Sixteen months after Black Mirror: Bandersnatch played with Netflix viewers, the streaming service is back with its latest live-action interactive TV special. This year, instead of a dark twist on ’80s video games, we’re getting a “fragile” version of the eccentric comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt†
If you’re coming to this new interactive special hoping for one of the best episodes of the series, you’re out of luck. But if you’re less interested in wacky New York comedies and more interested in how interactive television is evolving, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend could earn must-watch status, with the caveat that the Netflix app could use an update before streaming another “choose-your-own-comedy” special.
Some people are still Schmidt out of luck
For the Schmidt-less of you: For four seasons, the series followed Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), a cult escape, as they reacclimate themselves to the modern world with a group of strange new friends. Although the series has officially ended, this comeback special quickly moves forward to a brand new, out of the blue plot point and is therefore easy to watch for beginners. She is about to marry a British prince (Daniel Radcliffe) who had never appeared on the series, but the wedding planning is interrupted by a discovery that her cult kidnapper (Jon Hamm) may have locked up other people.
As Kimmy embarks on a journey to unravel this mystery, two other conspiracies play out simultaneously: The Prince attends a bachelorette party while Kimmy is away, and Hollywood agent Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) must buy time while her client Titus (Tituss Burgess ) helps Kimmy.
So the first big deviation from this special from bandersnatch is that viewers are asked to make decisions on behalf of virtually everyone, rather than one main character. What exactly does Jacqueline do to buy time? How does Titus deal with a crowd of unruly rednecks? Who’s the first to call Kimmy with a question about her old cult life? At each divergence point, a menu with two options appears at the bottom of the screen, which you can toggle on most devices using your remote or a touchscreen. (Sorry Apple TV users. Even 16 months later bandersnatch came and went, you’re still Schmidt out of luck.)
At its best, UKS enjoy the moments when one of the two choices is ‘wrong’. Wait for a taxi that will obviously never arrive or sing a deliberately botched version of “Freebird” and a ridiculous sequence plays out before time is turned back. These moments are the golden things. Viewers are given clear hints that these choices lead to silly, laugh-out-loud dead ends, and the show’s writers are given the freedom to write their characters in wacky sequences that wouldn’t run organically otherwise.
The interactive gimmick gives the writers an escape map for jokes that otherwise wouldn’t work outside of an animated series, and it doubles on bandersnatch‘s short WTF moments of dark comedy. Explaining these moments further would dampen their hilarity for a new viewer, so forgive my vagueness.
Comedy, loading now…
But to make room for these moments, UKS:KvtR is forced to build some “real” plot sequences to stitch the timeline together. These sometimes dull the special’s comedic punch, especially when characters have to travel from one location to another, as if the comedy were held up behind a game console’s “loading” sequences.
Some of the special’s decisions create huge splits in the story (and therefore the jokes and jokes you’ll see), which might have been good if Netflix’s interactive format had more nimble rewind and fast-forward options. Unfortunately, even if you use the built-in “go back to a specific choice” search functions of some platforms, you are still forced to lot of the decision-making scenes you’ve already seen. (These last about 15 seconds while the decision-making menu appears.) If you’re a completeist, you’ll need to watch some of these sequences three times to “unlock” every bit of footage in the special.
It works like an old Hypercard sequence.
And there’s a good-new-bad-news twist to one of my favorite decision-making moments. Sometimes when you pick the “wrong” choice in the special, time will rewind and you automatically pick the “right” thing. But other times you can manually re-select after rewinding and the wrong choice is still in the menu. Sometimes when you choose this the results are crazy – we are talking about the golden age of The Simpsons in terms of inspired madness. When those surprises hit, I found myself laughing in my stomach in ways I hadn’t expected.
But other times, selecting the same pick over and over again led to… the same result played over and over. This exposes an inherent weakness in the Netflix system: it basically works like an old Hypercard sequence. Each choice links to full-motion video for both the on-screen action and your menu choices, as opposed to a dynamic menu that sits on top of a separate video feed. And sometimes Netflix doesn’t bother building a whole new if-then series. In these cases, viewers can expect a redundant feed of “pick this again and the same will happen” choices.
An interactive drama can absorb some of these momentum-dampening moments as we watch characters ruminate or while we enjoy brushing up on an exciting scenery. But a comedy set in the classic TV sitcom form of jokes and punchlines isn’t nearly as acceptable, so it’s frustrating to see some of the UKS‘ most refreshing and hell-yes comedic moments hampered by this format – although on a few occasions the laughs are probably doubled by the effort required to dig them out.
Like a comedy nerd – a devotee who credits everything from the Dick Van Dyke series in the ’60s to anti-comedy vanguards like The state and Mr Show—I was charmed enough by UKS:KvtR to recommend it to anyone in a similar boat. Then again, as a kick-back-and-smile diversion, the special is harder to recommend, but most of it boils down to Netflix’s ho-hum app experience, not the ambition of the cast and crew . Go back to the interactive drawing board, Netflix, and help your next specials be a little less bitter to explore and enjoy.