One of the most delightful surprises of pandemic life has been the sheer number of Zoom-enabled virtual TV cast reunions — from My So-Called Life, to Melrose Place, to The Nanny, to Frasier and beyond. But let’s be honest: while most of these reunions have been a joy, there are only so many Brady Bunch-style video conference grids we can watch before we start to daydream about seeing our favorite sitcom characters moving freely in their fictional worlds. TV is best when it offers an escape, and even when actors stage their own living rooms to pretend their characters live there (as the cast of Parks and Rec did for their recent NBC special), it’s still hard to break free of reality.
Thankfully, Netflix has us covered. Though Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt ended its run just a year ago, its return to TV screens could not have been better timed. Kimmy vs. the Reverend, which was filmed last summer and dropped yesterday, is an interactive special along the lines of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch in which viewers are able to guide Kimmy through a quest to find and liberate the Reverend’s secret second bunker in time for her to get to her wedding (to Daniel Radcliffe!).
Clearly no character is more uniquely qualified than Kimmy to coach us through the ordeal of being confined to a small space for long periods of time, and viewers will almost certainly find it gratifying to pretend they’re helping others break out of their prisons. Though Kimmy’s unbreakability in the face of social isolation is certainly relatable these days, perhaps even more relatable is the way in which she contends with her former captor and longtime nemesis.
Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne kidnapped Kimmy and three other women and held them in a bunker for a decade. Near the end of the series’ first season, he’s finally put on trial. He never denies that he actually committed the kidnappings, but the trial is nowhere near open-and-shut. Because in addition to a self-proclaimed man of the cloth and party DJ, the Reverend is also a consummate showman who can spout a word salad of Americana and have the entire town of Durnsville, Indiana, convinced that he’s not guilty.
And that’s easily his most infuriating quality: his ability to dispense absolute nonsense that is equal parts inane and evil, and the way in which nearly everyone around him (apart from Kimmy) accepts this nonsense as a perfectly valid point of view. As Titus observes, "He’s wonderful. I mean, he sure is a bad person, but he’s so watchable."
The parallels to our current circumstances are hard to miss. Even on a micro level, we’re now living in an era when some guy in your Facebook network is absolutely convinced he can stave off a pandemic with colloidal silver because he saw a YouTube video about it. It no longer seems remotely absurd that Kimmy’s co-captive, Gretchen, would remain a member of the Reverend’s apocalypse cult, or that Jon Hamm’s square jaw and folksy charm could sway a jury, at least temporarily.
But there’s a crucial difference between Kimmy’s world and ours: as we digest this tiny taste of actual apocalypse, it’s reassuring to go back to a world where the plucky heroine is able to save herself over and over, with the power of hard facts and reason. Whichever ending Kimmy vs. the Reverend serves you, there’s little doubt that Kimmy will continue to wield the truth, and it’s hard to imagine any non-joke ending where she won’t somehow emerge victorious. And as with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the multiple paths and endings will invite us to repeat the experience over and over to find them all, which has the potential to be far more fun than passively binge-watching yet another season of another show.
That said, it's a shame we won’t get a proper fifth season so we can see how Kimmy’s new chosen family would have handled our current climate. Imagine Lillian’s vigilante efforts to bust up crowds, the Zoom gala Jacqueline would organize to raise funds for her family in South Dakota, or Titus’s Brian-Stokes-Mitchell-esque window concerts. But once we’ve escaped into Kimmy’s interactive game, we might also be happier thinking that maybe the slightly weirder mirror-New York that Kimmy and the gang inhabit never had a pandemic at all.
Meanwhile, out here in the real world, we’ll continue getting through this just like Kimmy would: ten seconds at a time.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. The Reverend is now streaming on Netflix.
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Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.