Breaking Down the Scientology Parallels in 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's' 'Sliding Doors' Episode

Showrunners Tina Fey and Robert Carlock and stars Ellie Kemper and Tituss Burgess reveal the thinking behind the alternate-universe version of the series' characters.
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix
Tim Blake Nelson and Tituss Burgess in 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's' "Sliding Van Doors" episode

[The following story contains spoilers for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's "Sliding Van Doors" episode in the fourth and final season.]

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt viewers were previously introduced to the Church of Cosmetology as the new cult of Kimmy’s true-believer bunkermate Gretchen Chalker (Lauren Adams). But when Cosmetology re-emerges in the hourlong “Sliding Van Doors” episode in Kimmy Schmidt’s final season, exploring what might have been if Ellie Kemper’s lead character hadn’t been kidnapped and Titus (Tituss Burgess) missed his Lion King audition, Cosmetology has ties to Hollywood and bears some striking similarities to Scientology.

Kimmy Schmidt showrunners Tina Fey and Robert Carlock wouldn't comment on the Scientology comparisons. But a number of Titus' experiences in Cosmetology seem to allude to coverage of Scientology. In his early days with Cosmetology, Titus performs stunts for high-profile Scientologist Tom Cruise. Later, after Titus becomes a successful actor but remains a closeted gay man, Gretchen has risen to become the head of Cosmetology and is married to someone named Shelly, whom viewers never see but who Gretchen insists is “definitely alive.”

Shortly after leaving Scientology, Leah Remini filed a missing person report for Shelly Miscavige, the wife of leader David Miscavige, who reportedly hasn’t been seen in public in years.

Additionally, Titus appears in a Cosmetology music video, singing lyrics like, "Shelley Chalker is alive," which seems reminiscent of the “We Stand Tall” video featured in Alex Gibney's Scientology documentary Going Clear.

While Fey and Carlock deflected questions about Cosmetology's real-life inspiration, the fictitious cult does fit with the show's ethos, they said.

"Our show is a show about cults and about what makes sense to people and what doesn't make sense to people and a fictitious cult of Cosmetology certainly made sense to our universe," Fey says.

Carlock adds, "In a larger sense, blind belief systems, whether it's in oneself or in an extreme version of religion, have never been the solutions to our characters' problems. Cosmetology is certainly one of those and, hey, it works. Titus becomes a really successful actor."

As for what inspired his portrayal of alternate-universe Titus, Burgess says, "Had he not had his brazen confidence, his 'let the chips fall where they may, I'm going to do what's right for me’ [approach], I think he probably would have turned out the way he did in this episode because he had to pretend to be straight, he had to use this cover-up and to me that is the pits of hell. I just played the person I never wanted to become.”

As for the other characters in the hourlong episode based on the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow-starrer Sliding Doors, Carlock explains that removing Kimmy “as the variable” led to them having “worse” lives.

"We've always tried to avoid this idea that Kimmy is kind of magical," he says. "The series is not about Kimmy [making] everything perfect around her, but we do think she's made those people better or at least more thoughtful and making better decisions for not just themselves but taking other people into account. When you look at where all of the characters started, they're in very different places and so is Kimmy, and the main experiment was: We know that life should be worse without Kimmy in it and it was just a question of kind of shuffling the deck.”

Carlock defines Kimmy's "Sliding Van Doors" identity as a "spoiled white girl," and Kemper admits she was surprised by her character’s different personality in the episode, but attributes it to her change of circumstances.

"Kimmy's arc and journey throughout the whole series has been that she's trying to make the world a better place and she really has to come to terms with the fact that she can't control her outside circumstances and other people's choices," Kemper says. "She can only control her own decision to be a good person. I think in that episode, it's almost as though she didn't have that realization; she didn't understand that the power rests with her to make decisions that are good for her, that could improve the world."

At the end of the episode, back in the real world of Kimmy Schmidt, Titus asks Kimmy if she ever does wonder what if, and she quickly shoots him down, explaining that she has to believe that this is where she's meant to be.

Kemper says she thinks Kimmy means what she says.

"I do think she fully believes that or is coming to the realization that she may not have been where she is had she not been kidnapped,” she says. “Never to call the kidnapping and her time in the bunker as a blessing, but I guess it's more just this belief that you cannot control outside circumstances … Just the fact that she dealt with [her ordeal], and [that], in a way, made her stronger.”