Kemper breaks through on Kimmy Schmidt (review)

Kimmy

It’s easy to see why Ellie Kemper was eventually going to become a star. Her natural effervescence plays so well to audiences on screens both big and small. We are caught up in the whirlwind of her enthusiasm, dazzled by her bright smile, and we can’t help but root for her to find happiness. Which makes it so gratifying to see her shine in Netflix’s newest original series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Co-created by Robert Carlock and Tina Fey, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt kicks off with a premise that is rife with comedic possibilities. Kimmy is a 29-year-old woman who has spent the last 15 years trapped in an underground apocalypse bunker by a cult preacher. The premiere opens with her and her fellow apocalypse “sisters” being found by an Indiana SWAT team and follows Kimmy as she attempts to restart her life in New York City. But armed with the education and innocence of an 8th grader, adjusting to modern day city life proves to be harder than she expected.

I would be shocked if Fey and Carlock didn’t write this show specifically with Kemper in mind, as she fulfills this starring role pretty much perfectly. Her mix of genuine eagerness, touched with just a hint of rage, grabs the audience’s attention in every scene that she is in. The show plays to Kemper’s strengths, and gets laughs out of both Kimmy’s reactions when she discovers something in this “new” world, as well as the reactions of the people who get caught in her orbit. The supporting cast, led by Titus Burgess as Kimmy’s roommate, Jane Krakowski as her boss, and Carol Kane as her landlady are all terrific. In particular, watching Burgess Pinot Noir music video is the stuff viral videos are made of. And Krakowski continues to brilliantly channel 30 Rock’s Jenna Maroney as a vapid and insecure New York trophy wife, Jacqueline Voorhies. But none of this would have come together quite as effectively without the ebullient Kemper in the middle.

Rather than having Kemper play Kimmy purely as a bright eyed, innocent child (as I was expecting), Fey and Carlock have instilled a dash of mischievousness and, dare I say, craftiness, to Kimmy. Yes, she still believes in the best of people. And yes, she may believe that Palm Pilots are still a thing. But Kimmy is by no means dumb. She handles Jacqueline’s angry teenage stepdaughter with all the slyness of an adult (or at the very least, a teenage girl). And she punches a guy out of frustration and anger in the series premiere. Kimmy’s natural persona is unjaded and enthusiastic, but you can’t spend 15 years living in a bomb shelter without having some personal demons to work through.

It amazes me that NBC, which had the option to put Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on the air, decided to pass, and let Netflix pick up this gem of a comedy. The pedigree of Carlock and Fey aside, Kemper’s effortless vitality is evident from the premiere. Watching her plow through challenges with the energy of a young Leslie Knope is an absolute joy. And as expected from a Fey/Carlock joint, the jokes come in fast and furious, with multiple callbacks and references throughout an episode (a particular standout is a running gag about the Olsen Twins that starts out as a non-sequitur, and ends up being a highlight of the episode).

Perhaps it’s for the best that NBC decided against picking up this show. We’ve already seen what Fey and Carlock can do within the constraints of network television in 30 Rock. Now, freed from these bonds of Nielsen ratings and network notes, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a chance to be something truly great. And with Kemper as their muse, I have no doubt that Carlock and Fey will continue to take this show to exciting and hilarious new levels.

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