In the wake of the runaway success of American Vandal -- the Netflix mockumentary that asks, "Who drew the dicks?" -- the bar for absurdist send-ups of true crime documentaries has been exponentially raised. But in the first half of its fourth season, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt more than rises to the occasion, delivering a spot-on spoof of the genre and one of the show's best episodes to date.
Titled "Party Monster: Scratching the Surface," the third episode of Season 4 is a half-hour documentary starring and produced by the fictional DJ Fingablast (Derek Klena), a caricature of a modern DJ who decides to film his quest to find the perfect DJ for his wedding to model/U.S. Mint spokeswoman Hello Hadid. But when Finga realizes there's only one man with enough swag for the job -- his childhood hero, DJ Slizzard, aka the Reverend (Jon Hamm) -- he's devastated to learn Slizzard is unavailable due to his recent incarceration for abducting Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) and the other Mole Women. But rather than turn away from his Slizzard Lizard fandom, Finga winds up doubling down, pivoting his documentary into a propaganda film in defense of the Reverend with the hopes of getting his case reopened.
Written by Meredith Scardino, who also gave us the Season 1 highlight "Kimmy Is Bad at Math," "Party Monster" is an impressive balancing act, weaving together incisive takes on the men's rights movement, true crime docs and Kimmy's signature absurdist humor, all without being able to rely on the core cast of characters viewers have grown to love. TV Guide spoke to the team behind the episode, including DJ Fingablast himself, to learn how Kimmy was able to break form to create arguably one of the best episodes of 2018 so far.
Knowing Kimmy Schmidt was approaching its end, co-creators Robert Carlock and Tina Fey went into the writers' room for Season 4 wanting to play around with form. In addition to an upcoming hourlong take on Sliding Doors, Fey suggested dedicating an entire episode to the documentary defense of the Reverend, which was initially just going to play out in the background. As soon as it was decided the documentary would be a standalone episode, it immediately opened up a whole new world of storytelling for Scardino and the writers to explore, allowing them to come at serious issues like men's rights from an oblique, but also quite timely, approach given the war on truth currently playing out in the media.
"As anyone who does fake documentaries realizes immediately, it lets you have very unreliable narration in a good way," Carlock tells TV Guide. "[The documentary format allowed us] to create these characters and define these people who increasingly are emboldened in our society right now: [people] who take [the Reverend's] side and who want to present a half-hour of documentary as a defense of him and who are easily manipulated by him."
Enter DJ Fingablast. Observant Kimmy fans will recognize the misguided DJ, played by Broadway vet Derek Klena, from his previous two appearances: first as Jacqueline's (Jane Krakowski) boy toy Douglas, the dog masseuse, in Season 2, and again as Doug's DJ persona Fingablast in the Season 3 finale, when Titus (Tituss Burgess) opened for him on the Mets party cruise.
Although Klena's previous appearances were minor and relatively forgettable compared to Kimmy's A-list slate of guest stars, the actor made an immediate impression on Carlock, who compared bringing Klena back to how he and Fey used to bring Kimmy star Tituss Burgess back on 30 Rock. The character of DJ Fingablast also proved to be the ideal gateway into the documentary defending the Reverend. "He's the perfect character in that he's kind of an idiot," says Carlock, putting it bluntly. "In terms of trying to find a character who could care about the Reverend for another reason and be dumb enough not to know what else he'd done --"
"A guy named DJ Fingablast is that guy," Scardino explains.
In order to create a realistic documentary feel, the show enlisted Rhys Thomas, a Welsh director and producer known for his work on the IFC mockumentary seriesDocumentary Now!. While Thomas was familiar with the world of Kimmy prior to signing on for the project, he went into the episode with the mindset of "trying to ignore [what's been established] as much as possible" in order to create an authentic-feeling mockumentary completely unlike a regular episode of Kimmy Schmidt.
"It was interesting because the Kimmy crew are obviously very used to a certain rhythm and a certain way that they would shoot things, and they were very eager to [try something new]," Thomas says. "But I also kept having to tell them to literally try and break their more professional abilities and try and remember that they were this amateur filmmaker and this documentary crew that didn't necessarily know what was going to happen all the time."
To capture that sense of spontaneity, Thomas had actors film certain scenes themselves, sometimes even on the director's own iPhone. Thomas also worked with Carlock, Scardino and the cast on shifting the pacing of how certain scenes were written and performed in order to adjust to the fact that the fourth wall was being broken to a degree.
"That was a difficult adjustment, I think, because obviously they're great at writing jokes for everybody, so you'd have Bobby Moynihan and Jon Hamm and Derek all have funny things to say that couldn't be edited in such a way that felt like we had cameras on everybody at the same time because we wouldn't do that in documentary," Thomas says.
But while the documentary style put restraints on coverage and editing, it also opened up new layers of narrative through which characters could expose their motivations and vulnerabilities. On top of the story Finga thinks he's telling through the documentary, we also see the wheels turning in the Reverend's mind as he clocks the camera crew and recognizes the unique opportunity this presents in his quest to get out of prison. From the second the Reverend first stares down the camera, Hamm's performance shifts from an actor playing a criminal to an actor playing a criminal playing a wrongly accused person. And it's through these many layers of performance and narrative that Kimmy is able to effortlessly deliver its most politically blunt episode yet.
Under its cheery veneer, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has always had sharp explorations -- and often indictments -- of modern gender dynamics at its core. While it has been the center of more than a few controversies of its own, Kimmy has also made it a point to explore serious issues like gaslighting, cat calling and sexual assault through its uniquely roundabout but nevertheless provocative means. The fourth season begins with a very direct take on the #MeToo movement, when Kimmy is accused of sexual harassment at work, before shifting to explore the growing men's rights movement directly in "Party Monster."
Although Finga starts off the documentary with the focus on hiring his wedding DJ, once he visits the Reverend in prison, Finga is practically helpless to the evil mastermind's manipulations. It doesn't take long before the "I Have a Beat" star is completely on the Reverend's side, teaming up with The Innocence Broject founder Fran Dodd (Bobby Moynihan) to not only prove the Reverend's innocence, but to prove that what the Reverend did should never have been illegal in the first place. But by keeping the guileless Fingablast at the center of the story, Kimmy manages to find the lightness within these bleakly real claims about the so-called "war on men," whose casualties also include Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and Lord Voldemort.
"He's essentially an innocent abroad. I think that's what helped ground a lot of it," Thomas explains. "Obviously, these are very real issues that we're talking about, but I think the fact that our way in was through this naïve and tone-deaf point of view, and how absurdly deaf they were to the realities of things -- I think it was pushed far enough in the wrong direction that the comedy was able to overcome."
Adds Klena, "Yes, we all laugh at these absurdities, and when you hear them come out of the Reverend's mouth and Fran Dodd's mouth, you think they're just the craziest things. Like how can these guys say these things? But then you realize that it is happening in the world today and these types of things are being said, believe it or not, and it kind of just puts the political issues of today into perspective. In making fun of some of the ridiculousness of what this is, it brings it to light and it brings some clarity to a lot of issues."
Kimmy has always mingled with real-world issues, but never has the show so blatantly crossed over into our reality than when the Reverend defends his behavior by pointing to similar comments made by President Donald Trump, who was previously established as a hero of the Reverend's. In a jarring move, the show includes a montage of Trump denying sexual assault allegations against him by saying the accusers weren't attractive enough to assault. Although viewers laugh at similar remarks made by the Reverend, Fran and Finga in this very same episode, the safe distance that allowed the audience to comfortably laugh at the audacity of this justification is briefly removed by the shocking reality of the situation breaking through.
"It was very much, 'Oh yeah, here we are in our little fantasy world, but guess what? The President of the United States said these things,'" says Carlock, who personally pushed for the actual footage to be included.
"And it's a common defense," adds Scardino. "It just seems like a way to discount victims. It seems like something that would be in the Reverend's wheelhouse of excuses."
But this isn't the only instance in "Party Monster" in which Kimmy effortlessly blends fiction and reality -- albeit, to a much different effect. As the Reverend explains his reasoning for why women shouldn't be allowed to make decisions (because they apparently always make the wrong ones), he points to an example of when he appeared on a dating show but was passed over for a frosted-tipped contestant named Mark.
As die-hard Hamm fans know, the footage of the game show isn't one of the many scripted archival vignettes that pepper "Party Monster." It's actual footage of Jon Hamm appearing on the '90s game show The Big Date in which he describes his perfect date thusly: "Start off with some fabulous food, and some fabulous conversation, and end with a fabulous foot massage for an evening of total fabulosity."
"I didn't even mention [using the footage] to Jon," says Carlock. "We went ahead and were working on clearing it, and we just sent him the rewritten script and he texted me to say, 'You people are monsters.' But he was totally on board."
Whether or not viewers were in on the origins of the dating show footage, the humor of the moment is obvious to all as the camera zooms in on the grainy footage of Mark while the Reverend lets out his self-righteous rage about not getting to go on the date to the zoo. And it's because of these completely ridiculous, low stakes vignettes that "Party Monster" is able to maintain Kimmy's signature effervescence despite its unflinching look at the increasingly emboldened misogynists in modern society.
From Fran Dodd yelling about his mother's inability to decide on her restaurant order to Titus' hilariously bad reenactment footage, these seemingly superfluous cutaways are crucial to maintaining the tricky tonal balance of the episode. The most memorable of these vignettes is the introduction of the stone skipping champion, Damar Varnish, whom DJ Fingablast visits at his mansion Rockswater in order to learn how to perfect the art of skipping stones at a crucial turning point in his investigation.
The scenes at Rockswater not only succeed because of their unexpected absurdity -- and the perfectly perfect name Damar Varnish, the name of an actual varnish Scardino used during her art school days -- but also because of the way audience expectations for a documentary were turned on their head thanks to the timing of Damar's introduction.
"It's taking that template of the documentary, that [Finga] would consult an expert," Thomas says. "You think that he's going to delve deeper into the actual topic that the documentary's about but in reality, no, he's going to delve deeper into why he can't skip stones. It's a misguided segue."
This sort of narrative misdirection has always been a strong suit of Kimmy's, as its titular lead repeatedly goes down one path only to stumble upon an opportunity or lesson she had never previously considered. The same is true with "Party Monster," which, in addition to being an entertaining half-hour on its own, also sets up Kimmy's driving motivation for the rest of Season 4.
The episode ends with a shot of a distressed Kimmy fuming over the misleading documentary, which paints a picture of Kimmy as a devoted, happily married wife to the Reverend and not a victim of his heinous crimes and abuse. Kimmy then makes it her mission to discount Fingablast's documentary, ultimately deciding to write her own story in the hopes of teaching boys how to treat girls better. But while Kimmy generally still seems her same optimistic self in the episodes that follow, watching Party Monster signaled a massive shift in her perspective on the world.
"The idea that the Reverend is perhaps less of an anomaly than she thought he was -- the actions he took are hopefully more extreme than most people, but the way he thinks about women and other people is less rare than she thinks, and she comes to realize that. And of course her response is, 'How do I fix this?'" Carlock says.
Moving forward, trying to find the humanity in men like Fran Dodd will become a huge incentive for Kimmy, who continues to do what she can to maintain her idealistic view of society despite all the traumas she's endured and the injustices she continues to witness. "It's despairing at times," Carlock remarks, "but hopefully [Kimmy's desire to fix things is] always coming through."
So does Kimmy's ongoing quest to fix the world and expose the truth of her past mean fans could expect Kimmy to cross paths with everyone's new favorite side character, DJ Fingablast, in the back half of the season? Unfortunately, that seems unlikely.
"He's touring right now," Carlock says.
Adds Scardino, "He's in Dubai on an island shaped like his face."
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is available to stream on Netflix now. The final six episodes of the season will debut January 25, 2019.