‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ (Season 1): Fish-out-of-water comedy laughs at everyone

“Females are strong as hell!”

And they’d have to be to survive an underground doomsday bunker for 15 years. But does it suck as much as viral social media attention and learning to use a smartphone?

By Jason Hink

That’s the short-list of problems facing the protagonist of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a Netflix exclusive comedy that premiered in 2015 and ran for four seasons. Now, it’s been released in a classy complete series Blu-ray collection from our friends at Mill Creek Entertainment (they’ve released a DVD version as well). Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, and starring Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane and Jane Krakowski, watching this for the first time in locked-down, pandemic-addled 2020 felt like 2015 might as well have been 1990 considering the changes these past five years in the media and cultural landscape.

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As a fan of old, classic, 20th-century TV who doesn’t subscribe to streaming services (okay…I do have Amazon Prime, and catch an old movie there from time to time), I occasionally give an interesting premise a shot, and this one seemed intriguing: After 15 years, Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) and three other women are rescued from an underground bunker after being kidnapped and brainwashed by a religious cult leader, Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm), who had convinced his victims (now known as “The Mole Women” in the media) that a nuclear apocalypse had destroyed the world, leaving them humanity’s sole survivors.

Kimmy, a Midwesterner in the eighth grade when she entered the bunker in the late ’90s, emerges strong, bright-eyed and overly positive, ready to take on the world. Now in her late twenties, Kimmy moves to the Big Apple where she rents a run-down New York City apartment from kooky, hate-the-rich hippy, Lillian (Carol Kane)…and takes on a roommate, Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), a middle-aged, black, gay, Broadway wannabe. To make ends meet, Kimmy takes a job as a nanny at the home of a fading Manhattan socialite, Jacqueline Voorhies (Jane Krakowski), who needs help with more than just her troublesome young son—she thinks her husband is overseas cheating on her.

With this collection of troubled, over-the-top friends and acquaintances, will Kimmy learn how to navigate adult life on her own in NYC with just an 8th-grade education? Will she survive to season’s end when the real drama hits—the TV circus court case against Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne? And most importantly, will Kimmy learn how to properly use a smartphone?

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a single-camera “meta” comedy that takes dark subject matter (religious cults, kidnapping) and pokes fun at the tropes surrounding the media’s (both the “news” and “social” variety) and society’s obsession with larger-than-life stories and personalities filtered through the stereotypes of the characters…and often hits the funny-bone bullseye. The running joke driving the comedy is that Kimmy is the proverbial fish-out-of-water; her social interactions are peppered with out-of-date, 90s-era lingo, often throwing her new friends for a loop. But what she lacks in real-world knowledge, she makes up for in spunk and attitude.

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Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (she created 30 Rock, he was a series showrunner), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was released during the heyday of those single-camera, laugh-trackless comedies…and was indeed first pitched to NBC before finding its home on prestigious streamer Netflix, at the time experiencing exponential growth and expansion in content acquisition (as was so-called “Peak TV” in general, with over 400 new scripted programs alone in 2015, doubling 2010’s output just five years earlier). Originally conceived under the working title Tooken, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was, from its inception, an attempt by NBC to find a comedy vehicle for star Ellie Kemper, who gained prominence as a member of the cast during the last five years of NBC’s hit comedy, The Office. The story originally had Kimmy coming out of a years-long coma, but was switched later to the doomsday cult storyline (much edgier). Ultimately, NBC decided to cut back on their comedies that year and nixed the show, opting instead for a drama-heavy schedule.

Enter new tech to save the day: Having already resurrected the little seen (but critically lauded) meta-comedy Arrested Development in 2013, streaming outfit Netflix came to the rescue again, becoming a pseudo-home to these non-traditional sitcoms snubbed by the Big Five networks.

The enjoyment one gets by watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt will undoubtedly rest on how much you like Ellie Kemper and her style of frenetic, high energy comedy. Having not viewed her episodes of The Office, I was prepared to be disappointed…but personally, I found Kemper delightful with her over-engaged, pitched delivery and mean-mug expressions whenever she naively felt a wrong was being committed. Her closest relationship is with her roommate Titus, forever chasing his big break on Broadway. Actor Tituss Burgess is basically playing himself here (like the character he plays, Burgess the actor is black, gay, and has appeared in several Broadway musicals..and his name is Tituss). When push comes to shove, it’s Titus who realizes when 2015 Kimmy is in over her head, and he’s always there to help her better understand the realities of life in the new millennium. Titus, like all the characters in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, is a walking, talking stereotype, with Fey, Carlock and the show’s other writers leaving no stone unturned in poking fun at everyone’s reality.

Most enjoyable to me is rich, snobbish, boozy Manhattanite Jacqueline (Krakowski), who captures the trope of the wealthy, white, superficial elitist perfectly. As a nanny to Jacqueline’s young son, Kimmy’s interactions with Jacqueline’s teenage stepdaughter Xanthippe (Dylan Gelula) are especially fun, with Xanthippe determined to find out Kimmy’s “secret” (Kimmy hasn’t told anyone she’s a “mole woman”), as Xan notes the mysterious way Kimmy talks when she argues quick-wittedly like a teenager stuck in 1999. Rounding out the cast are landlord Lillian (Kane), hilariously ditzy in her take on the world and its inhabitants; and the sly, silly Jon Hamm (Mad Men) as the evil cult leader, Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, who represents himself at his own trial so successfully that it’s easy to see how he brainwashed those four women he kept in the bunker all those years.

And speaking of those other three “mole women,” they turn up from time to time, too: Cyndee (Sara Chase), Kimmy’s naive best friend who continues her naivete in the real world (she reunites with her middle school crush only to find that he may be gay, even if she winds up outsmarting everyone in the end); Gretchen (Lauren Adams), who’s such a willing member of the cult that she still believes the Reverend was trying to save them, even after being rescued; and Donna (Sol Miranda), a middle-aged Latina woman who spent her 15 years in the bunker pretending to not understand English, and who later uses the Mole Women name to hawk her tasty new “mole sauce.”

The comedy is filled with euphemisms uttered by Kimmy like, “Gosh darn mommy-fudger…what the ham sandwich are you doing here?!” which, combined with her living-in-the-past naivete (“Phones have maps?!?”) make up for a large part of the show’s appeal. But another large part—which got the producers into hot water over the course of their 4-year run—is the show’s stereotypes of, well, you name it! Nobody is left off the list as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt hammers away as an equal-opportunity offender. But the comedy (and really, the show itself) is so utterly absurd that anyone getting their panties wadded over these “perceived” real-world grievances are ridiculous (although it makes for clickable headlines).

The sitcom’s jokes are modern-day, 2015-era Blazing Saddles-like funnies, but publications like Huffington Post, Vulture, Vox and others still called out these absurd bits (seriously, if you’re pissing off those outlets, you’re doing something right), tagging Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as having a “race” problem, along with other humanity-crushing claims. Ultimately, creator Tina Fey responded: “I feel like we put so much effort into writing and crafting everything, [the episodes] need to speak for themselves. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”

So what’s the best way to catch this show, to ensure you get the entire run, with no conveniently edited-out scenes or episodes? This great-looking Mill Creek Entertainment Blu-ray set, of course! But it’s not 2015 anymore…it’s 2020—so you better get it before it’s banned, deleted, or culturally canceled.

The world’s a pretty crappy place…and comedy will always poke fun at society and exaggerate its warts (and if you haven’t learned by now, what’s okay to joke about today will be demanded an apology for tomorrow). But humor brings us together, and our differences make us laugh. If you find joy in a little sitcom like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, good! Enjoy it without guilt—once you’re in that zone, you’ve won 90 percent of the battle.

Let’s take a look at the 13 episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s first season, originally streamed by Netflix on March 6, 2015. Beware of potential spoilers in these commentaries.

Kimmy Goes Outside!
Kimmy Schmidt, held captive with three other women in a Midwest underground bunker for 15 years by Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, after being told Earth was destroyed in an apocalypse (how’s that for a setup?), is rescued and becomes a national sensation, with the media-monikered ‘Mole Women’ making the morning show rounds (hey, look! It’s Matt Lauer on the Today show. Whatever happened to him?).

Kimmy decides to settle in New York, bringing along her gee-whiz, positive attitude (although she has a bit of a mean streak in her!). Here we’re introduced to Titus, her gay, Broadway-reject singer roommate; her landlord Lillian, a rough, street-smart old lady; and wealthy Manhattan socialite Jacqueline Voorhees, who gives Kimmy her first job after Kimmy returns her thieving son home having run into the little sh*t several times around town.

But none of it lasts long when Kimmy’s $13,000 in cash is stolen during a night out at a local club and Jacqueline fires her from her job the next day. Can Kimmy survive this new “adult” world in New York? She’s unbreakable, so it’s a good bet…

Kimmy Gets a Job!
As the title says, Kimmy’s goal it to get her job back at Jacqueline’s. Why? Good question; she must prep a ridiculous birthday party for little sh*t Buckley and deal with Jacqueline’s previously unseen stepdaughter, Xanthippe, a smack-talking 15-year-old dead set on getting her way and “destroying” Kimmy (easier said than done). The birthday party’s a bust since Jacqueline’s hubby doesn’t show, which is the whole reason she wanted to throw her little boy a party to begin with. Is he cheating on her overseas (gasp!)?

Meanwhile, Titus rallies the troops to fight a corrupt costume rental dealer who refuses to give back the security deposits on the costumes he rents out (“Too much wear and tear.”)

Best moment goes to Kimmy holding up that huge rat and asking the reverend (in flashback) how it survived the apocalypse!

Kimmy Goes on a Date!
We start the episode with young Buckley’s tutor, Charles (Andy Ridings), explaining to Jacqueline they’re working on Buckley’s family tree project, to which Buckley exclaims, “We owned people!” To which Jacqueline replies, “We still do, honey.” It’s matched by the revelation that Jacqueline is actually a Native American pretending to be white, much to the chagrin of her Native American parents, shown here in 1992 flashbacks.

When tutor Charles tells Jacqueline they weren’t sure about her family, she answers: “Who, the Whites? They’re normal.” (Episode writers Jack Burditt and Robert Carlock are soooo canceled in 2020.)

Meanwhile, Kimmy “hooks up” with an elderly, senile WWII vet, which makes Charles the tutor jealous (does he have a thing for Kimmy?). Step-daughter Xanthippe is on a mission to find out just who Kimmy is (“You say the weirdest things! Nobody talks like that!”). And Titus sings the wrong Boyz II Men song at a funeral for an elderly Korean man.

Kimmy Goes to the Doctor!
An out-of-the-blue call from one of her cult bunker-mates, Cyndee, sends Kimmy on a personal quest to prove that she doesn’t need to hide or be ashamed of who she is. To drive the theme home, Jacqueline, still fearful that unseen husband Julian is cheating overseas, must fight the urge to get plastic surgery (on her feet!) to improve her fading looks. And Titus must overcome insecurities related to getting that big part on Broadway.

Kimmy shows super-human strength packing in a giant, 90s-era TV set like it’s paper mache in the first of many surreal, absurdist, CGI-enhanced scenes in this outing, which includes Martin Short at his weirdo best as Jacqueline’s kooky plastic surgeon.

Kimmy Kisses a Boy!
Funny episode as Kimmy reestablishes a connection with bunkermate Cyndee, who visits New York with her middle school crush, Brandon. Now they’re together; but is Brandon who he says he is? Titus isn’t convinced, especially with his gaydar working overtime.

Meanwhile, Kimmy’s relationship with Charles hits a snag thanks to a butt dial.

Every gay stereotype is played for laughs in this fun outing, which digs a little deeper into dramatic territory as Kimmy and Cyndee’s relationship in the bunker (Kimmy had to look after naive Cyndee) is recalled.

Kimmy Goes to School!
Kimmy heads back to school, enrolling in a local GED course. The teacher (Richard Kind) is hilariously inept, requiring his students watch the 1989 baseball movie, Major League, while he sleeps through class. Naturally, Kimmy wants to help him recapture his passion for teaching. Elsewhere, Lillian assists Titus in making a music video, sneaking into Jacqueline’s house while she’s away to use it as a shooting location.

The dance song Titus sings during the episode (“Pinot Noir”) will get stuck in your head. And kudos for using dialogue from Major League (one of my personal faves) as inspiration for the characters.

Kimmy Goes to a Party!
I’m laughing more as each episode is progressively more offensive and funnier (I better finish these Blu-ray discs before they self-destruct!).

We finally see Jacqueline’s husband, Julian (Mark Harelik), who throws a surprise cocktail party, which Jacqueline enlists Kimmy to help embarrass him over his infidelity overseas. But when it turns out the hot Japanese businesswoman may not be screwing Julian after all, things go to absurdist hell.

Titus, hired to sing at Julian’s party, attempts to use the opportunity as a springboard to Broadway. Meanwhile, Kimmy flirts with handsome Logan Beekman (Adam Campbell), passing herself off as Cinderella-ish guest, to hilarious consequences.

Kimmy Is Bad at Math!
“I need Dong!” Kimmy cries out. No, not that; she needs Dong, the Asian dude who’s good at math. She and Dong become study buddies as she helps him learn to speak better English in exchange. But Kimmy is excited about an upcoming date with rich boy, Logan. How will Dong feel about this?

Jacqueline struggles contemplating life divorced from Julian (i.e. divorced from his billions. (And how does Jane Krakowski keep that frontal wave of hair in place?)

Titus finds work dressed as a werewolf at a themed restaurant, finding that life as a werewolf is easier than life as a black man..but landlord Lillian is happy when Titus scares the rich white folk away from the neighborhood.

Kimmy Has a Birthday!
“Gosh darn mommy-fudger…what the ham sandwich are you doing here?!”

Kimmy’s turning 30, and it’s party time at the apartment! Among the guests are Logan and Dong, who fight over Kimmy as only those two stereotypes can; and her half-sister Kymmi (Kiernan Shipka) (pronounced keeey-me), who arrives unexpectedly with her state trooper father (Tim Blake Nelson), the idiot Indiana cop who couldn’t solve Kimmy’s disappearance, but who wound up marrying her mother while Kimmy was in the bunker.

Titus invites a coworker to the party who he’s only seen in costume at work. Turns out, with the masks off, they know each other from the past.

Kimmy’s in a Love Triangle!
Douche Logan wants Kimmy to stop talking to illegal immigrant Dong (great choices, Kimmy). Who will Kimmy choose in the end? (Surely you can guess).

Titus hilariously visits a “straight coach” (Dean Norris) after losing out on a role at the restaurant because he can’t “play straight.”

Elsewhere, Xanthippe enlists Kimmy to help her look so bad that her biological mother in Connecticut will not want her to move back home. But Xan isn’t as “bad” as she wants people to believe…

Kimmy Rides a Bike!
Things get real as Kimmy is summoned to testify against Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm), but finds reasons not to, including joining Jacqueline at a spin class taught by a “spin guru” (Nick Kroll), which allows her to skip out on the trial…but is it the right decision? Not when she notices that the spin class is a CULT, reminding her of the Reverend’s bunker.

Titus attempts watching the trial unfold online at the library, cringing at the incompetence of the the prosecuting attorneys (series creator Tina Fey and Jerry Minor) who are no match for the “godly” Reverend’s biblical representation of himself.

Kimmy Goes to Court!
With gay bestie Titus by her side, Kimmy returns to Indiana to join the other Mole Women in testifying against Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. Further incompetence by the prosecution forces the Mole Women to return to the bunker for inspiration and evidence to help turn the tide in the case. But the Reverend is a smooth operator, with the jury (and even his enemies) mesmerized by his over-the-top, cult-ifying performance.

In the middle of this, Titus bumps into the star of the original Mole Women internet meme from the opening credits and gets his own shot at internet fame when he botches a live interview with the news.

Like an episode of Lost, this outing ends on a great cliffhanger that would’ve worked better if viewers had to wait a week like back in the old days. Netflix viewers undoubtedly called in late for work to click ahead to the next episode to see what was “in the safe.”

Kimmy Makes Waffles!
Again?!? The Mole Women become trapped in the bunker when Kimmy’s idiot stepdad steps away from guarding the hatch door. The women begin to argue, which causes a lightbulb to go off in Kimmy’s head, later helping in the court case against the Reverend.

Meanwhile, unlikely duo Jacqueline and Lillian attempt to travel to Indiana to support Kimmy, but since neither of these big-city gals don’t know how to drive, they get lost. Thankfully, Jacqueline’s able to call upon her Native American knowledge and upbringing (uh oh), using the sun to navigate them the rest of the way.

Elsewhere, Jacqueline returns to South Dakota; Dong is forced to marry a woman from his GED class to avoid deportation, and now-viral video star Titus immediately experiences the downside of fame when his estranged wife tracks him down after seeing his YouTube video.

Back in court, the Mole Women are now unified, and they have an ace up their sleeve after finding an item in the bunker that will hopefully help put the Reverend away for good.

But will they succeed?

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