It’s essentially a semi-interactive bonus episode, but there’s still plenty of absurd fun to be had with Kimmy and crew.
Ever since the ’90s, Hollywood has tried its damndest to lock down the format of the interactive movie. In the age of streaming, it’s Netflix who’s currently carrying the torch, testing out its Sliding Doors-esque branching stories in one furtive experiment after another. While it had its debut on one or two kids’ specials, its true breakout was the Black Mirror special “Bandersnatch,” a story which, true to the series’ form, managed to make an interactive movie about living in an interactive movie, slathering heaps of metatext onto the tale of a man slowly realizing you’re controlling him.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend has no such pretensions. It’s not hoping to call you out for playing with people’s lives; instead, it uses the interactive format as another vehicle for the Tina Fey Joke Factory, and within those modest auspices, it mostly succeeds. Unfortunately, it’s the interactive movie part of the gamble that keeps it from truly letting loose and committing to its story, making the whole thing feel a bit perfunctory.
And so it should, honestly — though producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock had to find a swift end to the series after finding out they’d been cancelled, they’d managed to eke out a decent amount of closure. Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) had finally shaken off her traumas and found her purpose as a famous storybook writer; Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) got the fame he was looking for; Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski) is a fulfilled single woman landing on her feet as Titus’ agent; and Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane), well, is and always be pure Lillian.
Kimmy vs. the Reverend, however, contrives a scenario where, on the eve of her wedding to handsome, stammering English prince Frederick (Daniel Radcliffe), Kimmy learns that her former captor, Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) had another bunker full of “tooken” girls the whole time. Committed to righting this wrong before they run out of air and food, Kimmy and Titus set off to find them, while Jacqueline and Lillian deal with Frederick’s pre-wedding jitters.
As usual with not just Kimmy, but all of Tina Fey’s projects, the plot itself is largely a thin framework upon which to lay Fey’s shotgun-style absurdism. Jokes, gags, and wordplay fly fast and furious, and sometimes it takes repeated watches to pick up on layered punchlines like “hash-brown no filter.” In concept, that’s a perfect canvas for the interactive format, allowing Fey and crew to run wild with jokes and gags that fit Kimmy‘s bittersweet mixture of tragicomedy.
All in all, the special runs about 80 minutes if you go back several times and run through the lion’s share of choices. But Kimmy vs. the Reverend is understandably frustrating, especially in its first go-round. Like the choose-your-own-adventure book (or in England, as Frederick observes, a “whence thither” book) Kimmy finds in her sentient backpack Jan, some options lead down whole new paths, while others just lead to immediate death and a ‘do-over.’ Problem is, there are more of the latter than might be healthy for a game like this; you often feel like you’re being stirred down the direction the writers wanted to take you on, rather than leading the story yourself.
You often feel like you’re being stirred down the direction the writers wanted to take you on, rather than leading the story yourself.
That’s not to say those derivations aren’t often entertaining. Early in the story, you have to decide which of the former Mole Women to call about the book, and calling Donna Maria multiple times takes you to her restaurant company’s automatic voicemail, one of which includes a long-winded Mexican food-themed rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which you can force Kimmy to listen to in its excruciating entirety. (Once that’s done, choose that option again for a fun Easter egg.) One leg of the journey also lets you kill the Reverend in various gruesome ways, until he winds up in Hell congratulating you for your psychopathy.
But in the end, you’re still just entertaining goofy one-off ‘what if’s that eventually lead you down the road Fey, Carlock and writers Sam Means and Meredith Scardino want you to go down. Sure, major subplots can change — Jacqueline takes two greatly-different approaches to cover for a missing Titus on a movie set depending on what you pick — but it’s hardly like there are dramatically disparate endings to choose from. Most of the time, a cast member will pop on screen to castigate you for making the wrong choice for Kimmy and lets you do it over. For a special that claims to be interactive, a lot of it feels like a test you’ll either pass or fail.
That said, fans of Kimmy Schmidt should find some fun diversions. The cast slides back into their roles with aplomb, especially Kemper and Hamm, who lock back into their Tracy and Hepburn dynamic without missing a step. It’s Radcliffe that’s the greatest joy in the special, though, throwing himself right into the absurd fray like he’s been with the cast for seasons already. Frederick is Prince Harry and Hugh Grant and adorable real-life Radcliffe all at once, and he bounces off Kemper and Kane (in two roles, as Lillian and Frederick’s Mary Poppins-like nanny Fiona) so well it’s almost a shame we only get him for this one special.
Apart from these one-off Fey-esque gags, though, the interactive nature of Kimmy vs. the Reverend cuts off the dramatic potential of the story in favor of keeping you on the rails of the Tina Fey Gag Train. We never really got proper closure for Kimmy and the Reverend’s journey, and this is a halfway-decent attempt to facilitate that. But because the final confrontation requires you to make the most unexciting choice out of a bunch of crazy ones, it ends up feeling a little unsatisfying.
Kimmy Schmidt was, at its core, a big, goofy cartoon about how hard it is to move on from incredible suffering and the controlling influence of others. That her last hurrah to free herself once and for all would be so paradoxically taken out of her her hands, but put in ours, feels deeply strange. The gags fly as hilariously as ever, but this time of all times, I’d have loved for Kimmy to be able to make her own choices.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend is currently available to stream (and play) on Netflix.