The poster for “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” features a background crowd of grey-clad New Yorkers scuttling along in the rain. In front of them, Kimmy (played by Ellie Kemper) — in magenta pants, a yellow cardigan and purple sneakers — is jumping ecstatically into a puddle. The tagline: “Life begins when the world doesn’t end.”
I smiled when I first saw the poster. A decade ago, I was a puddle-jumping newbie New Yorker, too.
And Kimmy joyfully splashed in puddles for awfully similar reasons to my own.
[Editor’s note: This is a mostly spoiler-free story with basic explanations of the show’s premise.]
Tina Fey’s new Netflix series opens when Kimmy and three other women emerge from a bunker and into a world, they’d been told, was scorched and dead. For 15 years of captivity, their captor, Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, said God wanted him to protect them from the destruction above. Now free, Kimmy decides she’s not going to settle for Indiana. She wants New York.
I was never in an apocalyptic cult, or even just a regular old cult. But in the 1990s, I was part of a certain branch of fundamentalism that flourished among Christian homeschoolers. Leaders called for women in calico jumpers and long hair, and also a total break with most culture, including no contact with Christian things deemed too worldly: magazines for teenagers published by Focus on the Family, contemporary Christian music, youth groups or Amish romance novels.
We were isolationist, but not, to the unpracticed eye, apocalyptic. But a certain sort of apocalypticism lurks beneath fundamentalisms of all stripes. The spark that lit this particular fire: Y2K.
In 1998, my family learned of Y2K from a friend at a homeschool gathering. Did we know that “the computers” had been accidentally programmed in such a way that they’d all stop working when the clock ticked over from 1999 to 2000? It didn’t sound like a huge deal — everyone would know your library books weren’t a hundred years overdue — until, as our friend said, you remembered that those computers were everywhere, in your car, flying airplanes, managing phone and electrical systems, in the government.
The immediate leap any Revelations-reading mind takes at that moment —especially one steeped in the then-New York Times chart-topping “Left Behind” novels — is vivid and terrifying. Planes falling out of the sky. Utilities shut off. A government in utter disarray. No running water. No communication. No way to get food. All timed in January, when it is cold and barren in the Northeast. Who knows, maybe the computers attached to nuclear missiles might even malfunction.
The implication was clear: the end of the world, or an end of a world, was certainly nigh. Call it schadenfraudocalypse. Our degenerate world was a modern-day Babel, ready for its comeuppance, complete with a deadline only the faithful seemed to take seriously. God was laughing at our puny human attempts to control the world through computers, and the Internet (on which child molesters lurked) was going to be turned to chaos.
The only solution was to prepare. Like Kimmy and her fellow bunker dwellers, we’d have to stockpile food, come up with alternate modes of generating power, and get ready for a long, cold winter.
To be clear: my parents are wonderful, and own no tinfoil hats. They are reasonable people who read old, good books. Conservative politically and theologically, for sure, but not the sort of people we knew whose children didn’t get birth certificates, vaccinations or Social Security Numbers (that was how the government could track you and control you, they said). My father noodled on the guitar in the evening and my mom enjoyed gardening and baking bread. My brother and I learned to play the piano. We took swimming lessons.
But 1998 was the right time to tell most ordinary people that “the computers” were wired to end civilization and have it sound plausible. Some people we knew of built literal bunkers in their backyards. Our house, which was already out in a rural area near a few natural water sources, seemed like a good place to be for the apocalypse, and it had a cement-lined basement. In the basement was an insulated room a previous inhabitant had used as a bedroom. My parents bought 50-lb buckets of grains and dried beans and lined the walls with them.
I turned 15 in 1998 — the age Kimmy was when she was kidnapped — and I took to scouring catalogs from companies that predominantly supplied the Amish, since they would be affected the least. We bought an old-fashioned water pump for our well, which we installed outside, and two wood stoves to heat the house. We stocked up on dried and dehydrated foods, and then bought an actual dehydrator so we could start preserving them ourselves. We bought many months’ worth of food, enough to feed a family much larger than ours, reasoning that our relatives who lived nearby but weren’t preparing would use the last of the gas in their cars to drive to our home, where we could take care of them and neighbors. That was what any caring Christian would do.
None of this is in the same general region as the Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, the charlatan who imprisoned Kimmy under the ruse of apocalypse. Given what we were led to believe—by people who, I believe, firmly thought it was inevitable — it was prudence.
But as I waited for the apocalypse, I turned 15. Then I turned 16. I learned to drive a car. I got my braces off. I precociously finished the 11th grade coursework and started in on the 12th, expecting January 2000 to be tough on studying trigonometry.
Most people say they have no idea what the future holds, but when you are 16, fairly naive, and expecting your world to end, you really mean it. I rehearsed in my mind what would probably happen: no college, of course. There couldn’t be colleges in the wake of this. I’d read a lot of books. Because all of my friends lived too far away to reach by bicycle, I wouldn’t see them for years, if ever.
Besides, if the worst happened, it meant widespread looting and violence. We’d be safe, I was sure — I hadn’t read Doris Lessing yet — but we’d be up isolated. Getting married anytime soon was out, for sure.
The future wasn’t so much of a blank slate as just a blank. Always pragmatic to a fault, I learned over those 18 months to not think about the future, to resolve to take each day as it came. I stopped wishing. There was no bunker, but in the post-Y2K world, I would be held hostage by practicalities, and it was no use fretting. There was nothing I could do. I started raising chickens.
On the morning of Dec. 31, 1999, I woke up early to watch the live PBS broadcast as the new millennium rolled in around the world. The places it reached first were far from us, cocooned in the Eastern time zone, and I had to watch before rolling blackouts occurred.
The year 2000 hit New Zealand. Nothing. Hours later, nothing.
The broadcast rolled on, and with it, the millennium. That evening, I stood in a bowling alley — it was safe enough to venture to a friend’s New Year’s Eve gathering, wholesome bowling followed by food and then a Bible study and prayer for the upcoming year. I watched the New Year roll in across Europe and then, eventually, New York City. I watched revelers and thought, “Tomorrow is happening. It is actually happening.”
We drove home that night quietly. We woke up to discover we, and our lights and our water, were still fully functioning. Days later, the news carried reports of some library systems reporting books overdue by a century. I imagine we felt a bit like members of an apocalyptic cult must: relieved, in a sense, not to be facing judgement, but also disappointed that after all this time, nothing had happened.
I finished high school. I started commuting to college nearby.
You can’t just shake a thing like that overnight, even when the apocalypse doesn’t happen, when you’re a teenager who has cut off her future. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” features a character named Gretchen, a willing cult member even after the bunker rescue, and I spent college expecting the cosmic comeuppance; I was never quite as rattled by the events of Sept. 11 of our freshman year, and the months following, as my classmates were. Of course this would happen. Like an actual apocalyptic cult leader, I just shifted the dates forward a bit. We got it wrong the first time around, but it was en route nonetheless.
A mind and heart primed and hardened to expect judgment, whatever its shape — to count on the futility of thinking of the future — thaws very slowly.
After graduation, I gathered what scraps of gumption I had and ended up in New York, surrounded by people who had lived a kind of apocalypse and just kept on living. It was 2005, and the specter of the World Trade Center towers’ collapse cast a darker shadow than it does now.
I walked around watching those people all summer. I went to a church filled with them. I wandered down my street and watched the sun set over the Hudson River. I read novels and went to a bar for the first time with a friend and got a Netflix account so I could watch everything, starting with “Garden State,” which I’d heard was pretty good. Somewhere in there, I felt my heart thaw out, and I started thinking about the future, becoming unsatisfied with the utilitarian job I’d locked myself into because of security. New friends asked me about high school, and I smiled and didn’t tell them much. I kept quiet for years.
The point of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is that everyone in New York has some kind of shameful bunker experience to escape, from Kimmy’s incredibly gay roommate Titus (a former Mississippi Prom King) to her socialite employer Mrs. Voorhees (who literally left the reservation). From “30 Rock” to “Mean Girls,” Tina Fey has always written about characters who are putting on a good face while feeling they have something to hide or suppress: a childhood in Africa, a nose job or a foot disease, the fact they’re not actually a player, their sexuality, a Boston accent, pathological dorkiness. Every character is trying to leave the past. In Fey’s past work, most of those characters have turned toward destructive or antisocial behavior.
But Kimmy Schmidt is a character I get. She jumps in puddles; I jumped in puddles. She goes on a date; I went on dates. I even went on all-night doughnut shop dates with a boy who grew up going to youth group and listened to rock music, and it felt daring and new. Kimmy throws a real, adult party for her birthday. I watched every movie Netflix would send me.
What makes Kimmy great, as a character, is that her bunker experience collectively scarred her and made her irresistibly independent and grateful for life. Kimmy thinks the stereotypical New York closet bedroom — in her case, a literal closet — is amazing. She buys high-top sneakers and goes to a club with her roommate and wears very bright colors, and she is not painfully self-conscious that she doesn’t belong as soon as she realizes that nobody else belongs either. I nearly freaked out when I realized I could just walk to Starbucks any time I wanted and order a mocha, or buy a pair of shoes because I thought they were pretty, or eat a cupcake every day.
Kimmy had it far, far worse than me— the show drops painful hints that she was sexually abused, and she’s obviously angry at the reverend — but she’s the kind of character I wish I’d had to watch a decade ago, someone who could tell me that it’s okay to feel like I didn’t really grow up in America. I surreptitiously fire up Shazam at parties to identify the songs to which everyone else is singing along.
Then again everyone has something to hide. Kimmy’s secret makes her a confidante, a woman to be fought over by men, a friend, a source of joy to a jaded New York.
My own bunker gave me gifts. A friend recently told me she appreciated that I didn’t seem to care if I fit in with others. I do care, but I told her that my weird upbringing got me used to the idea that I would never be like everyone else. It also told me that there was a lot that life could offer me that I never expected. You think the future’s never coming, and then it does. The world’s going to end, and then it doesn’t — well, then. Life can begin.
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