2015 was a banner year for television, both on the box and online. Ever since Netflix used an algorithm to calculate what people wanted to watch and gave them House of Cards, the streaming giant and competitors like Amazon Prime have been producing often brilliant original content - and they have left the traditional TV networks flailing in their wake.
Sometimes, they don't even need to produce the new content. They can hoover up the brilliant shows that, inexplicably, the big networks pass on. One such show is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, hands down the funniest sitcom of 2015. It was the post-30 Rock creation of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, originally developed for NBC. According to Fey, the network "weren't feeling confident" about the comedy and so passed it on to Netflix. They made a huge mistake.
If Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's opening theme song sounds familiar, it's because it is. We've all seen viral memes along the same lines: an excitable local resident gets interviewed about a crime, and his words get auto-tuned into a catchy song.
The man's words are shorthand for the show's themes: "they alive, dammit. But females. Are strong as hell". The four women we see emerging from a bunker in the pilot episodes cold open had been held captive in there for fifteen years by a deranged preacher, the leader of a doomsday cult.
The first face we see is that of the protagonist, Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper). It's not what you might expect. She's not cowed, scared, broken or defeated. Instead, she smiles as bright as sunshine.
Soon enough, Kimmy and her three bunker-mates are shipped off to be interviewed on The Today Show, and ushered off afterwards with gift bags and repeated cries of "thank you, victims!". As they head back in a van to their hometown of Durnsville, Indiana, Kimmy decides to make a break for it. She doesn't want to return home, where she'll forever be seen as one of the "mole women", a victim. She resolves to make a clean break; to stay in Manhattan and make a new life for herself.
She changes her name to the not-that-different Kimmy Smith, finds a tiny basement apartment with a crazy landlady (the incomparable Carol Kane) and an out-of-work-actor roommate Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) and stumbles her way into a job working for an Upper East Side socialite and trophy wife Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski on career best form).
Kimmy embraces her new life. After 15 years locked in an underground bunker, she makes the most of her second chance. She dresses in bright primary colours like a kids TV presenter, gets excited by automatic taps and eats candy for dinner.
In the first few episodes, Kemper's hyperactive performance helps to disguise the fact that Kimmy is much more than an overgrown child. She's strong, she is - as the title states - unbreakable. And as the first series begins to move on, she proves it.
Kimmy deals with what happened to her by, at first, trying to forget it and move on. The show has several characters trying to move on from who they were - the openly gay Titus has a fake name and a wife back in Missippissi, Jacqueline dyes her hair and wears coloured contact lenses to hide her Native American heritage, her wannabe-rebellious step daughter Xanthippe (Dylan Gelula) hides her good grades and love of birdwatching behind a cynical attitude and fictional surfer boyfriend. In fact the only people not hiding their pasts are Kimmy's fellow "mole women". Gretchen (Lauren Adams) remains brainwashed, while Cyndee (Sara Chases) still lives in Durnsville and uses the sympathy of the community to get whatever she wants and Donna Maria uses "mole women" as a brand name to sell a range of cooking sauces. It's debatable whether or not Kimmy is actually better off than any of them for having moved on. But, unlike the others, she won't let what that crazy reverend did define her life.
Ellie Kemper's larger-than-life performance as Kimmy steals the show most of the time, but thankfully her co-stars get screen time and plots of their own. Tituss Burgess crushes every scene as her roommate and gets a lot of the best lines and Jane Krakowski was surely born to play Kimmy's boss Jacqueline; a woman who doesn't want to divorce her husband because she can't live on the $12m divorce settlement. Keep your eyes open for other supporting players like Jon Hamm as the charismatic preacher Richard Wayne Gary Wayne and Tina Fey herself as an incompetent lawyer as the season goes on.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a bit of a strange beast for Netflix. It's pretty clear that it was designed with mainstream network TV in mind. The episodes stick to the 22 minute format and standard network tropes - Kimmy gets caught in a love triangle, for example - make an appearance. There's no swearing either. She says "fudge" instead of the f-bomb, and says "ham sandwich" instead of...well, I don't know what she says that instead of.
But although it seems made for TV, there's plenty going on beneath its bright and perky surface. Kimmy may be unbreakable, sure, but she had her childhood taken away (or "tooken" as she would say. Tooken was the original working title for the show). Kimmy's ugly past comes through though, leaking into the plot here and there via sly, slightly unsettling jokes. In one episode she awakes from a nightmare choking her roommate. She tells another character that she once woke up in the shower, cleaning a knife. She has an unexplained phobia of Velcro, and blurts out to Titus that there was "weird sex stuff" in the bunker. Most unsetting of all is the scene where she and her rich boyfriend decide to take their relationship to "the next level" - she promptly hits him in the face and tries to overpower him. Later, she marvels that "all the stuff I thought I knew was way wrong!".
It's rare material for a bright and breezy sitcom and maybe goes at least part of the way to explaining NBC's nervousness about the show. But NBC should have been stronger. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn't make jokes about such dark subjects to offend or shock in the way a lesser show would. They aren't exploitative, and Kimmy's such a well drawn character that she is more than her traumatic past. Her story didn't end when she came out of that bunker.
Ultimately, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn't trade on cynicism or offence for the sake of it. It's message is one of resilience and hope. You'll come away from binge-watching the first season on Netflix sore from laughter, but with a message you can take into your daily life: find that small, unbreakable you inside yourself, and never let it go.
With a second season on the way, now is the perfect time to catch up with 2015's funniest sitcom. All 13 episodes are available to watch on Netflix right now, so what are you waiting for? I watched it all in two days!