Brow Beat

Why Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Feels So Much Like 30 Rock

Ellie Kemper in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Tina Fey in 30 Rock.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos courtesy Netflix,NBC.

Several television critics who have reviewed Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—the winning new Netflix sitcom about a woman who moves to New York after spending 15 years imprisoned in a bunker—have noted certain similarities to 30 Rock. The two shows have plenty of talent in common: namely, creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, and actors Jane Krakowski and Tituss Burgess. As Willa Paskin wrote in her Slate review of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “It feels like 30 Rock. There’s the same deadpan, high-octane pacing, penchant for the completely silly, love of weird names, and passion for bizarre pop-culture reference.” The A.V. Club’s Joshua Alston also noted that “the New York City of Kimmy Schmidt is the same one Liz Lemon is constantly griping about in 30 Rock, a trash-shrewn hellmouth populated with jerks and menacing youths.” Alston also perceptively cites the “jaunty, jazzy score by Jeff Richmond,” which fuels the comic momentum on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt much as it did on 30 Rock.

But the similarities go deeper than the setting, score, and sharp dialogue. As I watched Kimmy Schmidt over the weekend, I couldn’t help thinking that the main characters seemed to come from the same stock as the main characters of 30 Rock. It’s true that Kimmy’s bright, Pollyannaish personality is a far cry from Liz’s cynicism, but Kimmy is still, like Liz, an ultimately sane, grounded person surrounded by wackos. And those wackos come in three familiar types: the out-of-touch millionaire with a heart of gold, the fame-obsessed narcissist, and the eccentric working-class New Yorker.

On 30 Rock, the out-of-touch millionaire is Jack Donaghy; on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it’s Jacqueline. Although Jane Krakowski’s new character certainly has some traits in common with 30 Rock’s Jenna—she’s terrified of aging and gaining weight, for instance—she has more in common with Jack Donaghy. They both maintain extravagant lifestyles to compensate for their modest upbringings: Jack’s in South Boston, Jacqueline’s (née Jackie Lynn) on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. They’re both oblivious to the everyday experiences of the non-rich—Jacqueline doesn’t know how to take out garbage, for instance—and they openly disdain the appearance of their protégés. Perhaps most importantly for the sake of character development, the Jack-Liz and Jacqueline-Kimmy relationships are both genuinely affectionate: Jack and Jacqueline seem like soulless, mercenary bosses at first, but they find that Liz and Kimmy, respectively, can teach them important lessons about relationships and resilience.

If Jacqueline is the new Jack, who’s the new Jenna? That would be Titus, who shares Jenna’s narcissism, image-consciousness, obsession with fame, and penchant for breaking out into song at inopportune moments. (Lines like, “I envy you—I’ve never been able to meet me!” could have been Jenna’s scraps from the 30 Rock cutting-room floor.) Viewers who’ve made it to the end of the series will know that Titus’ thirst for attention at the expense of good taste rivals Jenna’s. Meanwhile, Lillian fills Tracy’s shoes as the eccentric native New Yorker who wanders around in the background, getting into trouble with Titus and saying politically incorrect things (“I think that Kim Jong Jr. is doing a bang-up job”). Lillian’s somewhat nonsensical rants against gentrification in Episode 8 were reminiscent of Tracy’s memories of growing up in the Bronx, where a missing manhole cover and a baseball bat covered with nails would be par for the course.

Obviously, there are differences between Jack and Jacqueline, Jenna and Titus, and Tracy and Lillian, most conspicuously in terms of gender, race, and sexual orientation. And I point out the similarities that do exist not as a criticism of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but as a theory for why it feels so familiar. Familiar, in this case, is not a bad thing: Fey and Carlock found a balance of characters in 30 Rock that allowed them to explore and critique late capitalism, with its attendant wealth inequality, class stratification, and celebrity worship. Fans of 30 Rock would be disappointed if they didn’t explore the same issues in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And even though Jacqueline, Titus, and Lillian echo the three main supporting characters in 30 Rock, Fey and Carlock’s writing feels as fresh and relevant as it did when 30 Rock first hit the airwaves.