Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock for NBC, the old home of their “30 Rock,” “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” instead arrives by way of Netflix, whose participation in prestige television no longer feels remarkable. As is the custom of the house, it is being laid before you all at once, a gift.
Apart from your having to pay to see it, this is good news all around: Where “Kimmy,” wonderful odd duck that it is, might well have foundered and floundered in the roiling waters of broadcast TV – it is just the sort of left-of-center comedy that NBC once specialized in and has now purged from its schedule. It has already been guaranteed two seasons in its new, commercial-free home.
It is also, it is worth noting, a series in which three of the four lead characters are female, of different ages, and the fourth is a gay black man. Because that never happens.
The series stars Ellie Kemper (from “The Office”) as a woman freed after 15 years from an underground bunker, where she was held as an unwilling member of a post-apocalyptic cult. After a “Today Show” appearance with her fellow Indiana Mole Women, Kimmy decides to remain in New York City, to live life. She’s like “That Girl,” out of a bunker.
In short order, she acquires a dotty landlady (Carol Kane) with a radical past, a roommate with show business dreams (Tituss Burgess, star of Broadway), and a rich uptown boss (Jane Krakowski), who hires her and fires and hires her again to watch her entitled, unhappy son (Tanner Flood) and stepdaughter (Dylan Gelula): “I don’t like giving second chances,” Krakowski’s Jacqueline (who shares much with her Jenna Maroney) tells Kimmy, who has asked for her job back, “but I appreciate your lack of pride.”
Kimmy has plenty of pride, in fact; a kind of mix of Leslie Knope, Kenneth the Page and Erin the “Office” secretary, she has a heroic sense of self and almost desperate optimism. Indomitability, as the title indicates, is a theme of the show.
She is also, in many respects, a child, a person whose ordinary life stopped in middle school. Like Will Ferrell in “Elf,” she is an enchanted innocent in the big city, eating candy for dinner, swinging “all the way around” on a playground swing.
There are bumps: The creepiness of the premise – women really have been kidnapped and held underground for years, after all – is played with but never quite looked at straight on. Kimmy might as easily have been rescued from a desert island or come out of a coma.
It’s a time travel comedy. Much of the humor precedes from what she doesn’t know about how the world has changed: Whitney Houston is dead, “Word up” and “As if” are not things people say anymore. She calls the present “the future.”
This alien aspect is further magnified by making her native Indiana a bizarre and backward place where oysters are called “sea pistachios” and pistachios are called “tree clams” and where courtship is effected with gifts of “flowers and meat.”
Not unusually, it takes a couple of episodes for the show to hit cruising speed, for its characters to warm up, to move from an attitude of suspicion to support. And for some viewers there will be a probationary period, unfair but inevitable, in which “Kimmy,” still wet behind the ears, is measured against the miracle that was “30 Rock.” But it gets there.
Although it is its own creature, the show has the same comic grammar as “30 Rock.” It has the same blink-of-an-eye flashbacks and cutaways; the same way of hanging jokes onto jokes, of changing direction twice in a single sentence; the same sideways relation to reality; the same pop-cultural topicality and streets-of-the-city setting; the same random acts of surrealism; the same interest in matters of class, race and gender; the same mix of braininess and feeling.
It’s at once moving and without sentiment.
The leads are all marvelous, with a complementary elemental division of attitudes: Kemper, air; Burrell, fire; Kane, earth; and Krakowski, water, as I reckon it. They rise to the occasion, and make it an event.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is currently streaming on Netflix.
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under age 14)