Many times did I try to join the flock of 30 Rock, the longstanding Emmy-winning hit from writer/creator Tina Fey, traditionally giving the series another chance after it received yet another piece of hardware for its trophy case. Yet, despite appreciating the effort that goes into sustaining the show's effervescent mood and structuring their punchlines, the brand of humor never really worked for me. When similar praise started to flood in for Fey's latest creation with Robert Carlock, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps it had to do with the premise, and that breaking away from the quasi-realism of 30 Rock's setting into something more whimsical -- the release of doomsday cult members into society after being locked up for many years -- could do the trick. Unfortunately, even with the vigorous energy of Ellie Kemper and an equally-committed, surreal focus on structuring the gags to that of Tina Fey's prior show, the humor here stays outrageously flat in much of the same ways.
Office alum Kemper plays Kimmy Schmidt, one of four "Mole Women" who were convinced they were survivors of the apocalypse by a certain "reverend" before being locked up in an underground vault. Fifteen years later, they were finally discovered by the authorities, earning the attention of the world through their televised rescue and readjustment to life on the outside. While making their media rounds, Kimmy ultimately decides that she wants to abandon her rural routes and live in New York, a daunting task considering her lack of social exposure and education. The show follows her ramshackle adventures as she finds an apartment, adjusts to her flamboyant roommate, Titus (Tituss Burgess), and her kooky landlord, Lillian (Carol Kane), and scrambles to locate work throughout the city, where she eventually lands a job as an at-home assistant -- a nanny, sort of -- for a billionaire's wife, Jaqueline (Jane Krakowski).
From the moment the Mole Women escape from their captivity, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt adopts a quirky tempo that gives the writing a lot of freedom to play around with the threshold of reality. Individual stories progress from episode to episode: Kimmy works to keep her job and get an education; Titus inches closer and closer to making his dream of being a professional actor happen; and Jacqueline tries to figure out whether her marriage is falling apart or whether she's a suspicious mess (or both). These arcs are mostly just vehicles for the brisk-moving, eccentric dialogue bouncing between the characters, edited together and accompanied by music in such a way that'll be recognizable to fans of 30 Rock. Indeed, there's more of a detachment from reality here, which filters over into the characterizations, from Kimmy's insistently dated references to the ways that Titus dupes everyone around him. It's brightly-hued and flashy, and these oddballs feel like they belong in this corner of NY.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt works really hard to get very meager laughs out of its zany situations, though, showcasing plenty of clever brainstorming around the topics of its setups -- identity, prestige, empowerment -- without the kind of natural punchlines that'd generate earnest comedy. Ellie Kemper takes her character from The Office and finds a way to both tone down her lack of intelligence and amplify her childlike wonder, and her jubilant attitude while she buzzes around her ramshackle apartment and her boss' multi-million-dollar home alike can be infectious. While her vibrant smile and dedication to the character's energy grabs one's attention, the inanity of Kimmy's cultural references and social awareness skew more awkwardly exaggerated than charming. Her snappy one-liner interactions are with incredibly exaggerated stereotypes, from the vain and ostentatious singer embodied by Tituss Burgess to the, well, vain and ostentatious housewife delivered by Jane Krakowski, giving their comedic rapport the consistency and fleeting flavor of cotton candy.
Throughout romantic triangles, divorce theatrics, and Kimmy trying to get ahead in her new surroundings, there isn't a lot that really changes about the show's repartee. Unique situations -- Kimmy's conflict with a GED instructor; her "relationship" with a wealthy, elderly gentleman -- feel like more of the same-old, same-old style of humor throughout these thirteen episodes, even when cutaway sequences slowly enter the formula and once the characters hit their stride later in the season. The only times where Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt truly feels fresh and inspired is whenever her history with the Mole Women slips back into the picture, notably near the final clump of episodes once the trial against the reverend (Jon Hamm) begins, and even then, the show revels too much in its over-the-top absurdity for its own good. Kimmy's spirit might be unbreakable, but the show built around her likely won't make a dent in those who didn't jibe with this kind of exaggerated humor previously.
In a package that's about as bare-bones as they come, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt arrives in a two-disc clear-case presentation, with the episode guide/listing appearing on the reverse side of the artwork. Completely text-free menus make for a somewhat frustrating navigational experience, relying on the user to intuitively point and click the icons to get the show rolling.
Video and Audio:
The thirteen episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt arrives from Universal broken up across two discs, resulting in about two-and-a-half hours of material on each one. By and large, all 178:1-framed, 16x9-enhanced transfers look fantastic, boasting vibrant shades of color throughout and warm, inviting skin tones that bolster the bold visual style of the show. Fine details in clothing and in the fairly ornate set design are strong, sporting strong and solid contours around bodies and firm lines at sharp angles. Deep black levels aren't present very often, but they're deep and natural when they do appear (in a few nighttime sequences and during dinner parties), and the contrast balance maintains a robust grasp on depth throughout. Generally, there's a smooth appearance to the image due to the photography, and a few tighter contours -- such as the curve of the vault's swinging door handle -- suffer from some aliasing. Aside from that, Kimy Schmidt looks fudging good.
There isn't much traditional surround activity in the Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, but Universal's audio treatments do capture some fine front-end separation and the fanciful flow of the show's scoring. Sound effects are few and far between, but the strum of a guitar and the turn of a crank in the vault shelter showcase strong clarity. Musical interruptions are the most robust offerings in the tracks, whether it's the actual track accompanying the activity or blatant numbers performed by Titus, and they're all clear as a whistle and well-balanced against the rest of the recording. The most important feature, of course, is the dialogue, which fluctuates between serviceably stable -- if a bit mediocre in the muffling department -- to razor-sharp and aware of the front-channel separation on both high and low spectrums. English subtitles are available.
Ellie Kemper is radiant as Kimmy Schmidt, but the humor surrounding her turn from an unwilling cultist to a New York denizen with an eclectic, peculiar circle of friends works much too hard for its outlandish amusements. The one-liners come in hard and fast with their quirkiness, and fans of that 30 Rock-esque rhythm might find more enjoyment in the oddness of it all, yet others will find the overt silliness of the crafty writing to be difficult to embrace here. There's strength in the characters and their writing, and it's unfortunate to see them muted around way too much on-the-nose, overdone comedy. Universal's DVD looks and sounds great, but zero special features for a Netflix-aired show makes this a release only worth a Rental.