Credit: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

In 2015, Netflix was still trying to prove it could play in the big leagues when an unlikely comedy broke out — not unlike its heroine Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), who escapes from an underground bunker after being kidnapped as a teen. “We wanted to tell a fish-out-of-water story that felt different and relevant, and also allowed us to touch on what goes on in the world in broad strokes,” says Robert Carlock, who created Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with fellow 30 Rock executive producer Tina Fey. “That’s usually what gets us in trouble, but we figured, ‘Let’s see how much trouble we can get in!'”

Carlock and Fey envisioned Kimmy as a coma sufferer or an Amish girl on rumspringa before landing on writing her as the survivor of a cult kidnapping. “We ended up doing the most extreme thing,” says Carlock. “But it’s only become more relevant; the idea of how women are treated and viewed. We wanted to tell a comedy about someone moving on from a terrible experience.”

Even Kemper was perplexed initially. “I did think that it was a joke or test or prank at first,” says Kemper. “But that’s what’s so magical about Tina and Robert: They managed to make a very dark premise funny. The key is that they don’t dwell on the past: the show focuses on what happens after a tragedy and how you move forward from that. It definitely wasn’t the first thing that sprang into my mind when I thought, ‘Oh I wonder what the sitcom’s going to be about.'”

After 15 years underground, Kimmy heads to New York City, where she forms unlikely bonds with her melodramatic roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess), gentrification-opposed landlady Lillian (Carol Kane), and self-absorbed, socialite boss Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski). “The wild differentiation in these four characters is extraordinary,” says Kane. “That’s what made it a thrill to stumble upon. I don’t know how to work with writing that’s homogenized.”

It was the diversity of its characters that Kemper believes won over the audience. “They’re all these outsiders who are trying to overcome whatever obstacles they are grappling with,” she says. “I think that that is something that most people just identify with. Ultimately, it’s a story about starting a new life which is relatable — it just has a higher set of circumstances.”

Or as Carlock puts it, their characters all inhabit “different kinds of metaphorical bunkers: Lillian is living in the past; Titus is living in this confectionary shell of a personality he’s built to protect himself from his fear of failure and his fear of success, and Jacqueline is living in this gilded cage.” Yet, when it came to on-set bonding, there were no reinforced-concrete walls in sight — figurative or otherwise. “The energy between the misfit foursome was kismet,” says Burgess. “For actors to fall in love right away is rare.” Krakowski — who accepted the role without a single detail — recalls yearly, on-set Halloween parties Fey would arrange for the cast and crew’s kids, and thanking Kemper’s parents for doing such a good job raising their daughter. “Robert and Tina write amazing material, but they’re also amazing people who made a home-like, warm family atmosphere,” she says.

Credit: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

Four seasons, multiple musical parodies and countless intricate and iconic jokes later, the cast and crew are saying goodbye to Kimmy and her unbreakable optimism (with the exception of a possible movie continuation). Looking back, Kemper is still pinching herself over her good fortune. “I can’t believe I got to play this character who was sweet and enthusiastic, but who also had this enormous amount of strength behind her,” she says. “It just seemed like such a unique combination of traits and that’s infinitely appealing.”

The cast and creators are all walking away with memories they’ll cherish for a lifetime and hope that Kimmy will leave behind an unshakable impact on its viewers. “In the more emotional encounters I’ve had with fans, they always reference Kimmy’s mantra of taking things 10 seconds at a time,” says Kemper. “I think that that’s very powerful. I say it to myself sometimes when I’m in that moment of high stress or a dark time. It’s deceptively simple: It’s just okay, let’s break this off into manageable chunks, let’s take this 10 seconds at a time. The show has so many brilliant and sharply written moment but it also has a lot of heart and I think that’s what’s so exceptional.”

Krakowski will miss exploring Jacqueline’s vulnerability most about her character. “She really was melting down, and each season she had to find her way onto her own two feet—or her Manolo Blahniks, or whatever she could currently afford,” she says. And like Kemper, she credits the writing for making Kimmy a truly unique show. “There have been select scenes that have just sucker punched me out of nowhere over the years, because the show can be completely over-the-top and hysterical one minute, then super honest the next,” she says. “Kimmy came out during a time in our country where the positivity of the heroine was refreshing. We’re in the same kind of time now, so it’s lovely to be able to escape and see some childlike optimism.”

Like her co-starts, Kane will miss the cast and the invigorating challenge it presented her. “You need to watch this show at least 10 times to get all the jokes,” she says with a laugh. “Sometimes, I’d have a line to say and wouldn’t fully it until after I shoot it I went to ask the writers. The jokes are so precise; it’s a mistake to paraphrase, although we’ve all tried. That’s the great challenge and I will miss it because it’s so stimulating and rare.”

Credit: Netflix

Burgess also pointed to the writing as one of the most memorable aspects of working on the series. “It is so hard because you have to get it right!” he says. “None of this show is improvised and so many people think we do, but we do not. So it takes a great deal of concentration to execute it the way they wrote it because it’s so funny the way they wrote it they don’t need our help.”

As for one day on set he’ll always hold dear, Burgess can pinpoint the moment perfectly — and no, it’s not shooting “Peeno Noir” or Lemonade. “It’s the first day being will Ellie in Times Square,” he recalls. “I have waltzed through Times Square for several years before I had a television presence on my way to work and I always wanted to know what it felt like to have my name up in lights and have all of the tourists rushing past me as I filmed a big TV show. Then, all of sudden, there I was and, even to this day, it brings tears to my eyes. I still can’t believe my good fortune.”

Carlock will miss writing a show that let him “step away from the day-to-day of the world right now and write about people who are making an effort to be good or to be their best selves, even if their best selves could be selfish and kind of petty.” Adding that is was refreshing “soul-wise” to take on Kimmy’s traits for the day and “sit down figure out how she keeps persevering.”

As for his overall hopes for the series, Carlock wants it to be remembered for showing fans how to “look at the smaller problems in their lives and think about how to keep perspective and use their energy to try to do good things.” Well, that and “a lot of laughter.”

Related content:

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
A woman escapes from a doomsday cult and starts life over again in New York City.
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