Early 2013 was the beginning of the end for fans of edgy NBC sitcoms. 30 Rock aired its last episode at the end of January; Community‘s rudderless (and Dan Harmon-less) fourth season was reluctantly given a mid-February premiere date; and the finale of The Office was nigh. All of this left the unfairly ratings-anemic Parks and Recreation to hold down the network’s once-impressive Thursday night fort.
Fortunately, fans of Tina Fey had only a few months to mourn before word surfaced that she was already hard at work on another NBC show. Little was known about it, except that Fey and her fellow 30 Rock showrunner Robert Carlock were helming the comedy; The Office‘s Ellie Kemper had been cast as its star; and the network had already called a direct-to-series order for 13 episodes. It was enough to inspire optimism in the sourest of Liz Lemon-ites.
Cut to a year and a half later, and things had shaken out quite differently. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Fey and Carlock’s sitcom a cult survivor from Indiana trying to make it in New York, would still be seen — but the much-anticipated show, once considered the potential savior of Must-See TV, was about to premiere on, of all places, Netflix. Skepticism is natural, even with so much talent involved, so here’s a breakdown of everything you need to know about one of the year’s funniest new comedies.
Why is this show premiering on Netflix in 2015 if NBC bought it in 2013?
The Peacock Network has a storied history of questionable programming calls (it was actually a recurring joke on 30 Rock). Kimmy Schmidt was given the go-ahead to start production in the Fall of 2013, just as a new crop of comedies was slated to replace the tent-poles in the legendary Thursday night comedy bloc. But these new up-and-comers ranged from the shrug-worthy (Sean Saves the World) to the straight-up abysmal (the Kate Walsh vehicle Bad Judge), and mercifully, they kept getting the axe. Soon, it started to seem as if NBC wasn’t the best place to launch a promising new sitcom.
According to the New York Times, Fey, Carlock and NBC entertainment head Robert Greenblatt put the show on hold while waiting for a more welcoming atmosphere in which it could premiere. Even casual NBC viewers know that a decent comedy lineup never materialized, and eventually the network did away with their Thursday back-to-back-laughs bloc altogether – leaving Kimmy Schmidt in the odd position of having no lead-ins to keep it company.
“Nothing would have made us happier than to have Tina’s next show,” Greenblatt told the Times. “But I also would rather see it go [elsewhere] than put her in a position to not succeed due to our limitations at the moment.” In the same article, Fey explained that if she’d wanted the show on NBC, it would have aired on NBC – Netflix was the mutually beneficial decision.
So there you have it: The show was neither cancelled nor penalized with being bad or “too edgy.” It was simply relegated to a streaming service – one that’s lately had a much better track record of launching series than, say, NBC. Still, it’s a shame the network gave Fey’s show away as early as it did – Kimmy Schmidt would have made the ideal flagship to launch their just-announced subscription comedy service.
Who is this Ellie Kemper, now?
Even if you don’t know her name yet, you probably know her work: She played Erin, the sweet, easily confused secretary on later seasons of The Office. You may have also seen her playing similarly naive Becca in 2011’s Bridesmaids.
Back in the day, Kemper studied at Princeton and participated in their touring musical comedy troupe. In 2007, she starred in the hilariously cringey Derrick Comedy viral video “Blowjob Girl,” which won her some internet notoriety. Plus, she’s an alum of the Upright Citizens Brigade, a proving ground for some of the best comedic minds of the day. NBC had reportedly been shopping around for a starring role for Kemper for awhile, and Fey’s been quoted as saying that the comedienne has “sunniness, but also strength.” The showrunners spitballed numerous potential plots for her – one rumored premise was that Kemper’s character tracks down her biological father to join his life on Fire Island – until settling on an ex-cult member who starts life anew when she realizes the apocalypse didn’t actually happen.
Wait – that’s the premise?!?
Oh yes! The eponymous Kimmy is a former Indiana cult member who, along with three other women, has lived in an underground bunker since the Nineties, believing all the while that the apocalypse came and destroyed life as they knew it. Once rescued, the group – dubbed the “Mole Women” – travel to New York to tell their harrowing story on the Today Show. Kimmy, smart but devastatingly green, decides not to get back in the van in order to stay in the city. Thanks to various crafty coping mechanisms she developed while underground, it only takes her a day to find a roommate – Tituss, a failed Broadway performer turned Times Square Iron Man knock-off – and a job babysitting a socialite’s spoiled and kleptomania-inclined son. Not bad for somebody who’s primary societal reference point is Moesha.
Is it as funny as 30 Rock?
Is anything as funny as 30 Rock? The humor is a bit of a mixed bag: There are some one-liners that are classic Fey, the kind that are both laugh-out-loud funny and deeply upsetting. (“Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker.”) But it also has way more sunny romcom schtick than Fey and Carlock’s last show, courtesy of Kimmy’s endearing, bubbly naivete.
Is there one joke from the pilot that, when presented without context, sums up the show’s sense of humor?
“I’m pretty, but tough. Like a diamond. Or beef jerky in a ballgown.”
It takes a few episodes for the show to find its footing, and a lot of former 30 Rock actors pop up unexpectedly: Jane Krakowski plays a very Jenna Maroney-ish one-percenter with some killer zingers, and Tituss Burgess, the actor who plays Kimmy’s roommate, was D’Fwan on the recurring show-within-a-show Queen of Jordan. Fey has said that going forward, she sees Netflix as an opportunity to do things she couldn’t get away with on network television. And considering what she already has gotten away with on network television, consider this her chance to finally top the genius that is “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.”