Commentary

Strong As Hell! The Big Buzz About Netflix's 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt'

Over two nights, I watched ten episodes of  “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” on Netflix a week ago and for so many reasons, I can’t stop thinking about it. Apparently, I’m not alone. Everybody’s talking about it.

Since it debuted March 6, critics and fans have written they found some of its tone--racist?-- and they’ve expressed disbelief that this comedy executive produced by Tina Fey and her “30 Rock” cohort Robert Carlock was ever destined to be aired on NBC. The whole deep-thinking world seems to be figuring out if "Unbreakable" is just brilliant or brilliant, and flawed.

“Unbreakable” does tackle  the inequality of class and racism--toward blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans--in huge broad swipes you could never imagine network TV would do because its depictions are so brutally in your face. For examples, it depicts a gay, black actor (series co-star Tituss Burgess ) who finds that he encounters less hostility and fear on the street when he is dressed as a werewolf than existing as he really is; it has an Asian character named Dong who is good in math and whose last name is good for several sixth-grade level jokes.

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In recent days, in what is the weirdest strand of commentary about the comedy, several publications (Wired, Vanity Fair prominent among them) have written extensively about the autotuned theme song, which has a far more nuanced back story than you might have imagined. An IMDB.com commenter says he needs “to make the theme song a ringtone so it can stay in my life always, because females are strong as hell, and it's catchy as hell.”

The cumulative effect is that it seems that "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," to no one's expectation, is the biggest water cooler spritz for Netflix since the first seasons of "House of Cards."

I love this series, though I’d be the first to tell you it is wildly uneven and flat at times, with scripts that go off in so many directions it’s more like listening to old recording of Firesign Theater than watching a situation comedy. "Unbreakable" is horribly, and lovably, unstructured.  Fey and Carlock profess to prefer the network TV parameters-- because the restrictions are challenges to toy with--but, except for language, this sitcom goes way beyond… 

Not beyond taste, or content, exactly. But sensibility. Or overload. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is a network sitcom on acid, that is just going along, for example, before suddenly cutting to a black-and-white clip from the made-up 1938 film musical, "Daddy's Boy."
Though this was made for NBC, which is comedy challenged these days, it’s not at all surprising that NBC was helpful in getting the show to Netflix.. It was “renewed” for a second season before the first one debuted.

A quick explainer, if you need it. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” stars Ellle Kemper (who played the fresh-faced receptionist on “The Office”) who is one of four young women who survived 15 years  in an underground dungeon in Indiana kept by an inept cult leader, the Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, who told them the rest of the world has perished.

After they’re  saved  the “Mole Women” are exploited by the press culminating in the obligatory appearance with Matt Lauer. In ways too obvious to be coincidental after you see the show’s open, the circumstances of Mole Women seem very much like the three women kept for a decade by Ariel Castro in Cleveland, who finally broke free in 2013. “Unbreakable” has this theme song. And the memorable rescue-helper in Cleveland had his.

The other victims leave New York; Kimmy sticks around, absolutely dumbstruck by the big, diverse city and everything that has happened so far into the 21st Century. (The series was written with Lemper in mind; she is perfectly wide-eyed, born with an extra big helping of gobsmack.)

The Washigton Post’s Hank Steuver, in an intelligent critique, was far harder on “Unbreakable” than I am, but is surprised how much in stride everybody is about how it got to Netflix. “It’s the near-total agreement — from the highest glass offices at NBCUniversal down to your and my living-room couches — that ‘Kimmy Schmidt’ doesn’t belong on ‘regular” TV,’ that it somehow deserved a classier fate than the prime-time grid.”

He thinks “after about three episodes, a viewer gets enough...Perhaps ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ will eventually find a way to be a show worthy of all this talk and expectation, rather than the B-/C+ attempt at a network show that Fey and Carlock have delivered.”  

Meanwhile, the Atlantic writes “Unbreakable” is Gatsby, in its way, for the age of Facebook. . .  Everyone has secrets. Everyone has pasts. Everyone is struggling and aching and wanting, trying to be, and also not be, normal; characters' wildly different interpretations of what that normalcy entails, however, suggest that monolithic fit-innery, the stuff of high school cafeterias, is finally outdated.”

The fact is, there’s an avalanche of comment between those extremes. No doubt, much of that would not have happened if somehow, “Unbreakable” did make it to air on NBC, and was scheduled once a week, for ten weeks. It’s also true that, no matter how bare NBC’s cupboard might be, it wouldn’t have survived the Nielsens past two episodes.


pj@mediapost.com

1 comment about "Strong As Hell! The Big Buzz About Netflix's 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt'".
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  1. Eric Kinaitis from AEF, March 16, 2015 at 12:15 p.m.

    I don't understand the buzz at all; I left the first episode after 10 minutes.

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