Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the new Tina Fey-helmed Netflix series out on March 6, bypasses the typical sitcom tropes about a girl trying to make it in New York in favor of something more extreme. Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) isn’t adorably hapless because she grew up in Nowheresville or graduated from a prestigious, albeit sheltered, liberal arts school. Kimmy owes her wide-eyed naivety to the doomsday cult that imprisoned her - or convinced her to imprison herself.
The pilot episode opens with Kimmy and three other captives being rescued by a SWAT team; the group was hunkered down in an underground bunker for several years after a cult leader convinced them they’d survived the apocalypse. After flying to New York for the requisite morning news interview, the rest of the women return to the life they knew. Kimmy doesn't, opting to instead stay in New York and savor her newfound freedoms: Eating candy for dinner, drinking, and dancing. (“Dancing’s about butts now,” she gleefully observes.) All in all, her transition from cult life to civilian life as seamless as it is innocuously entertaining, which left us wondering how accurate the show was.
Naturally, we called up a cult expert and asked.
Rick Ross (no, not that one) is a consultant, author, and founder of the Cult Education Institute. He’s been a opponent of cults for several decades, and was even embroiled in a lawsuit for his controversial deprogramming methods. Ross has only seen the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt trailer, but had several immediate reactions to the way that cult life was portrayed.
The bunker, he points out, isn't at all ridiculous. “There have been cult groups that are Doomsday groups that have a charismatic leader...who persuades the members of the group to isolate themselves in a compound or even an underground bunker," he says, pointing to a recent example from Russia, where some young believer had never even seen daylight before being rescued. But, because most cults don’t isolate people in compounds or bunkers, Ross called the doomsday cult on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt “extreme.”
As for Kimmy's compatriot's decisions to return to their bunker, Ross chalks this sort of apparently common behavior up to cognitive dissonance, noting that some cult members will do anything to avoid admitting that their life was a lie. The think, he says, goes something like this: “Rather than go through that humiliation and recognition, I prefer to continue to believe in the group and I will go back to the group.”
Ross points out that the fish-out-of-water premise of the show speaks to the experience of many cult members, particularly the young men thrown out of polygamist communities. Ross refers to these exiles as the “lost boys” and adds that shades of the polygamist community are also present in Kimmy Schmidt.
“The way in which the women are dressed and the way they wear their hair they look exactly almost like the FLDS polygamist women," he says.
As far as cults in pop culture go, there are definitely more accurate representations out there - like the 2011 thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, which handled the post-traumatic stress disorder that comes along with escaping a cult. But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is, above all else, a comedy, and it turns out that cult experts can have a sense of humor as well.
“I’ll probably binge watch it,” says Ross.
Photos by Eric Liebowitz/Netflix