Four seasons and… an interactive special? Sam Brooks reviews Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs The Reverend, an interactive special and epilogue to the one-time critical darling.
If you talk about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt now, chances are that the response will be, “Oh I used to love that show!” What was once part of Netflix’s then-exclusive stable of critically acclaimed programmes has become a footnote; one of many shows to start out strong and buzzy, and then fall into the gaping vortex of content, takes and memes. There was nary a peep when the fourth and final season, split into two halves, dropped on the service over a year ago. After 18 Emmy nominations, scores of gifs and countless quotable lines, another show bit the dust.
That’s why it was a bit of a surprise when, almost exactly a year ago, Netflix announced the series would be returning for a one-off special, Kimmy vs. The Reverend. Even more surprising was that the special would be interactive; Netflix’s second major foray into the choose-your-own-adventure format since the release of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch at the end of 2018. The special, which centres around Kimmy’s wedding to an English-adjacent prince (played by a very game Daniel Radcliffe), was something that nobody asked for, or wanted. The show ended well enough, beautiful and bittersweet in the way that it could be when it was at its best – it truly didn’t need an epilogue.
As a genre, the interactive special is one of Netflix’s riskier experiments. It’s not that the form is new; gaming has been doing this sort of thing for decades, firstly with visual novels and then much more successfully with the Telltale series, turning beloved properties like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones into fully interactive narratives for gamers to be led through. It’s more that nobody’s quite perfected it for live action, as many 90s experiments in the form will show you.
Upon release, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch seemed to garner more curiosity than actual acclaim. By the time that news cycle was over, people stopped talking about it. Black Mirror is an understandable first foray for the form; the blunt-force trauma of that show’s themes work for the binary choices of a choose-your-own-adventure book.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which could be alienating with both its scattershot tone and darkness at the best of times, seems like less of an understandable choice. Comedy is a lot harder to pull off in this form; you double the amount of plot while tripling the amount of jokes. It might’ve been a concession by Netflix to the makers – you can finish your show, but only if you make it as a special. Or maybe Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the show’s creators, really hated Bandersnatch and wanted to send it up? Who can say. Regardless, what we’ve got now is an 80-minute, interactive epilogue to their show.
Surprisingly, it works.
This special is a success on two fronts. Firstly, it’s more than just an epilogue, it’s a proper round-off to one of the funniest shows of the past five years; Fey wields punchlines like she’s throwing daggers. More of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is always going to be a welcome thing for me. Everybody is on their A-game here, tossing out Fey and Carlock’s one-liners as reliably as they ever have. They’re not doing anything new, but I’ll happily watch Ellie Kemper, Jane Krakowski, Titus Burgess and Carol Kane take another go at their respective characters.
Kane, in particular, gets a chance to play a second character that stretches her, and shows another, no-less-hilarious side to the actress. The show was a star-maker for Kemper and Burgess, another slam-dunk for Krakowski, but Kane was the one making her great, decades-long comeback after 1980’s Taxi, and I hope more roles as great as Lillian come for her in the wake of this show.
What’s more surprising is that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt manages to be a successful platform for an interactive special to leap from. From the first choice, simply whether Kimmy’s wedding dress will be “fun” or “fancy”, the viewer is set down a narrative where they get to make scant, largely aesthetic choices as they march Kimmy down the path to her wedding, which has been derailed by an unexpected intrusion by yes, the Reverend (Jon Hamm, still best when playing a charming monster).
After four seasons, we know exactly who the characters are, and what they’d do in any situation, so the viewer is given a pretty strong implied direction to go down; Kimmy’s a generally good person, so if we want to get to the “right” ending, we know what to pick. There’s also a limit to how much agency the viewer can have – the ending you get is still, after all, the ending they actually filmed – but the ability to get to choose certain pathways feels like you’re choosing what jokes you want to see more. Do you want to see Jacqueline play mind games or engage in physical violence with a production assistant? This special, for better or worse, has you covered.
Even more pleasing than this, though, is how the special turns the idea of an interactive television show on its head. Some of the more obvious out-of-character choices that the viewer can make – like making Kimmy leave a child alone in a store, or engaging in some very out-of-character violence – are rewarded with false endings, and direct-to-camera disapprovals from the cast, followed with a quick rewind to the previous choice.
It even makes fun of the subtler aspects of the interactive special, like having actors vamp in the very obvious and momentum-killing time that is left between lines and actions for the viewer to make their choices. It’s the kind of spiky deconstruction that would make more sense if Netflix had made more of an established genre of the interactive special, rather than cautious stabs at it here and there. Most of Netflix’s work in the genre has been under the radar, with the exception of Bandersnatch, largely nature documentaries and kid shows, and none of it has been a show of this stature (or genre) taking a harsh right turn into it.
For a show that started off as one of Netflix’s biggest coups – one of the caustic voices of an embittered generation making the follow-up to her critical darling – it’s a shame to see it end its run on what feels like a cultural downbeat. The special is great, with some all-timer jokes, but who’s keeping their finger on this specific pulse? While Kimmy Schmidt has never had a significant decline in quality – and I actually think it’s been better than any of its peers at skewering pop and internet culture in uncomfortable, bracing ways – it’s definitely dipped out of favour in a way that 30 Rock never did, and frankly never has.
What I also appreciated about the show was how it waded into conversations that were genuinely uncomfortable. Even four years later, I’ve not seen a mainstream show delve into the complexities of Native American identity like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt did. Sure, it did it by casting Jane Krakowski, a tremendous actress but still white as a blank page, but I’ll take an imperfect stumble over nothing at all. When was the last time, after all, you saw a show with Native Americans that actually dealt with identity? No, that one episode of Westworld doesn’t count.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was doing this constantly, skewering the hypocrisy within certain social movements – be it hot-take culture or cancel culture – in ways that legitimately pushed the boundaries, and tested the structural integrity of certain woke bubbles. Crucially, it never felt like it was doing it to be edgy, but doing it to test the relative comfort of its audience, in the way that the best comedy does. The best comedy also gives us Maya Rudolph playing Dionne Warwick, complaining about global warming and mispronouncing “receipts”. I don’t make the rules, I just appreciate them.
So it’s a shame to see the series end with a footnote, even one as assured and funny as this special. While I think Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a darker and altogether smarter creature than 30 Rock, I can see why it didn’t hold root in many viewers’ hearts; it’s a lot more fun to watch the antics of a sketch television show than it is to watch a dark comedy with an abused woman at its centre. The special is a fitting end for the show, and perhaps quite telling for its legacy: risky and experimental in its own right, but maybe not the easiest, or even the most necessary, thing to love.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. The Reverend is available on Netflix right now.