wants.”) The New York of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is dirty and plagued by rampant inequality. But it’s also a place where people can come to shed their troubled pasts and remake themselves.
While a jaded New Yorker like Liz Lemon might roll her eyes at this show’s sunny cheer, “Kimmy” isn’t naively optimistic. Kemper gives her character a toughness underneath the wide-eyed hope. She only has an eighth-grade education, but she’s smart and can be surprisingly savvy. (It’s a refreshing change from Kemper’s role on “The Office,” where her receptionist Erin often seemed mentally challenged.) She still loves The Babysitters’ Club and “Moesha”—the show’s references are tailor-made for the “37 Things Only Nineties Kids Understand” Internet—but Kemper gives the 13 Going on 30 conceit an emotional core.
It also has smart things to say about media’s exploitation of victimhood. ("Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker,” Kimmy admits.) The bunker survivors are named the “Indiana mole women” by an eager media. “Thank you, victims,” a “Today Show” producer says while kicking them out of the studio. Kimmy’s closest friend from the bunker stays in their hometown, where everyone gives her free stuff out of pity. Kimmy doesn’t want to be treated like a victim or defined by what happened to her, but she can’t escape her PTSD so easily. The show’s spirit is helpfully summarized in the lyrics of its earworm theme song: “White dudes hold the record for creepy crimes, but females are strong as hell!”