Late in the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, currently streaming on Netflix, Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) fumes, "Gilligan!" largely apropos of nothing.
The mention, of course, nods to the 1960s comedy Gilligan's Island, one of those shows everybody in America knows, even if they've never sat down to watch a single episode. The tale of a fateful trip, a bunch of castaways, and some very stupid jokes has passed down to all of us through cultural osmosis.
But that line is a clue to what makes Kimmy Schmidt work as well as it does — and after some early rough patches, it settles in to work surprisingly well. The comedy, about a young woman who moves to New York City after 15 years in captivity with a doomsday cult (to which she frequently flashes back), is surprisingly similar to the gimmick sitcoms of the 1960s — a subgenre that includes Gilligan's Island.
The most frequent comparison point for the series has been 30 Rock, which makes sense. Kimmy is created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who last worked on the prior sitcom, and it features Jane Krakowski, who plays Jacqueline, a barely disguised version of her 30 Rock character, Jenna. There are also times when Kemper seems to be playing a thin gloss on 30 Rock's protagonist, Liz Lemon.
Yet give Kimmy Schmidt enough time, and it reveals that the real comparison point to make here isn't with 30 Rock. It's with Bewitched.
Here are five sitcoms Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has buried way down deep in its DNA that you might not have thought of.
Bewitched told the story of Samantha Stevens, a young housewife who also happened to be a witch. Her husband, Darren, was in on the secret, but nosy neighbors were not. At all times, her past — in the form of her mother, Endora — threatened to expose her true self.
It was the best of the era's gimmick sitcoms. That's a series with a high-concept premise at its center, something more complicated than "a bunch of people hang out at work" or "here's a funny family."
In Kimmy Schmidt, the title character's horrifying cultist past (in the form of flashbacks) hangs heavily over the series. It informs everything she does in New York with the new band of weirdos she finds to hang out with. The show even has a theme song that lays out the show's premise in brief, just like most gimmick sitcoms do.
The gimmick sitcom has largely become vilified in recent years because of shows like Gilligan, where the gimmick was mostly the basis for stupid plots and stupider jokes. But at its best, the gimmick sitcom serves as a metaphor for some larger, more universal experience.
In Bewitched, Samantha's witchcraft was a coded way of talking about the expanding power of women in 1960s America. On Kimmy Schmidt, the protagonist's journey works as the story of what anyone, anywhere goes through when trying to put the traumas of the past behind them.
Like Samantha, Kimmy has a secret she's trying to keep, one that she initially shares with only one person, her roommate, Titus (Tituss Burgess), a gay, black would-be superstar. (He slots neatly into the "Darren" role.) She's intent on rising beyond her minor celebrity as a rescued abductee, just as Samantha hoped to not have to rely on witchcraft any longer.
On both shows, the protagonist's past is constantly coming up to haunt her, and on both shows, there are nosy people who will do anything to learn the hero's deepest secrets. Indeed, Lillian (Carol Kane) from Kimmy feels like she would fit into the Bewitched universe with barely any trouble at all.
2) Get Smart
This '60s spoof about an incompetent secret agent taking on the forces of KAOS (a rival spy organization) bears fewer similarities to Kimmy than Bewitched does, but in one important case, the two shows are similar — they both feature harsh worlds that could just as easily destroy our heroes as help them.
You could write a whole essay about how the American sitcom has largely let go of the idea of conflict at its center (as a matter of fact, I did), but Kimmy Schmidt is a great example of why conflict can make an already good show even better.
Just as Get Smart revolved around weekly spy missions with new bad guys to face off with, Kimmy features a whole fleet of characters Kimmy has to win over or otherwise subvert, from her teenaged charge Xan (Dylan Gelula), who's intent on figuring out who Kimmy really is, to a disinterested teacher (Richard Kind) to, in what's the season's final battle, her abductor (Jon Hamm).
Without anything to overcome, Kimmy's endlessly positive attitude could seem too sunny. With so many struggles, it becomes a necessary corrective to the horrible stuff she goes through.
3) Family Affair
Kimmy gender-flips this '60s show's premise. In Family Affair, a lifelong bachelor found himself forced to care for his brother's orphaned children, with the hope of his manservant, Mr. French.
Kimmy utilizes a similar setup and character dynamics in the scenes at Jacqueline's house. Instead of a lifelong bachelor, the show has Jacqueline, the second wife of a very rich man who finds herself having to care for the teenage daughter from his first marriage and the son in whom she seems to have only a little interest. (The ages of the kids on both shows are even very similar.)
Mr. French was Family Affair's breakout character, because he was the most interesting figure in the show, the one who actually had to handle most of the kids' problems. It makes sense, then, that Kimmy has largely stepped into the Mr. French role in this inverted version of Family Affair.
In actuality, the stories set in Jacqueline's life are rarely the show's strongest, and that might be because the relatively "grounded" world of New York's super-rich (granted, a world featuring robots and wild excess) meshes less well with the more cartoonish universe of the gimmick sitcom. But these elements are still there.
Created by '70s super-producer Norman Lear, Maude was one of the original blatantly feminist sitcoms, about the woman in the title, who refused to live within the boxes society placed her in.
Fey and Carlock's work has always borne similarities to Lear's shows. Like Lear's work, 30 Rock dug deep into social satire and offered an endless barrage of jokes. And like Lear's work, 30 Rock could be incredibly pointed politically.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows in those footsteps, telling political and social stories both hilarious (about Titus realizing he gets treated better on the streets of New York when in makeup as a werewolf than he ever did as a black man) and poorly executed (Jacqueline's secret origins as a Native American are horribly off-key for a show normally so deft).
But first and foremost, Kimmy Schmidt is a relentlessly feminist show about the fact that women are unstoppable, no matter what gets thrown at them. The entire arc of the season is built around Kimmy facing down her fear of her own past, then conquering it to stand firm against anything else that might hurt her. The series even makes this explicit in its 11th episode, when Kimmy exposes a cultlike exercise instructor as just another man peddling women false promises.
In that sense, Kimmy is a lot like Maude. But it's also like another, much more recent show with a feminist hero. Just not 30 Rock — the one you're probably thinking of.
5) Parks & Recreation
In some ways, Kimmy Schmidt plays as a stealth sequel to the recently concluded Parks. Imagine if Leslie Knope, the Indiana-born-and-bred hero of Parks, moved to the big city to begin a new life — the results would look a lot like Kimmy. Granted, the circumstances of Kimmy's life in Indiana are drastically different from those of Leslie's, but the two characters share a positive spirit and can-do optimism that links them.
When Kimmy inevitably returns to Indiana for the trial of her abductor, the jokes about her hometown of Durnsville might as well be Parks leftovers about Pawnee. It would not be so very hard to imagine the characters from the earlier show turning up on this one and fitting right in.
Fey, of course, is friends with Amy Poehler, who played Leslie for all seven seasons of Parks, and it's almost possible to imagine the baton being passed here between shows, that Kimmy might pick it up and run with it for another seven years.
And if you look at this list of shows — Bewitched and 30 Rock and Maude and Parks and even Get Smart (which featured the uber-capable woman Agent 99) — you'll notice that not only are they shows about women navigating societies that don't always want them there, but they're about how women are so strong it almost doesn't matter what the world thinks of them. Women can take anything you can dish out, because they're unbreakable.
Just like, well ... you know.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is currently streaming on Netflix.