Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Despite being the best pound-for-pound joke machine on television, Kimmy Schmidt tends to stick to a relatively traditional sitcom format, which makes this standalone mockumentary episode such a surprising treat. Like 30 Rock’s “Queen of Jordan,” “Party Monster” is a whip-smart parody of a burgeoning TV format — episodic prestige true crime — centered on minor characters, with the show leads making only brief appearances. And like American Vandal before it, it brings all the tricks of the genre to bear on telling a larger story that’s not only hilarious, but speaks fascinatingly about the nature of justice and who’s considered “deserving” of it, with a hefty nod to the #MeToo movement.
Brilliantly composed by longtime Kimmy writer Meredith Scardino, “Party Monster” is presented as a streaming show on HouseFlix, the Columbia House streaming service Kimmy and Titus favor. (For verisimilitude, Netflix even drops its own branding from the intro.) It’s the documentary passion project of DJ Doug Fingablast (the delightful Derek Klena), the vapid, electronica-spinning boy toy Jacqueline dated back in season two. Now touring a hit single and engaged to the third Hadid sister, Hello (a name I’m 100 percent sure was chosen so she could have the Instagram handle @YouHadidMeAtHello), Doug is living the good life. But when he tries to hire his childhood hero and inspiration, DJ Slizzard, to spin at his wedding, he discovers Slizzard is actually the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, and learns about the dark reality of the bunker kidnappings.
“Why would anyone want to make a movie about old Dickie Slizzard?” the imprisoned Reverend asks Fingablast after he dresses as a woman to secure a jailhouse meeting. “Only thing I’ve ever been good at is manipulating people.” Sure enough, with a little prompting, Fingablast begins to doubt the Reverend’s guilt, wondering if his accusers can really be believed.
Directed by Documentary Now’s Rhys Thomas, “Party Monster” filets every visual cliché of modern true-crime filmmaking, from a portentous credits sequence inspired by The Jinx to wheels-down shots of landing planes and jerky ’80s Handicam footage. (A particularly inspired running gag has Fingablast completely failing to pensively skip stones on a lake for “thinking” B-roll, then seeking counsel from an expert who lives on a palatial estate called Rockswater.)
All the visual inventiveness is matched by a tour de force performance from Jon Hamm, who’s clearly gunning for that guest-actor Emmy he missed out on a couple years back. Hamm portrays the Reverend in a variety of ages, stages, and film formats, even letting the producers incorporate footage from his embarrassing real-life appearance on a ’90s dating show. Whether he’s berating a 10-year-old or telling Fingablast-in-drag to put his body parts on the glass (“Chef’s choice! Omakase!”), Hamm brings a fresh undercurrent of menace to the character, while still delivering many of the episode’s best jokes.
Even when Hamm isn’t onscreen, the gags here are hilarious and relentless, with heaps of Easter eggs that will delight diehards. Titus’s “re-created footage” appearances, most notably as a CSI-era David Caruso, are a highlight, and eagle-eyed fans will notice everything from a step-and-repeat advertising the Funness Chammel to one of Kimmy Schmidt’s favorite pastimes, dunking on Entourage (yes, it really did win a Peabody).
Yet beneath all the gags, “Party Monster” is wise to the ways that society doubts women and protects abusers. Fingablast’s “research” into the case seizes on tiny holes in the mole women’s testimonies (Kimmy sobbing over missing ten Olympics in the bunker, when it was really only nine), accuses them of being attention-seekers (Cyndee singing the national anthem at a football game) or profit-seekers (Donna Maria’s mole-sauce business), and questions whether they were even attractive enough to kidnap in the first place. (In a jarring departure from the episode’s humorous tone, Thomas inserts real footage of Fingablast and Slizzard’s mutual hero, “DJ Trump,” saying the same of the women who accused him of sexual assault.)
It all builds to a scene that’s equal parts hilarious and disturbing, as Fingablast, the Reverend, and men’s rights activist/“Innocence Broject” founder Fran Dodd (Bobby Moynihan) have a jailhouse chat that quickly becomes a hate spiral, leading them to question whether women should be allowed to have rights at all. “What I did was nature,” the Reverend argues. “Look at dolphins — they’re huge rapists, and ladies kiss them on their holes over at SeaWorld! Why isn’t anybody getting a tattoo of me on their ankle?” The scene walks a fascinating comic tightrope, mocking the three men’s risible fear of women while making it uncomfortably clear how so many men end up falling for this kind of red-pill radicalization.
The threat feels especially real as the “documentary” concludes with a focus on Kimmy, who’s lauded by Fingablast for her steadfast refusal to divorce the Reverend (which she only did to protect Laura Dern’s Wendy, though that goes unmentioned). Because of a couple of wealthy and vocal men who care about the Reverend’s welfare more than his victims’, Kimmy and the other mole women now might have to deal with the very real possibility of their rapist being released from prison — another uncomfortable echo of a real world in which credibly accused harassers are already trying to stage their comebacks. The episode ends back on the apartment sofa with a horrified Kimmy, who utters her first real curse words of the entire show: “Fupping shit!” You said it, girl.