16 Mar 2015

[Review] - Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Courtesy of Universal Television
I'm going to say something bold: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a practically flawless series. Maybe that isn't that bold a statement. If you enjoyed 30 Rock, then Kimmy will be right up your alley. If you didn't enjoy 30 Rock... I don't even understand what that means. Tina Fey and Robert Carlock took the style they honed over seven seasons on NBC, and straight out the gate, have a fully formed, cartoon-style world of absurdity and utter ridiculousness that expertly satirizes our world. This is more than a spiritual successor to 30 Rock; it is an alien chest-burster, encoded with the DNA of it's predecessor and unleashed on the world in a relentless mission to take us down a peg while making us laugh.

Within seconds of the pilot episode opening, it was obvious why NBC wanted nothing to do with Kimmy. It was funny, and that seems to be forbidden on the We Peacock Comedy network. It was brashly intelligent, and requires a certain mental stamina to keep up with the humour. It is a proud entry into the current bumper crop of superior comedies that aren't content to tell a lazy joke and wait for the laugh to land. This is comedy where the laughs are earned and the jokes make us feel better out ourselves for having gotten them.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that are pretty but tough, like a diamond. Or beef jerky in a ball gown.

Because seriously, this show would have been killed by NBC faster than a raccoon on a dark highway had it been broadcast on the network. Despite the apparent goodwill Tina Fey build up with her former bosses, this show has the audacity to be clever in a way that NBC is utterly incapable of understanding, and they would have pulled it within four episodes, tops. So, let us all be thankful that Netflix is a far more understanding partner, recognized what it was that Fey and Carlock wanted to do, and gave them two season to do it. It helped that they had seven seasons of 30 Rock to serve as a CV.

Kimmy is the logical extension of the underlying DNA of 30 Rock (it even shares the same musical cues). Fey's former series was a live action Muppet Show, highlighting and extrapolating the absurdities of show-business. Kimmy just straight up owns it's surrealism. This is a crazy world, kept together by the shared insanity. Unlike on 30 Rock, where Liz Lemon was the voice of reason, there is no one-sane-man in Kimmy's world. They're all mad here. They all have different ranges of maddness, which is where the series is able to strike a balance. Kimmy is lost in time, having fifteen years of universal experience taken from her. So, while she's undeniably an odd duck in this pond, it's in contrast to the fame-mongers, or rich-and-spoiled that she finds herself surrounded by. She's also easily the best person among this cast of odd balls, but there is commentary that, if she hadn't been in the bunker for 15 years, she wouldn't be that different from the rest of them. That is what has happened to our culture over the past two decades: we've all gone mad.

The thirty year old Kimmy is perfectly positioned between the other female characters on the show, a nineties voice of reason over the unhinged seventies, nostalgic eighties, and apathetic aughts. Because her life experience was prematurely cut off at the age of fifteen (which, just ick Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne), the character she stands in highest contrast is as close as the series gets to a regular antagonist, Xanthippe. Kimmy was a pre-internet nineties teenager, an after school special sort of girl, who knows all the generalities of life, but who was robbed of the organic opportunity to have seminal moments and become a functional adult. Xan, on the other hand, is a product of the modern, digital era. A super connected teen who is expected to grow at warp speed. Kimmy is a Never Been Kissed, never had a drink, got in a fight with her mom about how short her mom's dress was sort of child. Xan is a steal your parents expired prescription meds and cyber bully classmate on Facebook while dressing like a jail bait porn star modern youth. Fey and Carlock refuse to be subtle about their characterizations, but they dress them up in enough jokes that they never become preachy.

Then there is Jacqueline Voorhees, the rich housewife desperate to retain something of a MILF quality in order to justify her existence, played by Jane Krakowski, in what is essentially the non-famous equivalent to her prior role. She's a socialite, which in the modern world means she's a desperate-not-to-age piece of meat closing in on it's expiry date. The biggest laugh this show got out of me (and this is a show where you start laughing from the start, and keeping going until the credits role) were the scenes flashing back to her youth in North Dakota, a young Native girl arguing with her parents. Whichever writer had that flash of brilliance deserves a raise, because those scenes were amazing. Interestingly, the one aspect of modern culture that the show never really explored through Kimmy was the overt sexualization of everything. Instead they lasered focused, and especially through Jacqueline, on the overt objectification of everything. Sex is certainly a part of that, but this show managed to divorce the two, and show the underlying cause. Sex is cheap and easy to throw over the bigger issue, and Fey apparently preferred keeping that rug in the bottom drawer of the cupboard, while dealing with the root cause.

The final generational cog in this gear box is the amazing Carol Kane as Lillian, Kimmy and Titus' landlord. She wasn't really there to provide any feminine commentary, but instead to be the craziest monkey in a barrel crammed so full they can't keep the lid on. And Kane was majestic as the burnout, deviate, slumlord ex-hippie. A not-far-from-the-mark caricature of a never-been-off-the-island New Yorker, whose entire identity is wrapped up in a three square block piece of pavement, and there for have no idea what the real world is like.

It is a male-light series, though that isn't as surprising when you realize the issues the show is satirizing are ones that either 1) don't affect straight men, or B) are the result of white men's influence over culture. Most of the men on the show are bubbling incompetents or manipulative villains, who are rewarded despite their behaviour. The only regular male cast member being the gay cliche (which is, like everything else on this show, entirely purposeful), Titus, actor desperate to become famous rather than respected, because in the modern world, fame is something you achieve regardless (or in spite) of talent. The opening sequence, the ear worm "Unbreakable" remix, and practically all of Titus' storylines, are about achieving instantaneous fame and recognition without doing anything to earn it. Kimmy herself spend the entire season attempting to avoid this very quagmire, while the rest of her Mole Women sponge off of their plight.

The season is 13 episodes, and there isn't a loser in the bunch. Fey and Carlock keep the comedy flowing, the pacing brisk, and the arc secondary to the laughs, but not sacrificed because of them. As bizarre as it seems, considering the high rate of absurdity, everything here has a purpose. It is an extraordinary example of how comedy can be used to advance as complex and socially valuable a narrative as any HBO drama, and in an equally entertaining way (or more so). The only element that didn't seem to lead anywhere, and completely evaporates by the half way mark, was Jacqueline's son and his tutor. The tutor was a test of the waters to introduce Kimmy to the world of adult relationships, and the son got the most use in the pilot, where he was used as a joke machine rather than a character. But that is a small quibble in the face of overwhelming success.

Because above all else, what this show has working for it is comedy. It was unrelentingly funny. It is unfathomably funny. There is more comedy per square inch of an episode then in an entire season of one of NBC's baseline "comedies." Which isn't to say that it is rapid-fire. It is very methodical in it's joke placement, and gives the jokes that need extra time to land the time they need. But the jokes are operating at an entirely other level. Archer succeeds because it juxtaposes extreme high-brow and low brow comedy. Veep succeeds because it uses vulgarity in an incredibly efficient and sophisticated way. Kimmy succeeds by using entertainment pop culture as common ground to highlight to extreme nature of modern general culture. We known and understand the reference, we know and understand the scenario, the combination of the two is unexpected and hilarious, and upon reflection we understand why the joke was really funny. Like Titus grandstanding on live television, clutching to an unexpected moment in the limelight, declares that he'll sing the national anthem, and comes out with the Bob Saget era America's Funniest Home Videos theme. There is a lot more to that joke than just a gay guy singing a twenty five year old song. And there is much more to this show than Tina Fey proving that the Castro Kidnappings had potential for something less sad.

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