It seemed unfathomable to me that Tina Fey had so much trouble selling a pilot post-30 Rock. Sure I was disappointed when FX passed on Charlie Kaufman’s How and Why, but that was probably doomed from conception. But this was Tina Fey! 30 Rock hauled in 57 EMMY NOMINATIONS! For my money it was the most vibrant, entertaining, and significant network sitcom of the aughts. Sure, it was never a ratings bonanza, but a burgeoning emphasis on prestige and an increasingly nurturing attitude toward female-driven programming have rendered shows such as Lena Dunham’s Girls impervious to ratings shrapnel. So how on Earth could two networks be passing on Fey’s next big idea? Surely she should have carte blanche at this point, particularly at NBC.
Only by digging into the particulars of these pilots did this begin to make sense. Fox commissioned Fey’s Cabot College, which surrounded the admittance of men to an all-female college. That’s a decidedly strange premise to build a sitcom around, and about as far from Fox’s flatulent family archetype as one can get. Combine that with Fox’s reputation for manhandling fringe comedies like Enlisted and Arrested Development, and this never felt like a marriage that made a ton of sense. The show also lacked 30 Rock’s bankable star power. Fey’s work generally lends itself to ensemble, but the lead was relative unknown Fortune Feimster, and the most recognizable name in the cast was… Margaret Cho. Ouch.
The situation with NBC is a bit more perplexing. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt suffers from many of the same issues as Cabot College, namely an outlandish conceit and a largely unknown cast. Building a sitcom around a woman who’d lived in a bunker for the past 15 years seems patently absurd. Even the most subversive sitcoms are generally constructed on a pretty bland foundation. 30 Rock was a workplace comedy. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is about four friends who own a bar. Louie is about a comedian raising two daughters. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is about… a doomsday cult survivor? And it stars who? Carol Kane? That being said, the pilot does everything in its power to evoke 30 Rock, and given NBC’s previous relationship with both Fey and the show’s star (Office alum) Ellie Kemper, and the network’s pristine reputation for developing comedies over the last two-plus decades, this seemed like an obvious fit.
But somewhere along the line, things got sideways. Despite the presence of critical darlings such as Parks and Recreation and Community, NBC hadn’t really had a hit comedy since The Office. They decided they were getting out of the sitcom business, and doubling down on James Spader. Thus Tina-freaking-Fey was once again left hat in hand. At this point, something exciting happened. Netflix. The mighty overlords of internet content. The saviors of Arrested Development. The benevolent purveyors of the almost wholly female-driven prestige juggernaut Orange is the New Black. Netflix happened.
30 Rock routinely pushed the Standards and Practices boundaries of network television, cartoonishly bleating out inappropriate language and coyly dancing around subjects generally considered uncouth for the primetime set. How exciting, then, to see Fey and company freed from the shackles of the FCC. It’s hard not to view the resulting show’s unyielding toothless grin as a disappointment.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is not an edgy show. It doesn’t need to be. It’s pleasant enough, with gags aplenty. Still, it’s disappointing to find your new stainless steel refrigerator stocked with week-old 30 Rock leftovers. Kemper is remarkably charming in a somewhat thankless role. Kimmy Schmidt is the boundlessly cheerful yokel, cast into the cold and unforgiving city. Picture Jack McBrayer’s Kenneth the Page. Now picture him carrying a show. It’s not entirely successful. Jane Krakowski may as well be reprising her role as Jenna Maroney, with starkly diminishing returns. The first season certainly has moments of transcendent comedy, most notably guest turns from Richard Kind and John Hamm. And Titus Andromedon’s Peeno Noir proves the writer’s haven’t lost that Werewolf Barmitzvah magic. There’s just nothing here that wouldn’t feel perfectly at home nestled into NBC’s 2005 Thursday Night lineup. It all feels so damningly safe.
As much as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt begs the unflattering comparison to its progenitor, the situation recalls another piece of seminal television. When Larry David sought to return to television several years after leaving Seinfeld, he turned to HBO, where he demonstrated exactly what comedy without restriction could be. If Curb Your Enthusiasm were merely the one hour special that served as it’s back door pilot, it would still be a staggeringly brilliant piece of subversive comedy. But Curb grew into much more than a quirky middle finger to the stand-up special. David mined eight seasons of consistently hilarious television from little more than the people around him. Jerry Seinfeld deserves all the credit in the world for tethering his big break to an unknown comic whose big idea was a plotless shamble through day to day life, but Larry David clearly understands a concept that Tina Fey seems to have lost sight of: Write what you know.
30 Rock is a farce at heart, populated with bright caricatures and filled to bursting with intricately written jokes. It’s a very different beast from the more grounded, improvisational nature of David’s oeuvre. Where Fey mirrors David is in the character of Liz Lemon, the autobiographical center around which 30 Rock’s madcap world revolves. The show builds around Fey’s own experience as head writer for Saturday Night Live, and Lemon’s presence keeps the show tethered to reality, even at its most outlandish. Lemon’s struggle to balance her personal and professional lives often felt profoundly personal. With Curb, the newly wealthy Larry David replaced struggling everyman George Costanza in the narrative, and the Seinfeld gang gave way to actual celebrities like Ted Danson and Richard Lewis, but it never felt false. This was David’s new reality. This allowed Curb to deftly mix more absurd elements like being inexplicably cast as the lead in The Producers with more personal material like David’s divorce and the fallout from Michael Richards’ racial tirade. David was still telling his own story. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is telling the story of The Indiana Mole Women. That feels a tad disingenuous.
A lot of this can be chalked up to the dangers of expectations. I quite enjoyed Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It’s a very amiable piece of entertainment. It’s just not a bold step forward for a creator whose previous work I adore. I think it’s important to note that the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was written for NBC, not Netflix. The current incarnation of the show was designed to air on network television. Perhaps it will evolve into something more remarkable in the years to come. Mind you, I’m not expecting Susie Essman to pop in and drop a few patented “Fat Fucks,” nor do I think something like “Beloved Aunt” would be at home in Kimmy’s saccharine sweet world. And that’s okay. In the end, Kimmy Schmidt is pretty, pretty, pretty… pretty good.