The Lighter Side of Cult Deprogramming

vmk4bOcAfter 15 years of living in a cult, the unbreakable and wide-eyed Kimmy (Ellie Kemper, “The Office”) is rescued along with three other women, causing a national sensation that culminates with an appearance on the “Today” show.

That’s the first sentence in a description of “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a TV show NBC is airing this fall. They’re trying to go for a girl against the world thing—they even invoke the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” at the end—but that set-up is so unpleasant that it’s hard to get over.

The first thing I thought of was Ariel Castro, the monster in Cleveland who kidnapped three women and held them captive for over a decade in his home. The second was Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped from her bedroom at age 14 by a volatile religious zealot.

These are not stories where nice, sitcom-appropriate things happen to women. They are grim and troubling stories of violence and lost innocence.

To be fair, there’s a difference between the famous cases and the situation comedy background. The titular Kimmy Schmidt wasn’t kidnapped; she was in a cult. And cults are funny, right? They’re full of hilarious characters like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charlie Manson and Warren Jeffs. They do funny stuff like hold armed stand offs with federal agents and committing ritual suicide while wearing Nike sneakers.

I kind of understand the thinking behind this. The star, Ellie Kemper, has a weird, chirpy energy. Her characters in “The Office” and Bridesmaids have been dimwitted and childlike. Stunting her character’s development would let her continue to use that kind of humor.

But the cult membership
is a dark way to arrest her development. I’m sure they’re going to do the TV thing where the cult is weird and silly but not threatening, like they worship a ray of light named Frank and always wear roller skates or something. But it’s still icky and there are probably easier ways to justify her acting like a 12-year-old.

There seems to be a much easier way just sitting there, waiting for the show’s producers to notice. I looked up Ellie Kemper on Wikipedia: she’s from some crazy old money family in St. Louis—her grandmother is the namesake of the city’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Make her a rich girl who’s been coddled all her life and has to learn how to function as an adult when her family’s money unexpectedly runs out.

It’s easy and it dials down the creep factor to just over zero.

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