To the long list of cherished New York City traditions — think cheesecake, Derek Jeter gift baskets, news anchors reading newspapers, and this guy — it’s time to add the jokes of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. Though not native to NYC, the two have lived and worked here long enough to pass, which is to say they know better than to ask for a cheese pizza and they’re smart enough never to ask what that smell is.
Fey and Carlock met in midtown while working at Saturday Night Live and then schlepped all the way over to Queens to launch 30 Rock, a brilliant sitcom that spent seven seasons skewering everything from global politics1 to its own network. But 30 Rock’s greatest pleasures derived from the dozens of New York–centric Easter eggs scattered within each episode, from the stench of gym bags on the subway to the preponderance of furries in Times Square. Stacked high with puns, larded with non sequiturs, a classic Fey-Carlock joke is both exceedingly urban and deeply silly, a glistening Freedom Tower of absurdity. Plenty of TV shows have depicted the Big Apple as a place where impossible dreams come true. But thanks largely to Fey and Carlock’s warped wit, only 30 Rock had the ladyballs to tell the truth: that most times New York feels like a clown car with the windows sealed tight. That if you’re lucky, solvent, or desperate enough to make it here, you likely aren’t mentally balanced enough to even try making it anywhere else.
Guess who was pissing off North Korea long before the Sony hack?
The same civic specificity runs through Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt like the 7 train. The new series from Fey2 and Carlock premieres Friday on Netflix, and it’s lined with locals-only gags about the Chinatown bus and the surfeit of kids named Cooper. But instead of mimicking 30 Rock’s hardened insider view, Kimmy runs riot through the outer boroughs. It’s a hilarious, sneaky-exhilarating ode to losing yourself in the big city — and just maybe finding your way in the process. Ellie Kemper, late of The Office and Bridesmaids, stars as Kimmy, a girl “who looks like Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburgers” and has spent the past 15 years living in an apocalypse bunker in Indiana. Along with three other “Mole Women,” Kimmy was abducted by a nutcase reverend who stashed his victims underground and told them the world had ended. After being freed by federal agents — with an assist from a Charles Ramseyesque neighbor whose Auto-Tuned observations provide the show’s exuberant theme song — Kimmy and her fellow captives fly to Manhattan to be interviewed by Matt Lauer. (“Thank you, Bryant!” they coo appreciatively.) Then, armed with nothing but a Baby-Sitters Club paperback and an eighth-grade education, Kimmy decides to stay in New York and start her life anew.
It’s worth noting that Fey went back to her roots as a writer and producer this time. Though I wouldn’t rule out a cameo in Season 5.
Let’s pause here to recognize how difficult a comedic pivot this is. Not many people would come away from the Ariel Castro kidnapping case with anything other than disgust. Fey and Carlock somehow found inspiration. And while they’ve softened the details of Kimmy’s abduction slightly — Kimmy admits to “weird sex stuff,” but the flashbacks to the bunker are more screwball than horrific — there’s no getting around the fact that Kimmy has a more traumatic backstory than almost anyone on Game of Thrones. It’s simply impossible to imagine any of this being plausible, let alone palatable, without Kemper — and Fey and Carlock would likely agree. (According to this New York Times story, the show wouldn’t exist without its leading lady.) Just as it was on The Office, Kemper’s sunniness is both infectious and relentless; her enthusiasm leaves a bruise. Kimmy Schmidt is wisely constructed around its star’s irrepressible personality, not the character’s grim circumstance. Kimmy suffered greatly, but she’s never a victim. There’s a great joke in the fourth episode about “Bubbreeze,” a cleaning product that masks unpleasant odors but does nothing at all to address their root cause. (“It’s fine!” pleads the in-show commercial.) You don’t need to have spent half your life in an apocalypse bunker — or below 14th Street — to know that sometimes laughter is the only thing that can keep you from going crazy.
In the series’s first six episodes (there are 13 total), Kimmy is adamant that no one learn anything about her past, and it’s this — not her desire to eat candy for breakfast or love of light-up sneakers — that unites her with her fellow New Yorkers. It’s a metropolis made up of refugees from somewhere else with personal histories they’re eager to abandon. Kimmy’s roommate is a failed-yet-fabulous Broadway actor named Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess, last seen as D’Fwan on the “Queen of Jordan” episodes of 30 Rock) who was born with a decidedly less interesting name in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. Lillian, their Brooklyn landlady played with verve by Carol Kane, keeps referring to a potentially radical criminal history — why else would she have burned off her own fingerprints years ago? And even Jacqueline Voorhees (30 Rock’s Jane Krakowski), the teetering, Upper East Side trophy wife who hires Kimmy as a nanny, has a family secret hidden more deeply than her natural hair color. Together, this motley crew is adrift in a New York drowning in money and excess — when Kimmy refuses a bottle of water, Jacqueline throws it, unopened, into the garbage — and bedeviled by apathy. Kimmy’s naïveté offers a mostly sweet, occasionally sour reminder of why they flocked to the big city in the first place.
The entire group is so funny and so sharp that it took me multiple episodes to notice that Kimmy Schmidt is missing what Jack Donaghy once called “the third heat” — namely, an entrenched power broker like Jack Donaghy around which to orbit. But this is the sneaky radicalism of Kimmy writ large: There are no straight white men in the regular cast. Jacqueline’s husband is never seen, and even her terror of a son, Buckley, is quickly (and wisely) overshadowed by Dylan Gelula as Jacqueline’s snarly stepdaughter Xanthippé.3 Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a show about outsiders made up entirely of outsiders — kidnap victims, yes, but also a vibrant rainbow of often-marginalized humans, in Hollywood and in life: gay, black, female, elderly, ginger-haired. It’s a small observation, but it adds a subtle weight to what can be a deliriously goofy show. It’s not just that Kimmy and Titus — a.k.a. “Rainbow Brite and Gay Tiki Barber” — have never had anything handed to them. It’s that they’ve lived bumpy lives in which many things have been actively taken away.
Tina Fey’s fear of mean girls has found its ideal in Xanthippé, a secretly virginal, emoji-babbling high schooler who says things like, “I chew you up and spit you out, just like all my food,” and, “He fought a war with Germany — those guys from soccer!”
Every word I’ve written above is intended as a compliment; I watched all of the advance episodes in a blur and can’t wait to do it again. But for skittish NBC executives, I’ve also inadvertently provided a laundry list of reasons why the network ended up panic-selling Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Netflix instead of premiering it, as planned, on its own air. (The entire first season was on the shelf and waiting for a spot on the schedule when the news broke.) Clever, subtle, and New York–centric used to be among the defining characteristics of NBC’s once unbeatable comedy brand. But a few years’ worth of bad decision-making has left the Peacock with an empty nest — and not the one it could actually use. It wasn’t so very long ago that NBC featured a lineup of Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office, and 30 Rock all on the same night and all with perfectly respectable ratings to boot. In 2015, the network burned off Parks’s wonderful final season to make room for The Slap and One Big Happy — the former is an unintentional comedy, the second isn’t funny in the slightest. I’ve been banging on forever about the short-sightedness of NBC boss Bob Greenblatt’s plan to replace excellent, brainy shows adored by a relative few with bland, lousy ones intended for millions but loved by zero. Thanks to football, hats, and chairs, NBC is still somehow clinging to its overall lead among the broadcast networks. But it’s hard to imagine the reign lasting long without a single sitcom able to survive longer than a season.
NBC’s abdication of Kimmy isn’t exactly a public surrender — the network simply feels that it has moved on from a brand of comedy that I’d call “quality” and it would call “niche.” (Plus, Comcast gets paid either way: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt comes from NBCUniversal Studios, where Fey and Carlock maintain their overall development deal.) But it’s a smart transaction for Netflix no matter how you slice it. The streaming service has made great strides with a mix of savvy original programming and even savvier international acquisitions. But, thus far, its sitcom game has been noticeably light — bringing A-list creators like Fey and Carlock into the fold is a huge PR coup for a company that lately seems as if it’s growing at a rate that exceeds both common sense and taste. But taking on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is not exactly an act of charity, as some reviews have suggested. 30 Rock’s legacy is an angry ghost haunting the halls of NBC, but it’s a very real, monetizable presence over at Netflix. Though the service declines to release viewership data, it’s highly likely that its back catalogue of 138 30 Rock episodes regularly outrates brand-new installments of, say, Lilyhammer. Adding 13 half-hours of similar zaniness — and ordering another 13 for a year from now — is good business and precisely the sort of microtargeting that an ad-dependent behemoth like NBC simply can’t attempt.
But the Netflix deal is a boon in creative ways, too. All sitcoms, even those that hail from established geniuses, take time to find their legs. Kimmy is no different. Not even the nimble Kemper can avoid tripping over the heavy exposition in the premiere and, before her background is explored, Krakowski struggles with Jacqueline, a character so broad she makes Jenna Maroney seem retiring in comparison. (“Actually, Buckley, this isn’t your worst birthday ever,” Jacqueline tells her son. “Your worst birthday ever was when you busted my genitals.”) Thanks to Netflix’s strategy of dumping entire seasons onto its servers at once, watching Kimmy take flight can be accomplished in a single evening, not stretched across a month as it would have been on NBC. By the third and especially the fourth episode, when Martin Short shows up as a Dr. Spaceman–like plastic surgeon, Kimmy is as buoyant as composer Jeff Richmond’s4 bubbly score. One can only imagine the places it can go in a second season, freed of whatever crowd-pleasing notes NBC’s team had shoved into the subs at craft services.
That’s Mr. Tina Fey to you, pal.
But if we’re being honest here — which is appropriate, as Kimmy is incapable of being anything but — I was hooked from the opening minutes of the pilot when that first Fey-Carlock joke rained down on me like air-conditioner fluid on a hot Manhattan day. (“White Women Found!” reads the chyron of a local news report. “Latino Woman Also Found,” it adds in a smaller font.) There’s simply no one better at conducting comedy like a symphony, at deploying daggers that manage to tickle even as they cut. To quote Liz Lemon quoting Jay Z, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is, like the city that inspired it, a “concrete bunghole where dreams are made up.” There’s nothing it can’t do.