Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the Sunny Side of Surviving

Despite its optimistic heroine, Netflix's new show, created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, has a profound take on victimhood and surviving trauma.

Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

“White dudes hold the record for creepy crimes, but females are strong as hell!” sings an Auto-Tuned, Antoine Dodson-/Charles Ramsey-type character in a viral video at the beginning of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. With this wry bit of catchphrase-feminism, Tina Fey's new television series sets itself up as a feel-good, lady-centric comedy, complete with some of the unabashed topicality of her defining show, 30 Rock. The premise is simple enough: Ellie Kemper plays a 28-year-old doomsday cult survivor starting life over again in the big city after spending 15 years underground in a bunker. The first trailer for the show is all saccharine smiles, complete with un-ironic “raising the roof” gestures and an achingly bright-eyed Kemper staring in awe at New York skyscrapers, a version of the fresh-faced stereotype 30 Rock loved to mock.

Initially, the cult backstory seems like a comic device to show Kimmy experiencing the messiness of modern life for the first time, and to wrest some easy laughs from her regressive, childish ways. (Among her first purchases as a free woman: Light-up sneakers and candy for dinner.) But it quickly becomes clear that Kimmy's past has a bleaker and more specific narrative purpose: Her memories are the PTSD-inducing kind that fuel flashbacks, nightmares, random fits of anger, and distrust. While much of the show finds glee in Kimmy’s propensity for gaffes and ineptitude for slang, it’s equally interested in how her cheeriness is a necessary façade for her inner pain. In other words, her past is much more than an excuse to have Kemper play the cute, out-of-touch oddball in the mean city, which sets Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt up as an unusually earnest and upbeat member of the dark comedy genre.

The show’s warmth and mostly PG-nature distinguishes it from its black-comedy TV peers, like Comedy Central's Review or FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Archer, which aim more for absurdity, amorality, and, often and to great effect, mean-spiritedness. Kimmy’s upbeat outlook isn't naiveté or stupidity so much as a survival technique she developed after being kidnapped in middle school by an old, white cult leader. This underlying bleakness in turn sets Kimmy Schmidt apart from the inherent optimism of other TV comedies like Parks and Recreation, New Girl, and Modern Family. It's a tricky premise, and the first half of the season gets off to an unwieldy start typical of a new comedy, but it certainly improves the more you watch (it helps that the entire season is dropping on Netflix March 6).

Kimmy’s not the only character trying to come to terms with her past. Her roommate, Titus, is a gay, black, former Times Square robot performer/aspiring star from Mississippi (Titus Burgess, a.k.a. D’Fwan from 30 Rock). Her new boss, Jacqueline Voorhees (played by Jane Krakowski, a.k.a. Jenna Maroney), also has a history that undercuts her current life as a rich, neglected Manhattanite housewife. A few episodes into the first season, Titus becomes convinced that he’s past his prime and no longer desirable. He walks down the street in a Huxtable-esque sweater and loudly laments, “Gay, black, and old? I won’t even know which box to check on the hate-crime form!”

Each is arguably a victim in ways that become more clear a few episodes into the show. And Kimmy Schmidt seems very interested in confronting this notion of victimhood—how does enduring something bad, change who you are? And how does it affect how the rest of the world sees you and treats you?

The show's fascination with trauma, and how optimism and laughter can arise from it, perhaps has roots in Fey’s own life. In an incident she almost never discusses, Fey was attacked by a stranger with a knife while she was in kindergarten. While it feels invasive to draw a connection like this—from the most private moments of a person’s life to their most public art—it might be particularly pertinent with Kimmy Schmidt. Fey has some understandable reasons for not wanting to draw attention to the incident: “It’s impossible to talk about it without somehow seemingly exploiting it and glorifying it,” she told Vanity Fair. Her husband, Jeff Richmond, a producer and composer for 30 Rock, also said, “I think it really informs the way she thinks about her life. When you have that kind of thing happen to you, that makes you scared of certain things, that makes you frightened of different things, your comedy comes out in a different kind of way, and it also makes you feel for people.”

Hardship—whether in the form of sickness, mental illness, a traumatic event, addiction, or bigotry—has a strong history of fueling great comedy. (Just look at Maria Bamford, Mitch Hedburg, Margaret Cho, Bill Hicks, and Robin Williams, to name a few). Strife can engender divisions between people that might not otherwise exist; humor, meanwhile, facilitates human connection. At one point, Kimmy becomes convinced someone’s misinterpreting a faux pas on her part as evidence of her insanity; despite her best efforts, she's internalized this image of herself as a nutjob forever tainted by her time in a cult. If there’s anything Kimmy wants more than to have candy for dinner, it’s to be treated like a normal person. Or to at least have a say in her own narrative.

Kimmy Schmidt is virtually impossible to watch without considering it through the lens of Fey’s defining work. Some characters are clear 30 Rock derivatives, or at least delightful permutations. But for all its overlaps, Kimmy Schmidt stakes out its own territory; it’s no ripoff. There are almost no “white dudes” à la Alec Baldwin’s alpha-male, network executive Jack Donaghy. Kimmy is less snarky Liz Lemon and more Kenneth Parcell, the goofy, sweet-spirited, perennially grinning NBC page. Still, so much of the show’s best humor has unmistakable origins in Liz Lemon's world, so it's perhaps no surprise that 30 Rock presaged some of Kimmy Schmidt’s darkly funny themes.

In the episode “Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning,” 30 Rock makes fun of the way media coverage exploits tragedy: Jack Donaghy plots to capture huge ratings by preparing an all-purpose disaster special, complete with a Mad Libs-style song urging viewers to “help the people the thing that happened, happened to.” (The plan backfires when the “tragedy” turns out to be a storm that only affects a private island owned by the thoroughly unpopular Mel Gibson). In “The Chain Reaction of Mental Anguish,” 30 Rock touched on the way human beings need each other when experiencing sadness: Jack, Liz, and Kenneth turn to each other as therapists upon which to unload their troubles, but then the situation escalates as each in turn needs someone else to pour their newly unearthed memories of suffering onto.

These examples are admittedly subtler than Kimmy declaring in the pilot episode, “Life beats you up. You can either curl up in a ball and die, or you can stand up and say ‘We’re different, and you can’t break us!’” Her total lack of irony can feel a tad galling, but there’s also value to little manifestos like these: eyeroll-worthy bromides about resilience. "You can stand anything for 10 seconds" is one of Kimmy’s mantras—any time something feels impossible, you just count slowly to 10, and if needed, you start back at one again and keep counting until it (whatever it is) is over.

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance,” David Foster Wallace said in his famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, delivered just three years before the writer took his own life. Whether via banal platitudes or an unbreakable can-do attitude, people often resort to less sophisticated means of coping with life for a reason: because they often work when nothing else does. “You yell in your sleep,” Titus tells Kimmy in the trailer. “You bite my nails, and we still don’t know why you’re afraid of Velcro!” For some people like her, cynicism and fatalism aren't signs of cachet or maturity so much as luxuries.

So, yes, Kimmy Schmidt is about a young woman who refuses to curl up in a ball and die. It's possible this gung-ho spirit will elicit some groans. But with any luck, she and Fey's new show will learn to thrive on their own terms, banana-yellow cardigan, light-up sneakers, and all.