It can be hard to do optimistic well.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a book, movie or TV series or even a song, too much sugary goodness in the characters (or the narrative) doesn’t so much help the medicine go down as turn people off the unendingly upbeat character.
It’s not necessarily a deal breaker if the happy-go-lucky character in question is just one of an ensemble, but when they are the protagonist with their name in the title of the TV show for goodness sake, then keeping them from swamping everyone else with their effusive Pollyanna-esque buzz can be a challenge.
But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a Netflix original created by longtime collaborators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, manages to perfectly balance the delightfully upbeat determination of its central character, who has a very valid reason for wanting to Carpe Diem the hell out of everything that moves – candy for dinner? YES! Jogging with a stranger on the street because you can? Of course! – with some of the realities of day-to-day life such as marriage breakdowns, romantic letdowns and stunted career aspirations.
It is above all though a sitcom and a brilliantly written one at that that focuses on, you guessed it, one Kimmy Schmidt (the perfectly cast Ellie Kemper) who is freed along with three other women from a bunker in Indiana where a doomsday cult, which preached that the world had ended in nuclear apocalypse because of “dumbness” and some weird ideas about the Bible, had imprisoned them.
Three of the women including Kimmy were there involuntarily – one hilariously was not, sharing many of the same beliefs as the cult’s leader/twisted captor – and took to life outside with gusto, as you would if you’d spent 15 years thinking the world had ended only to find it was still it’s messy, unpredictable, colourful self.
But no one seizes their new life with both hands like Kimmy who jumps out of the van in New York City that’s taking them back to the airport and then to Indiana – the “Mole Women” as they’re known are viral hits, being interviewed everywhere by everyone – and declares on a zestful whim that she’s staying put in the Big Apple to forge a life, come what may.
She is, of course, giddy with the array of possibilities, the kind that are ostensibly thick on the ground in a city like NYC; however for all the good things that happen to her such as nanny job with narcissistic but on her way to the divorce courts wealthy socialite Jacqueline White (Jane Krakowksi) and flamboyantly fabulous, still looking for his big break Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), there are the stolen backpacks full of donated money, indifferent would be romantic suitors and Jacqueline’s malevolent teenage daughter (Dylan Gulela) who is determined to bring Kimmy down.
So much like life itself, a mix of good and bad; for Kimmy though who emerges into the big, wide world thrilled, excited and damn near ecstatic, the downs are almost a crushing disappointment, a world away from the only way is up mentality that has driven her since she decided to stay in New York.
The joy of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is that it balances, in a way only a well-written, nuanced sitcom can, these up and down elements in such a way that Kimmy is most definitely defeated until she rallies and finds a way to make the new reality work for her.
Thankfully her epiphanies are nauseatingly upbeat – Kimmy triumphs yes but it’s not always with some cost and there are often wounds to tend to and tears in the soul to patch up.
But with the support of Titus especially, and their landlady Lillian Kaushtupper (the adorably odd Carol Kane), and yes to Kimmy’s surprise even Jacqueline at times who, like many of the characters, is fleshed out beyond a comedic caricature, Kimmy finds a way often dragging the other characters along with her to everyone’s benefit.
Where the show works supremely well is in not allowing the optimism to subsume everything else; yes Kimmy emerges unbreakable from every encounter but she is older, wiser and a little less convinced that everything is a rainbow.
She is still Kimmy though and so the innate belief that life will work out somehow, and that she has a part in making that happen, persists and powers the show; the thing is it’s in the midst of a wider realities-of-the-world context that’s willing to admit that you can be happy and optimistic but it can come at a cost.
So life then.
Kemper is a brilliantly casting decision, her absolutely perfect suitability for the role driven by the fact that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was tailored for her, but she is helped along by a cast of supporting characters who move beyond the comedically-lazy tropes and become fully fleshed-out human beings who don’t simply bounce back every time.
In other words, unlike in other sitcoms, many of which are far less optimistically-undergirded that this show, characters carry the scars, lessons and dogged determination from episode to episode, all too aware that though they may be unbreakable if they so decree it, and it is, Kimmy learns, largely a product of your own belief system, that they aren’t bullet proof.
Even so armed with a catchy as f**k theme song and suffused by a lavish quirk factor – Jacqueline particularly comes complete with a slew of hilarious oneliners, as do admittedly many of the others – with characters that drive the comedy and are not the product of overly contrived situations (though when they are it is goofy as hell and worth the detour), and a giddily colourful palette that drenches everything in candy-coloured fun (even when it isn’t) and whippet smart writing that treats its characters and viewers with respect, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is one show that manages to be funny and meaningful all at once.
A rare achievement in TV/streaming land where many sitcoms are one or the other but rarely both.
Spending time with Kimmy Schmidt is a treat because who doesn’t want to spend time with someone who refuses to let life stare her down but who is wise and savvy enough, well she is now, to know that you don’t always get your happy endings unless you’re prepared to work damn hard for them.