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Netflix's Sunny, Dark Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Is the Best New Comedy This Year

Why it's must-binge TV

Joyce Eng

There's a moment in the pilot of Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt when the titular heroine's new NYC roommate, Titus (Tituss Burgess), tries to convince Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), who was just rescued from a cult after 15 years, to return home to Indiana.

"I'm very scared to ask you this," Titus says.

"Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker," Kimmy blurts out.

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Of course, that wasn't what he was going to ask, and they quickly move on. The line is played for laughs and is the kind of random interjection creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock so awesomely deployed on 30 Rock. And if you still find yourself wanting to go to there, you're in luck. Kimmy Schmidt is like a covert 30 Rock spin-off. From the smart, absurd humor, zippy banter and social commentary to the ridiculous sight gags, quick cutaways and jaunty music (Fey's husband Jeff Richmond scored both shows), the show is as comforting and hilarious as a plate of night cheese. But instead of razor-sharp zingers, Kimmy Schmidt is full of Kenneth Parcell-like sunny optimism.

After a media blitz with the other "Mole Women" following their rescue, 29-year-old Kimmy decides to stay in New York to not just start anew but (re-)acclimate to the modern society that had left her behind. She rooms with Titus (Burgess played D'Fwan on 30 Rock), a struggling actor currently entertaining/harassing the Times Square masses as Iron Man, in an apartment owned by weirdo landlord Lillian (Carol Kane). She gets a nanny job for vapid Upper East Side rich lady Jacqueline Voorhees, who's played to Jenna Maroney perfection by Jenna Maroney herself, 30 Rock alum Jane Krakowski. (Imagine if Jenna divorced Paul and married a billionaire single dad some years down the road.)

The fish-out-of-water premise sets up most of the comedy, and Kemper -- the role was written for her -- sells Kimmy's wide-eyed naiveté and cluelessness at iPhones, selfies, slang and the like with irrepressible cheerfulness, curiosity and joy. Her excitement is infectious, but not nauseatingly saccharine.

That's because Kimmy Schmidt also tackles something deeper -- and quite well in Fey's and Carlock's hands, and Kemper's deft work -- that 30 Rock didn't: surviving and moving on from trauma. Kimmy's cult past automatically gives the show a dark undercurrent, but the show never demeans those unfortunate circumstances experienced by real women. Rather, it finds moments -- like the "weird sex stuff" line and Kimmy's own brand of advice she came up with in captivity ("I learned a long time ago that a person can stand just about anything for 10 seconds. ... All you gotta do is take it 10 seconds at a time") -- to charm and underscore the most important aspect about Kimmy: She was a victim, but she's also a survivor. She is unbreakable -- in her resolve, optimism and determination to break away from and not be defined by her past. And as it becomes abundantly clear, she is not the only one.

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"In reading about [these situations], I think one common theme is their strength," Kemper told reporters of what she learned in her research. "I think that is what these women share -- they are able to survive these unspeakably horrible circumstances for sometimes years, and to emerge and still have the strength to go forward in their own life."

Kimmy Schmidt was originally developed and ordered to series at NBC, but in November, the network sold the 13-episode first season to Netflix, which has already ordered a second season. (Kemper revealed that the cast and crew learned of the move on the antepenultimate day of production.) The optics don't look good, but Kimmy Schmidt is by no means sloppy seconds for Netflix -- on the contrary, it's an ideal fit for what could/should become a cult favorite (no pun intended). NBC let the show go essentially because it didn't have the backbone to support it with its comedy block in disarray. Must-See TV might be no more, but that's OK because Kimmy Schmidt is must-binge TV.

All 13 episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt will be released Friday at 3 a.m. ET / midnight PT on Netflix.