So does Fey’s latest, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (released last Friday on Netflix), which is a delightful comedy with a dark premise: a girl, kidnapped at 14 and kept in an underground bunker for 15 years, getting on with her life—in New York City, no less—after being rescued. The show’s universe, a New York defined by tourists and hedge-funders, is populated by people who could be the grown-up versions of the kids in North Shore’s cafeteria: humans who might well, at first glance, be mistaken for archetypes.
There’s Titus Andromedon (Gay Best Friend), who loves musical theater, fluorescent accessories, and snappy one-liners. There’s Jacqueline Voorhees (Self-Obsessed Rich Lady), who treats spin classes as religious experiences and insists that her son’s birthday cake be paleo. There’s Xanthippe Voorhees (Self-Obsessed Rich Teenager), whose preferred method of communication is the eye-roll. There’s Lillian (Quirky Landlady), a life-long New Yorker with hippie hair. There’s Dong (Hard-Working Recent Immigrant), who is struggling as much with his new life as with his command of English. There’s Kimmy herself, who falls, both because of and despite her traumatic backstory, squarely into the expansive category of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
At its most basic, Unbreakable subscribes to the auto-tuned premise of its impossibly catchy intro song. These characters are, indeed, characters: They're people who are also media figures, people who are seen and consumed and then, for the most part, forgotten. (“Thank you, victims!” a Today Show producer chirps at Kimmy and her three fellow “Mole Women” as they leave the studio after an interview. “Thank you, victims,” he says again, impatiently, shoving them out the door, the time he has allotted to caring about them having expired.) For Fey and Unbreakable’s co-creator, Robert Carlock, it would have been easy to take the show’s premise—a fresh-from-the-bunker girl-woman, brushing elbows with New York’s one percent—and turn the whole thing into a kind of live-action cartoon. That strategy worked well for 30 Rock, allowing the pair to get away with jokes (about, among other things, gender politics and racial politics) that a more earnest narrative approach would have precluded. They could have easily plumbed their new show’s insta-themes—fish-out-of-water! time travel! self-reinvention! the aching absurdities of #diblasiosnewyork!—for sketch comedy’s superficial brand of humor.
To an extent, certainly, they did do that: Unbreakable might well have more jokes per capita, and per minute, than any sitcom ever made, 30 Rock very much included.
Unbreakable, though, doesn’t stop at sketch. Instead, it takes the easy categories of lunchroom and life and insistently complicates them, taking tropes and turning them, through comedy’s alchemy, into people. Kimmy, we quickly learn, is neither a victim nor a spectacle nor a 13-going-on-30 dreamgirl; she’s a smart, kind, principled, and resilient woman whose sing-song-y cheeriness, as my colleague Lenika Cruz put it, "is a necessary façade for her inner pain." Dong is making difficult choices between learning English—and, by extension, fitting into his new world—and earning the money that offers another kind of status. Lillian, Kimmy's hippie-haired landlady, is making stilted peace with the fact that the only home she has ever known—her New York neighborhood—is rapidly evolving away from her. Jacqueline is similarly struggling: with a crumbling marriage, a family she has abandoned, and a wealth-inflected strain of Friedanian ennui. Xanthippe is trying to find her place in the New York City of the youthful one percent, with all its Gossip Girlesque overtones, while dealing with the inconvenient fact that she is actually a good kid. Titus (né Ronald Wilkerson, in Chickasaw County, Mississippi) is doing what we all must, at one point or another: coming to terms with the death of a dream.