Black Mirror: Bandersnatch was Netflix’s first high-profile foray into the world of interactive storytelling, but while it was notable for its format, it wasn’t all that much fun to watch. The various narrative paths laid out in this tale about a video-game developer attempting to adapt a choose-your-own-adventure novel inevitably led to bleak conclusions. The approach brought some novelty to the streaming experience, but not much joy.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend, the new interactive movie spun off from the Tina Fey/Robert Carlock series, does the opposite. It brings nothing but joy. While traditional choose-your-own-adventure stories are plot-driven, Kimmy vs. the Reverend is plot-driven in theory but joke-driven in reality. The point of clicking on different choices — Should Kimmy wear the “fun dress” or the “fancy dress” to her forthcoming wedding? Should Titus and Kimmy take an Uber from a remote location in West Virginia or walk to their next destination? — isn’t to skip to the next, unexpected twist, but to discover more wonderfully silly jokes. In the TV comedy world, writers routinely write alts, or alternate lines, in an effort to find the funniest version of a scene. As an interactive experience, Kimmy vs. the Reverend is basically an alt delivery machine.
Fans of the series, which officially ended its episodic run in 2019, can expect more of all the things they loved about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt the series: extremely quick comedic pacing; Kimmy’s cheery, profanity-free optimism, as realized by Ellie Kemper; Titus’s signature mix of laziness and showmanship, courtesy of Titus Burgess; a costume and production design color palette seemingly inspired by the game Candy Land; and tons of callback comedy and pop-culture references. “These might as well be a clown in a sewer,” Titus says while admiring his new gas station reading glasses in a mirror, “because they are It.” Well, that’s what he says in one version. An alternate take for the same moment features Mr. Andromedon noting, “I look like a sexy Chuck Schumer.”
The title Kimmy vs. the Reverend hints at the movie’s main story line, in which, after discovering a “Pick Your Own Journey” book inside Jan, her beloved backpack, Kimmy visits Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) in prison. When she gets the sense that the man who held her and three other “mole women” hostage for years may be hiding still more victims, Kimmy sets off to track them down, just three days before she’s supposed to get married to Prince Fredrick (Daniel Radcliffe). Elsewhere, in the B and C stories, Lillian (Carol Kane) tries to prepare Frederick for his upcoming nuptials while Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) continues managing Titus’s semi-flourishing career as a movie star.
Options regarding which direction to drive the story pop up every few minutes. If you go down a path that results in a premature ending, one of the characters will appear to inform you that you have basically done it wrong. “Who are you, me at Chipotle?” Titus says after one unsavory narrative dead end. “You’ve made some bad choices that affect everyone.” Former mole woman Cyndee (Sara Chase) appears after another: “I don’t think that was the right ending, but I don’t know. I’m not a writer. I mean, I was on staff during the last season of Game of Thrones. They did all my ideas!”
Then the movie will rewind back a few choices and allow you to see what happens if different ones are made. As was the case with Bandersnatch, you can actively select what will occur next or let Netflix go with the default response until you’ve gotten to a version of the end, at which point the movie will restart.
Even in an interactive format, the writers — Fey, Carlock, Sam Means, and Meredith Scardino — still incorporate running gags. There’s one that involves scrod and is completely random, in the best way. But more than anything, the Kimmy team seems to be having a ball pushing the concept of alternate scenes as far as they can. When Kimmy and Titus wind up at a dive bar in West Virginia, Titus announces that he is going to sing “Free Bird” with the band, insisting he knows the song. The viewer gets two options: “He Knows It” and “He Doesn’t.” I watched both, but on a second revisit of the He Knows It option, I was this time granted the ability to watch Burgess perform the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic in its entirety.
Sometimes revisiting a scene delivers a different reading of the same line by an actor; other times you get entirely new dialogue, in addition to an outcome that takes the story somewhere else. Even the standard Netflix button that enables viewers to skip the opening titles leads to a surprise: an even longer version of that opening, complete with Walter Bankston (Mike Britt), the bystander to the mole women rescue who also sings the show’s theme song, providing commentary.
Because Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a comedy, and one that has consistently embraced the absurd at that, there is no pressure on the movie to come up with plot points and resolutions that stand up to rules of logic. Much of Kimmy vs. the Reverend makes no sense at all, which is just fine, though I will say that the ultimate ending does bring the series full circle in a more satisfying way than the series finale did.
While the movie takes full advantage of its interactive approach, it is not shy about making fun of the format at the same time. Like Bandersnatch, it gets meta at times. Unlike Bandersnatch, it doesn’t care if you think its metaness, or anything else about it, is clever. At one point, when Kimmy and Titus reach a literal fork in the road, Kimmy declares that she doesn’t know which way to go. “Maybe you can help us,” Titus says, looking and pointing directly into the camera. “Who are you talking to?” Kimmy asks. Titus has no idea.
In that moment, Kimmy vs. the Reverend breaks the fourth wall, then just as quickly, decides it doesn’t want to break it anymore and abandons the idea. As much as we may get to participate in this movie, what has always been true about Kimmy Schmidt remains true here: both she, and the series/interactive special she inspired, have sensibilities and minds very much of their own.