For as intriguing as innovations in TV structure are, the first question I had about “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” doing an “interactive” special was simply, “….why?” For as long as books and games and even YouTube playlists have indulged “choose your own adventure” style storytelling, which gives its audience the illusion of free will while picking between prewritten options to shift the plot, television’s never quite been able to crack it. Before streaming, there was no way to let TV viewers drive the story; afterward, streaming networks still largely stuck to preexisting TV structure, sans commercial breaks. Even “Bandersnatch,” Netflix’s first stab at the format via its technological nightmare drama “Black Mirror,” mostly uses an interactive interface to unfurl a series of disturbing taunts rather than compelling narratives.
With “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. The Reverend,” Netflix is trying again with a starkly different approach than its “Black Mirror” stab. For one, it’s a comedy whose aim isn’t to hammer its miserable audience into the ground with self-loathing self-awareness. For another, it makes for a genuinely entertaining experience that justifies its existence before the show’s (unbeatable) opening credits roll. In fairness, both interactive specials feature many, many sudden deaths should you choose the wrong option — “Kimmy Schmidt” just has a hell of a lot more fun with them, much to this viewer’s intense relief.
The Tina Fey and Robert Carlock show, one of Netflix’s earliest originals, technically ended in 2019 after wrapping up each character’s stories in neat (and uncharacteristically conventional) bows. Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) went from a scrappy former hostage to an incredibly rich children’s book author with millions of fans and franchise opportunities. (Think J.K. Rowling, if J.K. Rowling wrote like an eternally optimistic Dr. Seuss.) Her roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess) achieved his Broadway dreams, married his adoring construction worker boyfriend (Mike Carlsen), and became a movie star, thanks to his rising star agent Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski). Even their landlord Lillian (Carol Kane), who tried in the original series finale to get blown up with her beloved apartment building to protest gentrification, found new purpose as the gravelly voice of the New York City subway. Everyone lived happily ever after, so far as we know it. Why bother revisiting them?
Narratively speaking, there’s not much of a need, and “Kimmy vs. The Reverend” — directed by Claire Scanlon, written by Fey, Carlock, Sam Means and Meredith Scardino — doesn’t try too hard to convince us otherwise. It opens with the news that Kimmy’s getting married to Frederick (Daniel Radcliffe, game as ever), an aggressively earnest British heir who spends less time onscreen with his fiancée than he does a suspicious Lillian. A few days before her wedding, Kimmy discovers an old choose your own adventure book that she believed to be hers when she was stuck in the bunker where the Reverend (Jon Hamm) kept her for years. But as she soon discovers, it’s not hers at all, but an old keepsake of another girl who’s still sitting somewhere in another undiscovered bunker. (It’s a surprisingly dark twist, especially for a show that only sporadically acknowledged the depth of Kimmy’s PTSD, and at one point gets so genuinely dire that I briefly thought Kimmy Schmidt was about to break bad.) For the purposes of “Kimmy vs. The Reverend,” though, the choose your own adventure book discovery is mostly a meta means to an end, a way to launch Kimmy and friends into a wild goose chase with a clear end goal. All along the way, cheery yellow options for what to do next pop up on the bottom of the screen, with a waning countdown bar letting the audience know just how long they have to make up their minds. And if you, like me, are chronically indecisive, it’ll go ahead and pick something for you.
I’ve now “played” the story through a few times, which kept me occupied for a solid couple hours. (Netflix couldn’t know it was making perfect quarantine #content when it produced a special that rewards unlimited free time, but hey, here we are.) After making alternately great and terrible decisions that led the characters to wild success and/or wilder bodily harm, I can say that “Kimmy vs. The Reverend” is impressively smart about how it tangles and untangles its narrative depending on what you choose to do with it. There are clear throughlines and traditional A/B/C storylines, but they all morph as you map them out and eventually dovetail into each other with surprising ease, no matter which paths you choose. It’s hard enough to keep track of one story that’s constantly changing; the fact that the “Kimmy Schmidt” team managed to do that with three interlocking ones is a feat, to say the least.
Sometimes, a “choice” is really just there to play out some joke alternatives while keeping the scene’s outcome the same either way. Other times, a choice sends you down a whole different path that may or may not come back to bite you further down the line. And more than occasionally, a choice brings everything to a crashing halt (more than occasionally literally), at which point a character saunters across the screen to confirm that yes, you irrevocably screwed up, but yes, you can go back and fix it now that you know. As you go along, you start to understand what might make a “good” decision, but unlike something like “Bandersnatch,” the main point of “Kimmy vs The Reverend” isn’t to emerge unscathed at the end, but to have as hilariously ridiculous a time as the characters.
The fourth wall breaks and sudden catastrophes are startling, but what makes them work is the reason why “Kimmy Schmidt” is particularly well-suited to a format like this: “Kimmy Schmidt” has always been more of a cartoon in spirit than a live-action show, with more punchlines than it could sometimes handle and a bizarro reality all its own. Towards the end of its original run, that absurdism became more of a crutch than an asset. But with “Kimmy vs The Reverend,” the show reinvigorates itself by finding more compelling ways to indulge its own rhythms and aesthetic. Spinning “Kimmy Schmidt” off into dozens of directions paved with countless ludicrous jokes just makes sense, and brings out the best in it, besides.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. The Reverend” premieres May 12 on Netflix.