Unbreakable optimism

Ellie Kemper will grapple with serious life issues in the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Ellie Kemper will grapple with serious life issues in the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.PHOTO: NETFLIX

Ellie Kemper, who plays an abducted woman in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, is struck by how fans looked beyond to the comedy

Being kidnapped does not strike most people as being especially funny. But the sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - which draws on real-life abductions for its offbeat premise, about a woman who is relentlessly optimistic despite having been imprisoned by a cult for 15 years - has drawn a largely favourable reaction from fans and critics.

The show, whose second season premieres today on Netflix, was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series and six other Emmy awards for its first season last year.

Ellie Kemper, who plays the titular character, is struck by the fact that fans seem to connect with the deeper themes of resilience and hope in the show despite its abundant silliness and goofball humour.

Speaking to The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles, she says: "I've had a lot of people come to share with me that they were going through a difficult time or had a very challenging moment in their life, and that they watched this and it helped them to feel better, which is a nice thing to hear."

She reveals that the second season will see Kimmy "grapple with some pretty heavy life stuff".

"She doesn't have a ton of street smarts - there's a lot of new stuff that she just doesn't know about. But she's not a dummy," says the 35-year-old, who is married to comedy writer Michael Koman.

The show's creator, award- winning comedienne and writer Tina Fey, says the series also owes its "inherent sunniness" to the personality of Kemper, who has appeared in the television comedy The Office (2005 to 2013) and movies such as Bridesmaids (2011).

The series - which shows Kimmy being freed from captivity and building a new life for herself in New York - "was in a lot of ways inspired by Ellie", says Fey, who has described the actress as having "this sunniness, but also this strength".

Fey, 45, admits that the original pilot episode she and co-creator Robert Carlock came up with for the Netflix show was "a little bit darker".

There are many close parallels between Kimmy's story and that of Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted from her bedroom in 2002, and that of the three women kidnapped by Ariel Castro in Ohio between 2002 and 2004.

Kemper read the memoirs of Smart, now 28, and one of Castro's victims, Michelle Knight, 34, to prepare for the role.

But Fey says, "I think we were right to tip it in the direction that we did", which was to make it more upbeat and reflective of "a certain type of ebullient young women who has survived something just awful and comes out the other side still optimistic".

It has not been all praise for the show, however. The writers were criticised for what some saw as a racially offensive portrayal of Kimmy's love interest, a Vietnamese delivery boy named Dong (Lee Ki Hong from The Maze Runner films), and a storyline involving Kimmy's employer Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) denying her Native American heritage and pretending to be white.

But Fey, an eight-time Emmy winner for shows such as 30 Rock (2006 to 2013), which she created, has little time for naysayers.

In an interview published on the fashion website Net-A-Porter in December, the comedienne - who is married to composer Jeff Richmond, 53, and has two daughters aged four and 10 - says: "My new goal is not to explain jokes. I feel like we put so much effort into writing and crafting everything, they need to speak for themselves. There's a real culture of demanding apologies and I'm opting out of that."

In Los Angeles, she is again asked about the backlash, in particular the negative comments posted online about the show being racially insensitive.

"I mean, people are allowed to write whatever they want to write. There's something great about that freedom," she says.

"But we also have the freedom to not care."

•Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 2 premieres today on Netflix.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2016, with the headline 'Unbreakable optimism'. Print Edition | Subscribe