Originally, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” was on the NBC docket. The sitcom is co-created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock from “30 Rock,” and it stars Ellie Kemper from “The Office,” so it looked like it would be a kind of brand-perfect next step for the network.
Instead, NBC reconsidered and sold the show to Netflix, where the first 13-episode season begins streaming on Friday. That’s great news, since NBC — the one-time king of comedy, with “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Cheers,” and “Frasier” among its many hits — has only two sitcom slots on its winter lineup. The Thursday schedule is all drama. “Kimmy Schmidt” would probably have been dropped into one of those slots and then quietly slipped between the cracks in the fractured TV landscape. And that definitely would have been a shame.
The show is a pleasure, based on the six episodes made available for preview. On the one hand, it’s a high-concept story about how Kemper’s Kimmy, 29, is freed after many years trapped in an underground — literally, under the ground — doomsday cult. She finds her way to New York, where she becomes a nanny for an eccentric rich woman named Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) and a roommate of a poor but resourceful actor named Titus (Tituss Burgess). Kimmy is the classic innocent in the city. “She’s my favorite American Girl doll,” she says when someone asks her if she wants Molly.
But the execution of the high concept is rich with many excellent details, gags, and characters. Fey and Carlock do what they did in “30 Rock” — color in the scripts with as many quick one-liners about the absurdities of pop culture, politics, sexism, and racism as possible. “Kimmy Schmidt” isn’t quite as fast-paced and aggressive as “30 Rock”; it’s gentler and sweeter, like its heroine. But still, there are countless jokes stuffed into each 22-minute episode. We see that right from the start when, after Kimmy and three other women are freed and all over the news, an Antoine Dodson-type guy is in a video singing in Auto-Tune about it.
And the characters are a lot warmer and more likable than those on “30 Rock.” Krakowski’s snob is a lot like the brittle and clueless Jenna Maroney, but she and her back story are more sympathetic. Burgess, memorable as Angie Jordan’s sidekick D’Fawn on “30 Rock,” is wonderful as Kimmy’s roommate, Titus. He’s a big queeny guy with a big heart, and he and Kemper have great chemistry. And Carol Kane kills it as their landlady, Lillian. Kimmy, Titus, and Lillian are a great trio of misfits to root for.
On “30 Rock,” a sincere and cheerful person like Kimmy would have been eaten for dinner, treated as an ongoing joke like Kenneth the Gomer Pyle-ish page. Her lack of irony would have been a source of ridicule. Here, though, she’s far more dimensional than Kenneth and she’s definitely not mocked. Underlying all the sparkling jokes is the dark truth about her past — the abuse and the confinement that still return to her in flashbacks and nightmares. You realize that she is a brave soul whose optimism is her way of fending off some intensely difficult memories and a challenging future. She’s adorable, in her yellow sweaters and her light-up sneakers, and she’s resilient. Underestimate her at your own risk.