There’s a long tradition in film and TV comedy of the “alt,” where writers come up with multiple jokes for the same moment in the script, wait for the actors to perform them all on camera, then decide which to keep and which ones to cut. So if, say, the characters are talking about someone’s favorite food, the writers might come up with a long list of ridiculous foods and see which one gets the best reaction. Some sitcoms employ writers whose sole job is to come up with alts. One I visited years ago took it to such extremes that they had two writers rooms running simultaneously: one to work on the stories, the other to generate alts.
Occasionally, alts can take on a life of their own. Adam McKay shot so many alts on the first Anchorman that many of them were later combined with a deleted subplot to create a (mostly) new movie called Wake Up, Ron Burgundy. And now, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is again alive (dammit!) with a new interactive Netflix special, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend, that is basically a collection of alts disguised as a reunion movie.
But when you have comedy writers as talented as Tina Fey and friends, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The Kimmy special is Netflix’s second major foray into the world of choose-your-own-adventure storytelling. The first entry, the Black Mirror episode “Bandersnatch,” turned itself into an ouroboros in which the main character was designing a game that allowed its users to pick where the story went. A cool idea in concept, there was never enough substance to the game designer or his misadventures to make it worth the bother of following all the different paths.
Kimmy Schmidt has the advantage of a quartet of established characters in Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), Titus (Tituss Burgess), Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), and Lillian (Carol Kane), and four seasons worth of adventures to bank the audience’s affection. Just as importantly, Fey and the special’s co-writers — Robert Carlock, Sam Means, and Meredith Scardino — primarily use the experiment as an alt-delivery system, hanging as many different jokes as possible on the spine of a story that mostly doesn’t change.
Well, sort of. You can actually change the story — in which Kimmy’s plans to marry an obscure English prince, Frederick (Daniel Radcliffe), are interrupted when she realizes her former kidnapper, the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm), may have another bunker filled with women — in fairly significant ways. Major characters can live or die, have their careers thrive or fall into utter ruin, and find romantic fulfillment or a life of solitude, depending on the choices you make. But most of those extreme choices result in a very abrupt end to the story, followed by one of the characters directly addressing you to complain about what you just did. (Titus, after I got somebody killed: “Who are you: me at Chipotle? Because you made some bad choices that will affect everyone.”) There is one basic path to the story that takes you all the way to the end credits(*) and the conclusion that Fey and company intended. There are some minor bits of business regarding Jacqueline’s work as Titus’ agent that can shift dramatically without derailing the main plot, but everything regarding Kimmy, Dick Wayne, and Frederick has only one intended ending.
(*) Speaking of credits, I know this sounds counterintuitive for one of the best theme songs of the last decade, but I strongly advise you to click “Skip Intro” when you get to the show’s main title sequence.
For the most part, this works out just fine. By the end of its original run, Kimmy had already largely left behind any interest in plot to focus on jokes for their own sake. By bringing the Reverend back to the forefront, the special is actually a bit more emotionally grounded than the series had been in a while, even though Jon Hamm’s eagerness to make a fool of himself may never have been on stronger, funnier display. (We’ve long passed the point where the mere fact of a guy this handsome acting stupid is amusing in and of itself; Hamm is a genuinely gifted comedian now.) But most of this special is just comedy — fast, furious, very strange comedy from some of the best practitioners in the business.
Radcliffe and Hamm previously played the same character at different ages in A Young Doctor’s Notebook, and they share a similar fearlessness when it comes to eschewing their iconic images in favor of being clowns. Radcliffe proves a perfect fit into Kimmy’s slightly surreal world, as we find out that Frederick is 12th in line to the throne, but could be 11th, “if Great Uncle Uther turns out to be mostly Corgi, as has been rumored.” And the writers’ flair for off-balance punchlines hasn’t left them: after Jacqueline scolds Titus for skipping the gym when he should be doing cardio, he replies, “Cardio? The erotic magician I dated in the early 2000s?”
But the real pleasure comes in seeing how many different amusing variations on the same idea Fey and company (including director Claire Scanlon) can devise and execute. The main story is always roughly the same, and it can be a headache to navigate through everything multiple times just to get to new jokes(*), but the comic rewards are almost always worth it. There are hilarious cameos I stumbled across almost by accident on my third pass, both by big names like Josh Groban or just reliable character actors like Zak Orth, whose long recitation of the 37 different kinds of stories — “mixed-race road trip… Boston… vampire gets better…” — may be the best joke in the whole piece. (If you want to get to Orth, make sure that Jacqueline complains about the script, rather than the wardrobe, when the opportunity comes to decide.) And if many of the choices lead to narrative dead ends (often literally), they’re almost always funny ones.
(*) The biggest improvement Netflix needs to make to the technology is the ability to either fast forward, or skip right to the next choice point. Right now, both this and “Bandersnatch” limit viewers to jumping forward or back 10 seconds within a scene, or revisiting past choices. Once you start over again, it takes a lot of work to quickly get to the next moment you’re interested in seeing.
Even if the whole thing is primarily an excuse to turn the deleted scenes into part of the main feature, there’s also an interesting thematic choice at play. The plot tends to advance more smoothly when you choose the options that reflect best on Kimmy and the other characters, which is fitting for a show that ultimately believes in the power of its heroine’s relentless positivity. But the good choices usually wind up being the funniest ones, too. At one point, Kimmy and Titus find themselves in a small-town West Virginia bar, desperate to ingratiate themselves with the locals. As a drunk screams for the house band to play “Free Bird,” Titus claims he knows how to perform it. I initially opted for the version where he was lying, figuring that hearing Burgess’ powerful voice fake its way through the classic-rock anthem would be ridiculous. And it is, but the version where he genuinely knows the song is so much more satisfying, and funny in a more resonant way than when he gets in trouble for mangling the lyrics and melody. It’s a very Kimmy Schmidt moment in a special full of them.
On almost every level, this is a much better use of the concept than “Bandersnatch” was, and a smart way to revive a show whose story was pretty neatly wrapped up already. But it doesn’t necessarily prove out the choose-your-own-adventure (or, as Frederick says they’re called in England, a “Whence Thither”) concept as a whole. The approach works for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, because the series’ comic style and structure lends itself to one alternate punchline after another. But the story itself is so rigid that with something even slightly less funny, or something without the sentimental attachment I had to Kimmy and Titus, the start/stop/reverse format of the thing might have left me as frustrated as I found Netflix’s previous attempt.
The perfect Whence Thither episode has yet to be made. Maybe it can’t be? But it provides a good excuse to dive back into the endearing lunacy of this show one more time — or three, or five, or more, depending on how many combinations you want to try.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt special premieres May 12th on Netflix. I’ve seen most, but probably not all, of it.