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When Netflix rolled out its first interactive special, 2018’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, it inspired the kind of pessimism that the anthology series was known for peddling about other technologies. In a New York Times interview, Netflix exec Todd Yellin argued that viewers would be more invested in a story if they had more involvement in which direction it headed. But many critics saw Netflix’s interactive capabilities less as a storytelling device than the site’s latest version of A/B testing. It didn’t help that Bandersnatch, for which series creator Charlie Brooker wrote eight different endings, was a thoroughly middling episode of Black Mirror, with half-baked meta-commentary about the illusion of free will.
Netflix has offered up more than a half-dozen interactive specials since, mostly in its children’s programming. That makes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend its most notable entrant in the choose-your-own-adventure space since Bandersnatch — and the new standard for the platform’s interactive stories. Kimmy vs. the Reverend isn’t wholly essential as an epilogue to Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s comedy, but it’s also much more substantial and satisfying than most fan-service-oriented post-series projects. Most impressively, the special uses the interactive element to build on the themes that made Kimmy Schmidt such a unique show.
AIR DATE May 12, 2020
Ellie Kemper’s Kimmy began the series as the newly freed survivor of a doomsday cult after being abducted by the Reverend (Jon Hamm) at age 14. (“Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker,” she says circumspectly in the pilot.) Like Fey’s earlier series, 30 Rock, Kimmy Schmidt was widely lauded for its frenzied comic pacing and razor-sharp jokes, especially about pop culture and one-percenter excess. But despite its nonstop zippiness and candy-colored palette, Kimmy Schmidt was a darker and more searching series, haunted by the question of how one recovers from and makes sense of such acute trauma — especially when the world offers so many tempting opportunities to exploit one’s pain or wield it against someone else.
Heavy, huh? As with the rest of the series, Kimmy vs. the Reverend continues to explore these themes while staying bright and bouncy. The special opens with Kimmy affianced to a British aristo (Daniel Radcliffe), whose own bone-deep eccentricities and deeply sad childhood may or may not make him the perfect match for our protagonist. But Kimmy soon leaves Manhattan — with her former roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess) or her ex-employer Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), you decide — to search for the Reverend’s final captive.
For a choose-your-own-road-trip-options story, Kimmy vs. the Reverend is remarkably focused. As the title suggests, the special heads toward a confrontation between Kimmy and her kidnapper, with relatively little to do for Krakowski or Carol Kane, who plays neighborhood kook Lillian, as well as a prim new character. (If you’re one of the many viewers who jumped ship midway through the series’ run, you won’t have much trouble getting back on — just know that Kimmy ended the series finale a best-selling children’s author, Titus an actor with a Hollywood career ahead of him, Jacqueline a promising new talent agent and Lillian a local anti-gentrification icon.)
Running about 60-80 minutes per viewing, Kimmy vs. the Reverend does lag noticeably in the middle, as the characters get further from New York and familiar characters and are forced to contend with random yokels. But like so much of Fey’s sitcom work, the special is worth rewatching to catch all the jokes and Easter eggs — along with some guest stars and storylines (like Jacqueline’s accidental cancellation of #MeToo) — you might miss otherwise. (I also caught at least one joke you’d only get if you watched the special twice, with different choices.)
In contrast to Bandersnatch, there doesn’t seem to be a multitude of possible endings, but one — the right one. The A/B choices are sometimes between the “right” choice and the “wrong” choice: Babysit a unibrowed baby left alone in a gas station, or walk away and leave the infant to her own devices. In my first of three viewing experiences, I kept choosing the “wrong” choice, which seemed more ripe for conflict and comedy. But those choices frequently dead-ended and “rewound” me back to where the paths had forked.
The “right” choices, ultimately, lead Kimmy toward catharsis, a firmer sense of selfhood and a quietly devastating answer to the question of why the Reverend decided to ruin so many young women’s lives. The special’s interactive nature, then, ends up a kind of model of therapeutic restoration.
In the end, to write Kimmy Schmidt‘s final chapter, Fey and Carlock don’t really give the audience much choice at all. But their refusal to pander to fans lines up with the show’s ethos all along: Heal, or else.
Cast: Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Jane Krakowski, Carol Kane
Creators: Tina Fey, Robert Carlock
Premieres: Tuesday (Netflix)
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