Pop culture serves up frivolous and fun escapism while also providing an outlet for dealing with whatever challenges are being thrust our way. Of course, 2020 has decided to put this theory to the test as we all attempt to find ways to adjust to this unique situation. Regular avenues of entertainment have been closed since March, including movie theaters, Broadway, nightclubs, museums, concert venues, and live sporting events. Shifting to online versions of these activities has shown not only how resourceful the artistic community is but how much joy this respite from reality brings.
Television is one outlet still delivering fresh content made before productions shut down (as well as some episodes filmed using creative methods), some of which feels even more relevant, thanks to COVID-19. One such show is the interactive Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt special, which landed on Netflix in May and asks the viewer to take control of the narrative.
Taking the time to step away from the news isn't always easy when your phone is essentially a gateway to scrolling through daily horrors. As someone who has to leave my devices out of arm's reach while watching TV — even if it is something I am riveted by, the Twitter app still finds itself opened — there are certain series' that demand I ignore the world while watching. Anything with subtitles is great for this (another reason you should be watching Babylon Berlin) and the interactive Kimmy Schmidt special also requires putting down a device to engage fully with the options presented.
This isn't the first time Netflix has run with a Choose Your Own Adventure narrative — that honor goes to Black Mirror in 2018 — but the timing of Kimmy Schmidt's take on this concept and the central thesis of this story is the ideal use of this format. Although, in Kimmy's world, "Pick Your Own Journey" is the title of this adventure book series.
Debuting on Netflix in 2015 and running for four seasons, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt tells the story of a 29-year-old woman who moves to New York City after she is freed from a Doomsday-style cult. Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) was kidnapped when she was a teenager and spent 15 years imprisoned by Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) in an underground bunker. Ostensibly, this is a typical comedy series, which features quick-fire pop culture gags that creator Tina Fey expertly wielded in 30 Rock. However, the underlining trauma Kimmy experienced manifests itself in various ways including the anthropomorphic backpack — called Jan S. Port and voiced by Sesame Street alum Stephanie D'Abruzzo — she found solace in during her time in captivity. Kimmy's sunny outlook on life might come as surprise, all things considered, but she used this form of hope as a coping mechanism. The latter is something to remember when playing Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy Schmidt vs. the Reverend.
How you feel about Choose Your Own Adventure novels will likely impact how you respond to Netflix turning television watching into a participation game. If you found the life-or-death options of those books to be anxiety-inducing then this might not be the relaxing evening of entertainment you are looking for. However, if like myself, you get a kick out of being in control of the narrative then this special is ideal.
As an older millennial, I grew up during the peak Choose Your Own Adventure period and this genre holds a special place in my heart —particularly the ability to chose a reckless option under the protection of you going back and picking something else. When the Black Mirror standalone episode Bandersnatch was released it was met with mixed reactions, some finding it tedious while others were drawn to the change in form and the technology behind making this type of TV. Black Mirror typically excels in "technology is bad" storylines and one criticism of Bandersnatch was the overall story was thin, choosing gimmick over substance.
A similar plot concern could be directed at this next iteration; however, the discovery of the "Pick Your Own Journey" book in her trusty backpack keeps with Kimmy's coping mechanisms throughout the series. She has often used make-believe to navigate the awful things that have happened to her, which is incredibly relatable. Genre has long provided escapism and the choices the viewer makes in the Netflix special showcase this aspect.
The hilariously titled The Mystery of the Mysterious Spy is the library book stowed away in Jan S. Port. When she realizes the book was never hers, she comes to the horrifying conclusion that the Reverend has a different undiscovered bunker. Using the book in question to help find the undisclosed location, Kimmy steps up to save the day before getting home in time for her wedding. Ah yes, one of the other threads involves planning a wedding — you get to pick the dress! — that lets Daniel Radcliffe flex his excellent comedic timing playing Prince Frederick Windsor, 12th in line to the British throne and Kimmy's husband-to-be.
Kimmy Schmidt has embraced the ridiculous throughout its four seasons that go beyond talking backpacks. Humanoid robots have been a regular fixture and this interactive special not only shows them enjoying a night out on the town, but also offering an ominous glimpse into the future. If you pick the "wrong" choice, briefly it goes to a dystopian Terminator-like level before you are propelled back to the present day.
By using the Choose Your Own Adventure format, this gimmick is ideal escapism for a time in which most viewers are feeling powerless. As with any interactive story, free will is an illusion and you need to pick a specific path to reach the end of the adventure with your body intact.
The key to making it through is thinking, What Would Kimmy Do? Her answer: kindness and optimism — basically, don't listen to Titus (Tituss Burgess). Sure, that isn't always the most fun, which is why having the power to pick badly results in some of the best gags. Nevertheless, you can always go back and make the "right" choice on your next go. It's a fun way to spend an evening and take your mind off things while embracing the nostalgia of this form of storytelling. Out of the current line-up of options, this one is a winner.