TV Review: Little Cult Drama in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but Plenty of Laughs

The announcement of a new Netflix series about on a character who lived in an underground bunker as part of an apocalyptic cult for fifteen years caught my interest for obvious reasons. Humanists, who are naturally critical thinkers, often find it difficult to understand how some follow religion so blindly. What motivates someone to join and stay in a cult? How do charismatic leaders gain such mind control over their followers?

You won’t find any in-depth answers to these questions in the first few episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but the show isn’t aiming for drama. The premise exists to make you laugh and revel in the constant cheerfulness of the title character as she explores a brand new world.

What little we know about the cult comes from the first episode when the media-dubbed “Indiana Mole Women” appear on the Today Show to talk about their ordeal. Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) was just an eighth-grader when she was kidnapped and told that the world was destroyed—yes, the whole entire world—and these four women, along with their leader Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (of course that’s his name), are the only human beings to have survived. Her eyes open to reality, Kimmy decides quickly that she will not return to Indiana to be seen as a victim—she’s going to live in New York City, get an apartment, find a job, and “kiss a boy.”

Kimmy isn’t totally unfamiliar with the ways of the world, but the fact that she’s basically a fourteen-year-old circa 1999 trapped in the body of a twenty-nine-year-old provides the primary humor of the show. As one who grew up in the ’90s, I found the cultural references hilarious—a Baby-Sitters Club book Kimmy nearly throws in the trash, her desire to dance at a nightclub like the one featured in the popular television show Moesha, and having the inability to tell time “since [her] Tamagochi died.”

There’s little detail about the Spooky Church of the Scary Apocalypse, the cult that kidnapped Kimmy, at least in the first few episodes. Writer Flor Edwards, who actually grew up in the doomsday movement Children of God, writes further about what Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt gets right about cults (Kimmy’s “Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker” comment is uncomfortably funny because it’s so close to the truth ). A Kimmy Schmidt born in such a cult and raised without any knowledge of the outside world would have been a far different television show and less funny.

Viewers do discover that Kimmy is a skeptic—in a flashback scene, she questions the Reverend leader about his claim that everything outside the bunker died and then holds up a squirming, decidedly alive rat, eliciting screams from the other mole women. Rather than actually answering her question, the Reverend vows to “break her,” but—with a big smile—Kimmy smoothly replies, “No, you won’t.” The scene accomplishes the near-impossible task of being both hilarious and powerful.

With plans to watch just the first episode, I ended up immediately watching three more, having been lured by Kimmy’s infectious optimism and the quippy dialogue of supporting characters like her Broadway-dreaming roommate Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) and Kimmy’s wealthy Upper East Side employer, Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski). If Kimmy can survive a tiny underground bunker for fifteen years, she can surely survive the streets of New York, and I’ll be rooting for her along the way. Hey, if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.