DVR Hindsight #10 (3/26/15): Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Late Late Show with James Corden

kimmy

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – “Kimmy’s in a Love Triangle!” – Season 1, Ep. 10 (Netflix)

When the history of this admittedly trivial matter is finally written, it might actually turn out that the death knell for NBC’s storied multi-decade tradition of critically (and often audience) acclaimed situation comedy – think Cheers, Friends, The Office, The Cosby Show, et. al – was sounded not with the recent Parks and Recreation finale, or the foregone conclusion that the Peacock Network would not subsidize a sixth season of Community*, but rather the decision to pass on a fun, unassuming underdog sitcom called Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, letting it pass instead to Netflix, where, unburdened by any semblance of backseat driving, it has, predictably, flourished. I streamed Kimmy’s entire 13-episode first season over little more than the course of a week, with hardly any impact on my normal viewing habits or capacity, and can say that while I understand somewhat why NBC initially said no, that still doesn’t mean the choice was wise. Kimmy Schmidt (The Office’s Ellie Kemper, in the definition of a showcase role) is one of four rural Indiana women rescued from an underground bunker after fifteen years under the influence of an apocalyptic cult. The dramatic discovery is immediately buzzworthy news, and in no time at all the “Indiana Mole Women” have become a national phenomenon. Such a premise might be potentially combustible in the wrong hands, and the show does sniff stiff impropriety now and again before invariably pirouetting back to its cheerful baseline. Unsurprisingly, Kimmy Schmidt‘s sense of humor is smart but random, and defiantly weird, a combination that helped win co-creator Tina Fey a slew of Emmys back in the heyday of 30 Rock without ever necessarily endearing her to the corporate suits she lampooned so mercilessly on a weekly basis.
 
*”Community”, tossed (metaphorically) out of a 7th-floor window at Rockefeller Center last year, seems to have already landed on its feet at Yahoo Screen, because that’s what cats do. Now enjoying at least its fourth life (Viva cat metaphors!) and freed from what I imagine were NBC’s endless notes, intrusive commercial considerations, and passive-aggressive stage parenting, Dan Harmon and company are already making a tiny but significant dent online, three episodes into the prophesied but heretofore unimaginable sixth season. I sincerely hope Donald Glover and Yvette Nicole Brown make it back for the now inevitable movie, but for the moment Paget Brewster and Keith David are providing fun, interesting counterpoints and mixing up the study group dynamic somewhat, much as Jonathan Banks did in season five, and the move to Yahoo has seemingly been a creative boon. After years spent steeped in outward wackiness that belied the aversion to change that lived in the hearts of Harmon and those passionate fans (like me) who mourned loudly whenever the Greendale they knew and loved died even a little, “Community” finally feels like a wholly organic show, still clever, still absurdist, still emotionally resonant, yet somehow freer than ever before.

Hoping to escape the spotlight, Kimmy decides, following a dispiriting initial run on the talk show circuit, to remain in NYC, changing her name to “Smith” and striking out to forge a life on her own terms, which is soon populated by a cross section of colorful midtown loons – including her off-off-off Broadway roommate (Tituss Burgess), ethically flexible landlord (Carol Kane), and the vapid, oblivious trophy wife for whom she nannies, played by Jane Krakowski as a domestic variation of her signature character, 30 Rock’s Jenna Maroney, with all the colossal narcissism, inane platitudes, and impenetrable self-confidence that implies. Kimmy is, to put it humanely, an ingénue, with a sunny, disarming, all purpose can-do attitude and a blinding, hair trigger smile deployed with all the care and modulation of a twelve-year-old playing Halo 4. She not only seizes the day, she assaults it, imposing her good natured will, even during the myriad moments she loses (or forgets) her depth, or misappropriates or misunderstands the modern world, through sheer force of positivity. The season’s first half occasionally stumbles as it deals with Kimmy’s efforts to establish herself in New York, including finding a job, going on a date, contemplating plastic surgery, going to school for her G.E.D., collecting not one but two potential boyfriends and getting sucked progressively further into the post-Bravo drama of the mega-rich Voorhees family. The supporting roles take time to truly stick, with detours into roommate Titus’ struggles to find work, Jacqueline Voorhees’ push/pull attraction to her globetrotting/bed-hopping husband and whatever miracle cure for her fast lane ennui the week has seen fit to supply her, though through it all the writing remains sharp and the actors are never less than fully committed. Every episode title ends in an exclamation point, reflecting Kimmy’s innate enthusiasm for life outside the bunker, even in all its warted glory.

“Kimmy’s in a Love Triangle!” appears toward the end of the season, at a likely moment where every character is pretty much as established and fleshed out as they’re going to be. The titular tryst – between Kimmy, her ridiculous trust fund “daddy’s boy” boyfriend Logan and her G.E.D. tutor, a Chinese delivery boy named Dong – is eventually resolved, but mostly takes a back seat to Titus’ latest desperate attempt at a professional breakthrough – hiring a “straight coach” (Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris) to help him land a role in Entourage 2 – and serious intrigue behind mansion walls, as Jacqueline’s pending divorce spurs the original Mrs. Voorhees (though not Pamela, Friday the 13th fans) to uproot her haughty, entitled daughter Xanthippe** to a new home in boring old Connecticut. Xanthippe, with whom Kimmy has developed a healthy rivalry, attempts to repurpose Kimmy’s ramshackle apartment as an outright crack den, hoping that presenting hers as a scandalous life of drug-fueled squalor might scare her mother out of town, while Titus, beneficiary of Norris’ unorthodox tutelage, amazes himself by somehow passing as a straight lothario at the expense of a bemused young couple at a local wing joint. Kimmy Schmidt is uniformly worth watching, but shines especially in the pilot and then from episode seven forward. The show picks up appreciable speed and carries it through the finale, while continuing to spring surprises in its writing and performances, including cameos from my favorite father-daughter combination on television – as the nefarious cult leader Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne and Kimmy’s resentful sister respectively – and, during the climactic court battle, Tina Fey as the Marcia Clark (of O.J. Simpson fame). Fey’s version of Clark is a real piece of work: clumsy, absent-minded, and hilariously tone deaf. In a clever comic touch, the stars in her eyes are every bit a match for Kimmy’s.

**”Game of Thrones” fans might get a kick out of the petulant young Plastic’s full name: Xanthippe Lannister Voorhees.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is Netflix’s first high profile foray into the sitcom world, and a success by most any standard. Sitcoms are obviously tremendous fuel for binge viewing sessions. Watching Kimmy, you may notice occasional subtle indicators of the show’s original broadcast pedigree, even as the greater enterprise feels almost specifically tailored to pay cable, or, in this case, streaming. If the show had ever made it to NBC, Kimmy’s heart, (such as when she responds to a stereotypical, ogling construction worker with a compliment that triggers a personal reappraisal, eventually changing his attitude forever) spunk, and hapless moments (as when she tries to spell Xanthippe’s name aloud to the girl’s mother: “Z?” [“No”] “E?” [“Try again”] “H!” [“just stop”]) would still be on full display, though other elements would likely be tamped down or removed entirely – some, like the matter of Jacqueline’s random, uncomfortable Native American ancestry, or Kimmy’s overcompensating train wreck of a stepfather, not without merit. It’s just as likely, however, that the show’s insanely catchy opening theme, a jolly internet meme remixed out of a “look at me” neighbor’s eyewitness news account of the “Mole Women” rescue, wouldn’t make the cut either (and don’t get me started on the hysterical 1938 B&W musical “Daddy’s Boy”), which would be a damned shame. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a great deal in common with its heroine: both are imperfect but striving, unrefined but beguiling, uneven but resilient, and, very occasionally, laugh out loud funny. No matter what the future holds, the utterly winning Kemper has her signature role already in the bag, and with the show now renewed for a second season, there is cause for much Kimmy-level optimism regarding where the determined Miss Schmidt might go from here.

Ah, the future. That’s gonna be a, you know a…fascinating transition. (Dammit.)

The Late Late Show with James Corden – “Episode 1/Episode 3” (CBS)

I come neither to praise James Corden nor to bury him. Truly. At first glance, albeit with barely an episode and a half’s worth of data from which to draw, the problems with his new Late Late Show already seem pervasive, but while Corden himself does appear on that list, he’s barely top five. Before I start checking off trouble spots I’d personally change, I should provide this bit of solace for the genial Englishman in the form of a disclaimer: I am not a member of his target audience, and when I am gone, as I unfortunately pretty much am already, I realize I will not be missed. This is as it should be. I’ve never been a fan of talk shows in general, though I was a longtime supporter of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, which, in its omnidirectional irreverence and stated goal to deconstruct the late night format, charmed me completely, providing, I thought, a much-needed antidote to the tired, innocuous, utterly inconsequential gabfests perfected by Jay Leno over his 118 years hosting The Tonight Show, and still practiced by charisma-deficient automatons the tube and ‘net and world over. Fiercely loved but little enough watched, Ferguson was the exception that ended up proving the rule. He cheekily and regularly made fun of his own show’s quality and lack of production value, firing pointed but swattable shots at authority figures from behind his shaky cover as company man, supplicant, and hack raconteur. It made for predictably fun but otherwise unpredictable television. Over the course of a decade at the helm, the laconic Scottish eccentric and ace standup comic turned his Late Late Show into something gleefully bizarre and truly loveable, a cordboard fantasia full of profane hand puppets and gay robot skeletons, talking taxidermy, phoned in celebrity impressions, double entendres by the metric ton, dependably excellent interviews with celebrities B-list and lower, and, as house mascot, a pantomime horse whose animated expressions routinely provided some of the show’s best lines.

Ferguson’s December departure was little remarked upon at the time, given the concurrent swansong of future Late Show (single) host Stephen Colbert from Comedy Central, but his loss nevertheless leaves a gaping void in the late night weirdness continuum that, from initial returns at least, new host James Corden either seems unable to fill, or CBS seems unwilling to allow to try. No matter how little CBS might care to hear it, Ferguson is, if not tough, then at least an exceedingly tricky act to follow. He spent ten years building his Late Late Show into something set defiantly apart from the norm. CBS’ solution with his successor has thus far been to place Corden, an affable, acclaimed star of the British stage (though relatively unknown Stateside), into as slick, toothless, and homogenous an arena as possible, and to pander and puff to the point of near-hyperventilation. Corden is in essence a self-deprecating, terminally overenthusiastic entertainment reporter, soliciting applause like a cheerleader in between doing red carpet interviews at the People’s Choice Awards. Words cannot adequately express how different the two Late Late Shows are from one another, which, in the end, will probably be a very good thing for both host and network. Now, it is just incredibly jarring. The new Late Late Show’s production budget seems a full 3x what Ferguson was ever afforded, with eye-catching, borderline obnoxious neon and black 3-D backdrops, a full house band led by former Comedy Bang! Bang! sidekick and human beatbox Reggie Watts, and an expanded studio full of conspicuous and zealous blanket enthusiasm for whatever’s next. Whereas Ferguson used to routinely deride his pre-coached audience’s cheers as “very believable”, little enough about Corden’s Late Late Show comes across as the least bit authentic – the set boasts a prominent “bar area”, populated by attractive coed Angelinos and sponsored by Bud Light, for heaven’s sake – save its host’s appealing and abiding humility, his effortless and, to a point, infectious laughter, and apparent fresh-faced wonder at all his good fortune.

On one level, Corden strikes me as a cross between Jimmy Fallon and a freshly rescued Saint Bernard puppy, inoffensive and beyond eager to please. On another, he’s Kimmy Schmidt, still pinching himself that this is all real, and blissfully unconcerned with anything but the present. Wanting to make the world smile is, after all, a fairly noble calling. In succeeding the deceptively quick and passively edgy Ferguson, Corden really shouldn’t receive demerits for essentially only being a capital-E “Entertainer”, though I also can’t shake the sense that, in making a half-hearted appeal to not only Ferguson’s scattered remaining audience but also the legendarily snarky Letterman’s lead-in, he’s bringing a knife to a gunfight. More likely, he’ll just disregard the odd remnants and seek out his own crowd, which is smart. I worry that CBS has plucked another British bon vivant out of relative obscurity, and, mindful of the lessons learned from its last such dalliance, coached him within an inch of his life to be warm, fuzzy and open – qualities Corden already seems inordinately blessed with – quite possibly squeezing out companion traits that might’ve made him more intriguing, or relatable (I don’t know anybody personally who is quite this happy), while surrounding him with the most superficial trappings imaginable. Corden’s opening night skit where he and Tom Hanks approximated 30 years of the actor’s career in six minutes was amusing, worth more than a chuckle, and, most crucially, tailor made for social media. The show as it exists probably already works great for patently uncomplicated, serially content people, the kind of Times Square New Year’s Eve crowd that will heartily applaud most anything – names, pictures, sponsors – with only a modicum of prompting, while cheering their fool heads off for any joke that lands hard, or set piece that objectively works.

Where this leaves the late night weirdos, other than in a lurch, is necessarily much less certain. Comedy Central has already had some luck replacing Colbert, but then Larry Wilmore was an established presence known from years as a Daily Show correspondent. Though its format inherently provides less in the way of either laughs or momentum, Wilmore’s own Nightly Show works pretty well in fits and starts, but this is a similar case where his comedic voice is a drastic departure from the admittedly inimitable Colbert, whose departure to replace David Letterman has engaged so many corners of the comedy-loving world in open mourning for the loss of not a human being but rather a television character. Wilmore does present a strong and clear point of view, and isn’t afraid to push or ruffle feathers to get it across. By contrast, Corden might as well be his own whole cloth television character, because I have no earthly idea who he is yet. This is the sort of thing that will come with time and familiarity, and CBS is certainly commemorating week #1 with a murderer’s row of guests, including Tom Hanks, Mila Kunis, Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, as if to distract us. Will that pipeline eventually dry up…or is “when” more the operative question? Will Corden, like Ferguson before him, eventually be forced to make more out of significantly less, and might that inspire something within him that hasn’t been immediately detectable? I fear not, but I hope so. I’d like to turn on The Late Late Show with James Corden a few months from now and find something utterly unlike the energetic but bland, focus-tested pablum its first show presented. Corden’s an unassailably nice guy, and I like him, though I guess I’ve just learned to expect a little bit more from my late night hosts.

Again, I’m probably not the audience CBS had in mind here. I’ll miss you, Craigy Fergs.

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