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Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has undone the interactive Netflix Special

An interesting take on the format doesn’t quite nail the tone

Ellie Kemper as Kimmy Schmidt and Daniel Radcliffe as the prince she’s about to marry smile at each other in the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt interactive special. Photo: Netflix

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A year and a half after Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt wrapped its fourth and final season, the Netflix show is back with an interactive special, Kimmy vs. The Reverend. The 80-minute (if you play through every possible storyline) choose-your-own adventure picks up after the four-year time jump in the show’s finale, three days before Kimmy’s wedding to a British prince played by guest star Daniel Radcliffe. When she finds a book that doesn’t belong to her inside her backpack, she goes on an adventure to find its owner, with the outcome decided by the viewer’s choices. It’s an interesting gimmick, and the writers clearly had a lot of fun with it, but the interactive format messes with the delicate balance of silly humor and horrible tragedy that made the show work.

Kimmy vs. The Reverend is the latest entry in Netflix’s ongoing experiment with interactive stories. The streaming service dropped a few interactive kids’ specials in 2017, and in 2018 released its first interactive drama, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Those were followed by a Bear Grylls-fronted choose-your-own-adventure, You vs. Wild, set “in the world’s toughest terrains,” and a Carmen Sandiego special, To Steal or Not to Steal, which gave viewers choices, but made sure they didn’t matter. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the first adult comedy to get the interactive treatment.

Part of the genius of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is in how it’s simultaneously dark and goofy. Starring the perpetually cheerful Ellie Kemper as a woman who was kidnapped and held for 15 years in an underground bunker with several other women by a fake pastor (Jon Hamm) who claimed he saved them from the apocalypse, the premise isn’t typical sitcom fodder. But with 30 Rock’s Tina Fey and Robert Carlock at the helm, the show is packed with wall-to-wall jokes that are more absurd than edgy. Fey and Carlock didn’t shy away from the atrocity of that backstory, but they didn’t wallow in it, either. Instead, they crafted a sitcom about resilience and self-improvement in the face of terrible trauma, while also featuring talking backpacks and “Lemonade” parodies.

Tituss Burgess points at the screen with his eyes bugged out as Netflix’s Kimmy Schmidt interactive special asks viewers to choose between “Get married” and “Rescue the Girls.” Photo: Netflix

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt faltered when it turned that irreverent eye to other topics. Fey has been repeatedly criticized for doubling down on racist storylines, and the jokes about millennials were already stale in 2016, which made the second and third seasons a drag. The show was at its strongest in its first and fourth seasons, which focused on Kimmy’s journey to put her past behind her. (One of the best episodes came in season 1 when, to avoid attending the Reverend’s trial, Kimmy gets caught up in a Soul Cycle-style exercise cult led by guest star Nick Kroll.)

The interactive special returns to that central conflict, with Kimmy again facing the man who stole 15 years of her life. After some silly choices in the introduction, like whether Kimmy’s roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess) should go to the gym or take a nap, the main plot of the episode emerges. That library book was found by the police who rescued Kimmy, but it doesn’t belong to her or any of the other women she was trapped with. It suggests the Reverend may have other unidentified victims out there, and Kimmy takes it upon herself to save them.

Kimmy’s determination to rescue those other women is a natural character progression for her, a logical continuation of where she is by the show’s original wrap-up. After her reluctance to testify against the Reverend, Kimmy learns she’s better off facing him than burying her trauma forever. She even refuses to divorce the Reverend (after learning that her bunker marriage was legally binding) to block another woman (guest star Laura Dern) from marrying him in a jailhouse ceremony. Notably, when viewers are offered a choice that goes against Kimmy’s helping nature, it’s almost always immediately followed by a “game over” screen, where a cast member tells you where you went wrong, and offers a do-over. At one point, Titus’ husband Mikey even says you made the wrong choice for Kimmy, because “she’s a good person.”

Jon Hamm as the Reverend in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt wears an orange prison jumpsuit and shrugs dismissively at Kimmy from the other side of a prison visitation window. Photo: Netflix

That’s a sneaky use of the choose-your-own-adventure mechanic, quickly leading viewers to the final storyline by rejecting “bad” choices. Instead of fully optimizing the format to offer abundant story options, Fey and Carlock mostly use it to make meta-jokes. One early “game over” screen features Cyndee (Sara Chase) asking why they’d bring in Daniel Radcliffe for just one scene. Characters vamp while waiting for viewers to make timed choices, which get funnier the longer you pause before deciding. There’s nothing wrong with that tactic per se. Fey and Carlock are one-liner machines whose throwaway jokes are funnier than many sitcoms’ biggest laugh lines. But while those extended choices and “game over” screens are hilarious, the interactive format throws off the show’s rhythm — especially once the endgame is revealed.

Like Fey and Carlock’s 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a specific cadence for bringing in jokes: it’s constant and unrelenting. Hardly 30 seconds go by in either show without someone tossing out a funny line. But because the choose-your-own-adventure format requires the plot to move forward between choices, the joke cadence is skewed. The “game over” screens are the most gag-filled parts of the special, because they don’t need to advance the plot. It’s hard not to see them as fun little rewards for making silly, reckless decisions.

Unlike most choose-your-own-adventure stories, which branch off into several possible endings, every choice leads to a face-to-face confrontation between Kimmy and the Reverend. The final decision of the episode offers the darkest possible conclusion to their relationship. This is one of the spots within the narrative where there’s a clear “correct” answer — you’re supposed to know what Kimmy would do and make the right choice for her. Any other decision immediately leads to a game over.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has always taken Kimmy’s trauma seriously, even while making jokes. The show’s four-season arc follows Kimmy as she struggles to accept her past without letting it define her. By the show’s finale, Kimmy has combined her anger about what happened to her with her optimistic helper attitude, and transmuted them into a successful, Harry Potter-esque children’s series that teaches young people how to healthily express their feelings. However, she never fully got closure with the man who kidnapped and imprisoned her.

Ellie Kemper looks at Daniel Radcliffe in the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt interactive special, as the viewer is asked to choose between “Make out” and “Plan wedding.” Photo: Netflix

Kimmy’s ties to the Reverend are an essential part of her story, and focusing this interactive special on their relationship feels like an appropriate bookend for the series. It seems to acknowledge that the two of them will always be connected, but she’s no longer letting him control her narrative. But by leaving their final confrontation up to the viewer, within a format that’s primed them to demand the most ridiculous decision possible, Fey and Carlock undermine Kimmy’s growth. What should feel like a moment of triumph for Kimmy, a symbol of how she’s no longer letting her anger define her, ends up feeling like the most boring option.

Netflix is clearly still figuring out the interactive format, and Kimmy vs. The Reverend is its best attempt yet. The choose-your-own-adventure framework always feels awkward when it comes in the middle of a narrative, but by using those moments as opportunities for meta-jokes, Fey and Carlock have taken the most interesting steps with the format that Netflix has seen so far. The story feels like a satisfying conclusion to Kimmy’s narrative, not arbitrary or tacked-on. But even with so many things done right, Kimmy vs. the Reverend struggles to maintain the finely balanced tone of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Without that precise juxtaposition between silliness and suffering, Kimmy vs. the Reverend is just kind of a bummer.

Kimmy vs. the Reverend is streaming on Netflix now.

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