The Hyperreal Kimmy Schmidt

We aren’t meant to dwell on the theological particulars of the bunker-bound doomsday cult from which Kimmy Schmidt and three other women were rescued in the new Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. (In fact, good luck if you decide to try. There’s something about Jesus’ crazy stepbrother Terry, and Gosh’s son Jeepers, and the apocalypse happening because people are dumb. Apparently Durnsville, Indiana doesn’t have any systematic theologians.)

That’s okay, though, because the cult’s claims don’t really need to be very persuasive. After all, they don’t rely on persuasion to attract adherents. The Spooky Church of the Scary Apocalypse – of which Rev. Wayne Gary Wayne is the CFO – manages to attract exactly one voluntary member. The rest are kidnapped and held in a bunker by Rev. Wayne, who… well, in order to avoid giving anything away, let’s just say he’s working an angle.

So what is the cult doing exactly, beyond explaining how the traumatized optimist Kimmy Schmidt got to New York with nothing more than a backpack full of cash and a middle school education?

Well, a good place to start might be the equally ridiculously named fake religion from the elder Tina Fey/Robert Carlock creation, 30 Rock. Kenneth Parcell, you may recall, belonged to the Eighth Day Resurrected Covenant of the Holy Trinity. As we learn in the episode “Fighting Irish,” the church is located in the basement of a Cuban restaurant. Its leader is the creepy Reverend Gary – no relation, presumably, to Kimmy Schmidt’s Wayne Gary Wayne—who says things like “The stench of rotten flesh fills the air! Judgment is upon us all!”

But the most interesting parallels don’t have to do with the two shows’ cartoonish fire-and-brimstone preachers named Gary. Rather, they have to do with two followers: Kenneth and Kimmy.

For starters, both are oddly out of time, but in different ways. Kenneth, it is strongly implied, is immortal – or at least, he was born in the 1780s and lives, without visibly aging, until the time of rocket cars. Despite having lived through slavery, the US Civil War, both World Wars, and pandemic flu, he declares his two favorite things to be people and television. In contrast to the unkillable Kenneth, who has an overabundance of history, the unbreakable Kimmy has too little. She has entirely missed the aughts as experienced by the outside world, having spent it in the bunker turning a mystery crank, eating rocks, and playing imaginary catch with the other mole women.

But how does this lost decade cause misunderstanding between Kimmy and the people she meets? Does she offend someone when she asks for directions to the Twin Towers? Does she read the paper and say “What the fudge? We were at war with Afghanistan?” Nope. It’s her clothes, her musical references, her wearable technology, and her outdated slang that mark her as off. She plays cassettes on a Walkman. She doesn’t know what a selfie is, or how to text, or the words to Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Some who meet her in New York think she’s clueless because she hails from the middle of the country. (When Kimmy expresses a desire to go “someplace cool, like Club Bombay from Moesha,” her roommate Titus replies, “Whoo, things are behind in Indiana.”) One by one, though, the supporting cast gradually learn that she is one of the famous Indiana “mole women” – the media’s nickname for the group, and an identity that Kimmy prefers to hide.

But what about her optimism, loyalty, and sincerity? And what about Kimmy’s ability to call BS on some of the more vapid trends of 2015? (SoulCycle groupies, you are warned.) Are those traits likewise relics of a pre-aughties world? For that matter, what about Kenneth Parcell? He’s a flyover state native too, hailing from Stone Mountain, Georgia. He attended a Bible college. (He’s hundreds of years old.) Does his optimism, cheerfulness, and desire to do his best belong to a lost past as well—along with Kimmy’s cassette tapes, the 90s, Indiana, Georgia, scrunchies, and preachers named Gary?

In The Future of Nostalgia Svetlana Boym discusses the remarkable etymology of the word “nostalgia.” It looks like it might be an ancient Greek concept, since the root words are Greek: nostos, meaning “return home;” and algos, or “longing.” In fact it’s a modern word—and thus, in Boym’s words, only “nostalgically Greek.” And fittingly so, because it describes a thoroughly modern phenomenon, described by the Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer in the 17th century (about a hundred years before Kenneth Parcell was born.) Evidently doctors of that time saw patients whose affliction was a longing for home. To treat this ailment, doctors prescribed opium, leeches, and trips to the Alps. Notwithstanding these interventions, nostalgia has endured. It is, Boym writes:

a symptom of our age, a historical emotion… Nostalgia and progress are like Jekyll and Hyde: doubles and mirrors of one another…. [It] appears to be a longing for a place but is actually a yearning for a different time – the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time as space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.

Kimmy Schmidt has no desire to return home to Durnsville, Indiana. When she finally does so, it is only because she must testify in Rev. Wayne Gary Wayne’s trial. But the appeal of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt may be in the ways it evokes longing for a kind of home, and a kind of past.

I don’t mean that anyone actually wants to relive the 1990s, or to be victim of religious abuse and come out stronger for it, or to buck sociological trends by ditching the big city for a town like Durnsville, Indiana. But I do think many viewers derive pleasure from consuming — in Jean Baudrillard’s words – the hyperreal versions of all these things, their more-real-than-real representations that make for good binge-watching.

It’s like the Epcot World Showcase of the fairly recent past, where the 1990s are nothing but high-top fades and shortall dresses, preachers are fascinatingly sinister doomsday predictors, and people in Indiana are all dimwitted but goodhearted. And we haven’t yet been overcome by our own technology. And maybe the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century never happened. And maybe you and I are just moments away from meeting an irrepressible optimist, who will help us believe in ourselves and others, and will inspire us to do our best. 

6 Comments

  • S Brent Rodriguez Plate says:

    Great thoughts here! Just started watching Kimmy recently and it’s been a fun diversion. Apocalyptic cult as plot kicker is fabulously surreal. One important precursor to both Kimmy and Kenneth is Hal Ashby’s “Being There,” with Peter Sellars as the optimistic, though drolly so, emergent being lost in time.

  • jashleyodell@gmail.com' Ashley says:

    I haven’t seen it yet — no Netflix! 🙁 — but I do know that fellow members of an ex-Jehovah’s Witness recovery group have said that they’ve had many moments of almost chilling identification with Kimmy. (For the record, I don’t believe the JWs are a cult, though lord knows other ex-members get livid when I argue that position.) The whole theme of growing up separated from the rest of the world, oblivious to pop culture, believing in weird eschatology and views on immortality, etc., and then suddenly breaking out and having to rebuild a life from scratch without your family or really any support system…none of that is as farfetched as viewers might think. People do it every day across America, just without the awesomeness of a Fey/Carlock collaboration leading the way.

    Pretty sure it’s spoiled for me now (which is totally fine; I chose to read, after all), but I still can’t wait to get my hands on the DVD set when it’s released. Sounds like it should be great. Between this and “The Last Man in Earth,” there’s some good television right now for people who understand spiritual loneliness, despair, and the like.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Our national situation might be reaching a complicated point where a TV sitcom or reality show is no longer sufficient to reflect it.

    Since the Moral Majority was formed as a response to social advances of the 60s, conservative America has carefully constructed a house of cards based on illusions of American exceptionalism and us being God’s chosen. As we took our place as the world’s only superpower, our vanity rooted in conservative righteousness grew unlimited. Now it is time for us to ask ourselves, what will happen when our house of cards starts to fail?

    It doesn’t have to all collapse in a moment. Partial collapses can be proped up, and sometimes reinforcements added. It is complicated because the conservative world has developed so many connections between politics and religion, but that doesn’t make it impossible. In fact, it might even make the situation more fun to analyze.

    The Republican split with reality seems to now be causing a split with the rest of the world. Will this cause them to split with themselves? I had always assumed the Republicans would ultimately have to split with the crazy Evangelicals, but I guess it is possible the evangelicals might have to split with Republicans instead. American Jews are the one group that doesn’t have to split with Republicans because they were never part of them. But will Christian Zionists be left in a no mans land where even more than ever before, only Jesus could save them? Will Israel finally see it is hopeless to back Netanyhu? The Republican party might be a house of cards, but it can’t collapse because it can always cut its losses. The only important thing for them is do the rich backers behind the scenes still have all their money? No matter what happens, they can always turn it into an opportunity to get more rich.

  • tojby_2000@yahoo.com' apotropoxy says:

    This show is as fast, fresh and funny as anything I’ve ever seen on TV. Oh,,, their casting is nails, too. Expect a-list stars to send in job applications for cameo work.

  • joerogers67@gmail.com' joeyj1220 says:

    so great to see Carol Kane in something again!!

  • tojby_2000@yahoo.com' apotropoxy says:

    Yeah… she always brings something special. That cast is top shelf.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *