The Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt concluded its fourth and final season last year with somewhat rushed happy endings for its four main characters, so there’s not a ton of urgency to the show’s return in the new interactive special Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend. But that lack of stakes works in the special’s favor since the interactive format means that the story has to be able to go in multiple different directions without making a substantial impact on the larger narrative arc. No matter which choice you make as a viewer, things end up more or less in the same place.
That makes Kimmy vs. the Reverend more successful as an extended episode of the show than as an innovative interactive experience, and it probably won’t generate the kind of buzz that surrounded Netflix’s last major interactive release, the Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a very different kind of show from Black Mirror, of course, and while Bandersnatch was interested in making philosophical points about the nature of choice, Kimmy vs. the Reverend is really just looking to make the audience laugh.
In that sense, it succeeds, and fans of the original show will be happy to see all of the main characters and many of the supporting players back onscreen (although you have to make specific interactive choices in order to get a glimpse at certain recurring characters). After achieving success as a children’s book author, Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) is now engaged to Prince Frederick (Daniel Radcliffe, the one major addition to the cast), who’s led a similarly sheltered life. While Kimmy spent 15 years trapped in a bunker by deranged cult leader Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm), Frederick grew up in a bubble of privilege, raised by his nanny and sent to a boarding school so elite that he only had one classmate.
Kimmy’s former roommate Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) is now a movie star about to start filming a major role in an action movie, and Kimmy’s former employer Jacqueline White (Jane Krakowski) is Titus’ agent. It’s not quite clear what Kimmy and Titus’ former landlady Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane) is up to these days, but she’s hanging around as well, and they’re all preparing for Kimmy’s wedding to Frederick.
But Kimmy throws a wrench into the plans when she discovers an old “pick your own choice” book (perhaps a nod to the lawsuit filed against Netflix by the creators of the Choose Your Own Adventure books) and becomes convinced that it’s a sign more women are still being held captive by the imprisoned Reverend. So she heads back to Indiana to confront the Reverend, while Jacqueline runs interference on the movie set where Titus is conspicuously absent, and Lillian keeps Frederick occupied in the days before the wedding.
Or at least that’s what happens in the two iterations of the story that I watched, and it seems likely that the overall plot structure remains the same. While the show starts offering viewers the chance to direct the action within less than a minute (deciding whether Kimmy picks a “fun” or “fancy” wedding dress), many of the choices lead to dead ends, at which point one of the characters appears onscreen, directly chastising the viewer for making the wrong decision, and the action rewinds so that the viewer can make the “correct” choice.
The result is that going through the special more than once is less like having an entirely new experience and more like watching the deleted scenes on a DVD, interspersed with the material you’ve just watched. There are some extra jokes and some slightly different subplots, but overall the story and most of the characters and dialogue are the same.
Although the “pick your own choice” book kicks off the story, the idea of interactive options isn’t really relevant to the story. The self-aware jokes about viewers making the wrong choice are pretty funny (every time you see a When Harry Met Sally-style interview epilogue with Frederick next to a different female character, you know you screwed up), but the show doesn’t exploit the full comedic potential of interactive entertainment.
The interactive format also cuts down on the opportunities for random cutaway jokes, since the narrative has to be more linear to provide for enough decision points. If you just sit back and watch the show as an extended reunion episode, though, it captures a lot of what made Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fun in the first place, and fans will be happy to see these characters return.
Creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (who co-wrote the special with Meredith Scardino and Sam Means) weren’t always able to successfully combine the dark elements of Kimmy’s background with the show’s sunny, silly tone, and certain choices in the special take Kimmy down some dark paths. Confronting the man who caused all of her pain is a difficult experience, though, and the interactive format allows the creators to embrace that darkness while also walking it back when it leads to a negative outcome. Kemper remains a delight as Kimmy, and Hamm balances the Reverend’s genuine psychopathy with goofiness.
The storylines for the supporting characters are not as substantial, and as a new addition, Radcliffe is mostly just along for the ride. Curious viewers who haven’t watched the show before and are mainly interested in the interactive element may not get much out of the special, and only the most dedicated Kimmy fans will want to watch it through multiple times. But as a chance to see these characters one more time, Kimmy vs. the Reverend is a welcome return from one of Netflix’s signature shows.
Starring Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Jane Krakowski and Carol Kane, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend premieres Tuesday on Netflix.
If you just sit back and watch the show as an extended reunion episode, though, it captures a lot of what made Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fun.