The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Is Basically a '90s Tween Disney Sitcom


Because I don’t live under a rock, but rather a pile of blankets and empty Ben & Jerry’s containers, I, like many others, spent last weekend watching the entirety of Netflix’s new Tina Fey-penned show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. From the start, I felt there was something deeply familiar about this show, aside from fact that it clearly embodies the absurdist, pop culture reference-heavy humor of 30 Rock. Midway through a pint of Chunky Monkey, it dawned on me: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is as if a late ’90s/early ’00s Nickelodeon sitcom was also forced into a doomsday cult and had to re emerge in 2015 to appeal to its viewers, who are now adults who can’t afford basic cable but still manage to bum their family’s Netflix login.

This all makes sense when you consider that Kimmy, played by Ellie Kemper, was kidnapped in the 8th grade. Kept in a bunker underground with her cult until adulthood, she reemerges into the world with a steely resolve to make the world a better place, along with a wardrobe of primary-colored separates and light-up Sketchers that you would expect from, say, Ren Stevens or Raven Baxter or Lizzie McGuire or Taina Morales. Kimmy’s picking up her adolescence where it left off, but the delightful thing about the show is that it doesn’t punish her for her naivety. Because, much like a tween on a Disney Channel show, it’s her ingenuity and lack of jadedness that saves the day. She seems to effortlessly wander around New York in a childlike manner that is the direct opposite of a show like, say, Broad City, which does a great job of making going from place to place seem like an Olympic obstacle. (When Titus asks Kimmy what she’s doing in Times Square, she replies, “Shopping! It’s Times Square. Where New Yorkers shop!”)

The gags on 30 Rock were never that unbelievable—it’s easy to assume that show business is a wild zone where anything can happen—whereas similar gags on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt take on a surreal quality. When Kimmy’s famous heir boyfriend shows up with an actual dolphin for her as a gift, it’s like we’re watching All That‘s version of a rich person.

The show’s status as a fucked up Disney Channel show is best illustrated through the episode where Kimmy goes back to school to get her GED. When Kimmy tries to complain about her corrupt teacher, played by Richard Kind (who is basically reprising his role as UNCLE CHUCK on Even Stevens!), she is told that she cannot speak with the principal because he’s “dead… serious about education so he went to a conference in Hartford.” The school is facing budget cuts, so the fall dance theme is simply “gymnasium.” The school receptionist reveals that “between you, me, and a former student we think is living in the air ducts,” she could just sell Kimmy a diploma.

One of the things the show does so well is portraying Kimmy’s interactions with actual 15-year-old Xanthippe, Jacqueline’s dark-humored stepdaughter. While Kimmy is trying to pick up where she left off as a teen, Xanthippe wants to grow up as fast as she can. She is determined to bring Kimmy down by discovering her mysterious past, while Kimmy is determined to convince her that it’s okay to not play it cool all the time. She is the opposite of a classic upbeat Disney protagonist. When we first meet her, she’s begging Kimmy to help her friend who was taking vodka shots and might have alcohol poisoning, but “can’t go to the hospital because her dad’s running for Congress.” Once Kimmy helps her (“I’ve gotten botulism a bunch of times from spoiled can goods”), the girls resume taking selfies of themselves in dark body-con outfits and tell Kimmy, “Can you go? We’re, like, in here.” In a true Disney Channel twist, though, when the mean girl takes off her mask we discover she loves bird watching and Babysitter’s Club books.

Like lots of contemporary tween sitcoms, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt makes an effort to have a diverse cast of characters. There’s Titus, Kimmy’s black, gay aspiring Broadway star roommate; Dong, her Vietnamese study buddy (who laughs and says “Kimmy” apparently means “penis” in his language), and Jacqueline, the Upper East Side mom who has employed Kimmy as a nanny and turns out to be a Native American woman pretending to be white. (Jane Krakowski, who plays Jacqueline, is definitely not Native American, which I learned as I frantically Googled to check when this subplot showed up). Ironically, the way that characters of various races and cultures are written on this show is not quite so different from how they write those characters on Nickelodeon or Disney. The writers approach race with the same sort of self-aware, not-that-deep analysis that a children’s show would take. In the case of Jacqueline’s character, it might be that they’re actually mocking how white people tend to view Native Americans from a 12-year-old’s perspective.

Still, in a world where “only ’90s kids remember…” Kimmy Schmidt is a reminder that the determined-beyond-my-means, unflappable dispositions of girls of Disney and Nickelodeon sitcoms doesn’t have to go into syndication. Tina Fey and Ellie Kemper have developed it anew.

Gabby Noone is a writer and student. She lives in New York.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin