‘Unbreakable,’ Unshakable Ellie Kemper

As the U.S. version of The Office leaked a bit of gusto in it’s final seasons (Michael Scott’s departure left a gaping hole), there was a bright light still shining from a corner of the room in the form of Erin Hannon. By no means a main character, and was never intended to fill Michael’s shoes, nor that of Dwight Schrute or Pam Halpert. However, Erin was cute and cheerful, with a childlike innocence. Although certainly not the sharpest tool in the box, her naive look on the world may have been her redeeming feature. One of the most likable workers at Dunder Mifflin. And one of the most loved characters of The Office.

I was personally intrigued about whether someone like Ellie Kemper (who played Erin) would go onto other equally good or better shows or roles. My interest in her potential to become something of a leading lady was quenched when Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (both writers on 30 Rock) created Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. An American comedy in the same slightly screwball, alluringly amusing ballpark as 30 Rock, while allowing Ellie Kemper to bring a little bit of Erin Hannon’s clueless charm.

Kimmy Schmidt (Kemper) is rescued from an underground bunker (and end-of-the-world cult Reverend) with three other women. Kimmy, like the others, has for fifteen years been locked away from the world, brainwashed to believe it pretty much no longer existed. And so now she has to adjust to the big bad world, in New York City. Except it is not that bad, but her acclimatization will take some time. What stands out here (in a blissfully watchable show) is that it is far less George of the Jungle or Crocodile Dundee, and much more a reassuringly joyful and somewhat feminine-driven comedy of self rediscovery. Kimmy wants to shake off her victim stigma (don’t call her one of “The Mole Women”), and is desperately eager to adapt to life as we know it. Or rather to life as she does not know it. A lot can happen, and has happened, in fifteen years, and the excellent writing dab dabs us in and out of how things have, can we say, evolved. And Kimmy is the sponge absorbing it all one day at a time.

Kimmy is soon surrounded by a kaleidoscope of characters that, to be frank, all may have more social issues than the woman who spent half her life in an underground bunker. And this is clear to the audience. That said, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt not once glorifies or dramatizes the trauma of such events, the same way it’s clever humor and redeeming tone never trivializes it.

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Those characters back above ground include wannabe drama queen of musical Broadway Titus, whose support of Kimmy is ever so slightly touching in parts. But this is a guy who at one point seriously considers living as a werewolf because he is treated with more respect than a black man in New York. Kimmy’s employer Jacqueline is still a headless chicken as a wife and keeper of her own home, and her own well-being. Her step-daughter Xanthippe paints a bitchy picture of teenhood, but is really a pot of gold underneath. Although it does not tarnish the excellence of the show, or disregard John Hamm’s wacky contribution as Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (yep), the one-track journey to the conclusion of the court case (and the season) is not quite as strong (AKA funny) as the rest. But that is hardly a flaw at all.

Kimmy’s love interests, too, are auto-fails it seems. Initially, Charles seems ideal boyfriend material – though even I wondered while I was watching it why he was such a strong romantic candidate so early on. The daddy’s boy Logan is enticed by Kimmy because of his initial charisma rather than the silver spoon up his bottom. He soon shows his true moronic colors. Only Dong seems to fit the bill so far (remember this season is a mere thirteen episodes), though he has his own America-status issues. Dong and Kim’s actual educational conversing is paralleled with how they emotionally learn from each other – which is sweet enough for you to cheer them on as lovebirds. Saying that, if you are anything like me you will route for whatever makes Kimmy happy.

Comedy-wise, Ellie Kemper nails every line, action and gesture. At times she is borderline Jim Carrey with that toothy smile and goofy facial language. The sliding door back and forth, revealing different facial moods may be the most direct homage. Kemper brings a cluster of faces to the show. All of them, whether temporarily angry, scrunched mouth pride, the determined glint, are all endearing and magnetic. The affirmative nod is a classic regular, when we just know Kimmy has no or little idea what is going on or what has just been said. Remember Joey from Friends?

One such head-shaking moment that had me laughing out loud was when (in a bunker flashback scene) Kimmy is pretending to drive a car, and the clutch appears to be in mid-air. You may have to see it to appreciate it. That and one hundred other moments. There are also harmless impersonations of cultural and social stereotypes, of which as circumstances go Kimmy has little clue about until recently – and that’s why its funny. The world is a different place. In one early scene Jacqueline mistakenly tells her that is strike three regarding her job, “Has baseball changed?!” Kimmy yells in sheer panic.

Ellie Kemper bosses this show, her Kimmy is so reminiscent of The Office‘s Erin, and yet many, many miles apart. Both elements are complimentary to a performance of such grace and encouragement. That face of freedom as Kimmy lands her feet in New York City and embraces the view she has with a huge smile, is not only plastered all over the internet, but might hold a firm place in your memory if your heart is big enough. I wonder how many doubted Ellie Kemper’s transition to leading lady, then. “I will break you Kimmy Schmidt” the Reverend threatens her when she might be onto him in the bunker, Kimmy is defiant in her response: “No you won’t!”.

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2 comments

  1. Serwings 4 years ago

    A bit too rubber-faced at times, if you ask me, but so far, the OOT facial expressions haven’t quite managed to claim my attention away from the clever writing and overall solid structure of the show.

    1. Robin Write 4 years ago

      Yeah I think if she had entered Ace Ventura territory it might have been a different story. But Ellie Kemper plays it perfectly for me. And this is comedy after all.

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