The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
There's not much excuse these days for saying that Americans don't get irony, or that there is something lacking in their sense of humour. There's the remarkable tradition of stateside stand up, and finely-tuned U.S. television comedy has been around for a long time. And it seems everywhere in recent years. Portlandia caught the zeitgeist of both the west coast hipster phenomena and of satirica, Jon Stewart careened around like a funny firework on the real-life side of things, and further back, there was The Simpsons, and then we saw the hilarious future shocks of Futurama (the shocks including the fact that we're all as daft as ever in the 31st century, and that the civilization beaming it back to us enjoys clever jokes as much as we do). And Community is just ace.
Here's The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, an exclusive-to-Netflix 13 part comedy series co-created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. Kimmy Schmidt is one of the Indiana Mole Women, a shady religious cult presided over by the Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne. Kimmy escapes, and high-tails it to New York to start a new life. She is at once a hapless woman-child and surprisingly strong, and has it together enough to rent room in a flat, sharing with the amazing Titus Andromedon (played by Tituss Burgess), a flamboyant would-be Broadway singer, all under the watchful eye of Carol Kane's screwy landlady Lilian Kaushtupper. Wacky like attracts wacky like, and Kimmy finds employment working for Jacqueline Voorhees, a dizzy, incredibly wealthy Upper East-Sider who is a bit like Liz Lemon with her feet further off the ground. Humour covers heartache, as is so often the way: it is strongly implied that Kimmy and the other Mole Women suffered abuse in the cult. Kimmy's resilience gives the show depth and heart - how joyous to watch a character who is so much more than the worst things that have happened to her.
Almost every line contains a wisecrack: it is punchy and endlessly quotable, from the bizarre - "I don't know why I brought so much pancake mix!" says Cyndee, fellow Mole Woman, visiting Kimmy, but mostly the humour is satirical, taking aim at everything that deserves it, including the state of the nation and the overly moneyed. "Gay hasn't got to Indiana yet! There's been rumours in Ohio..." "You look bright-eyed and bushy-tailed!" "No, I got that lasered off...". The effect is sharp and clean, and never laboured. It's a production line of jokes, coming both fast and steady.
There are some welcome cameo appearances. Tina Fey appears as an attourney in a later episode. Dean Norris, best known recently as Hank Schrader from Breaking Bad, shows up in episode 10, amazing when playing it for laughs and channelling his hetero hard-guy into a professional "turn a gay man completely straight acting" coach. The Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne shows his face later, and because he is played by Jon Hamm, he is funny, handsome and seemingly dangerously easy to forgive. There is a galaxy of memorable minor characters alongside the main players, who have been cast perfectly. Tituss Burgess is an astonishing physical comedian, each gesture and big-eyed gaze funny even when he's not saying something hilarious or singing a song. Jane Krakowski is brilliant as the scatty Voorhees, and Ellie Kemper aces it as Kimmy. Everyone steals the scene from each other, not through ego, but it just happens that way: everyone is so good, and the script calls for comedic one-upmanship anyway, everyone ramping it up a notch, springing elegantly from the last wisecrack. The melting-pot aspect is interesting, too, both in how such a diverse cast came together in the first place, and in how it all works on screen. It's still noteworthy to see a comedy co-written by a woman and starring one, and any jibes about Titus's being a black, gay man are dished out by Titus himself. When race jokes are cracked with Dong, Kimmy's Chinese study buddy, he's in on the joke, his worldly, sexy eyes much too clever to miss a trick. He comes good as a romantic hero later in the series too, usurping a snotty rich kid in Kimmy's affections, another fairly unusual screen feature when the ethnicities are that way round, gender wise.
It probably not a show that you would chuck on in the background after a hard day at work. It's peppy alright, but there are cultural references, and jokes that you have to pay attention to see - Jacqueline Voorhees drinks "diet water", there's a funny and rude sign in the public library, alongside more subtle things. It's probably something you have to be in the mood for too. Not everyone is going to want to (as tends to happen with series on Netflix) binge watch the show - too much at once might go down the wrong way: there are a lot of colours, songs, and jokes to digest. It's spiky and smarty-pants, similar to The Sarah Silverman Show, not quite in the same vein as the comparatively cuddlier Portlandia, say. It's great for all those things, though. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt combines all the best aspects of American comedy - brashness, subtlety, depth, plain outright hilarity, feminism-friendliness, and dazzles in its ironic bite.