'Schmigadoon!' is one of the very best shows of 2021, brimming with charm, wit, and musical humor.
- 🎶 A fine blend of musical parody and homage.
- 🎶 Two great lead performances.
- 🎶 A consistent and entertaining ensemble cast.
- 🎶 The six-episode story could arguably have been a movie.
- 🎶 The flashbacks to the real world are slightly uninvolving.
- 🎶 Some songs aren't quite as much fun as the rest.
Bursting with charm, wit, and intelligence, Schmigadoon! is one of the best, most confident, and most entertaining Apple TV+ series to date. The ensemble cast of comic stars coupled with some ringers from the world of Broadway help to make this hybrid of musical throwback and romantic comedy stand firmly next to its influences. And the blend of talent from Saturday Night Live and the world of musical theater fits so smoothly, too. The only real knock against the show is that it might have been better served as a movie...or as a stage show itself.
Musical-theater nerds will no doubt be clued into some aspect of the premise of Schmigadoon! from its very title, calling to mind the 1940s stage show Brigadoon, about a pair of young men from the present who stumble upon a mystical small-town that reveals itself once every 100 years. This time around, the pair of leads are a couple on the outs: doctors Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key), who met cute at the hospital a few years ago when he encouraged her to give a good kick to a stuck vending machine, but are now barely hanging on to theirs years-long romance.
On a backpacking trip, in the middle of a torrential downpour, Melissa and Josh are confused to find a small town in the fog, called Schmigadoon and seemingly unstuck in time. They’re doubly baffled when the townsfolk of Schmigadoon begin singing and dancing. It’s a twist that delights the die-hard musical fan Melissa (who quickly begins identifying a number of the stage shows that serve as inspiration for the TV show) and horrifies the cynical Josh, who can’t understand why people break into musical performances for seemingly no reason. Over the course of six half-hour episodes, Melissa and Josh have to find true love -- it’s the only way to leave Schmigadoon and back into the real world -- and try to do so with various members of the town, all while singing and dancing their problems away.
Schmigadoon! balances a cheerfully old-fashioned sensibility with more acidic and complex character beats, a creative choice that never falters thanks to the full-on commitment of the cast. Aside from Strong and Key, there’s some remarkable musical talent here. Alan Cumming plays Aloysius Menlove, the constantly upbeat and smiling mayor of Schmigadoon, who keeps bottled up inside a personal secret that may or may not be hinted at in his last name; Aaron Tveit is Danny Bailey, a seductive roustabout whose very presence causes Melissa’s limbs to wobble; Kristen Chenoweth is the buttoned-up leader of a group called Mothers Against the Future (“Are you saying you’re against the passage of time?”, Josh asks at one point), and Ariana DeBose is Emma, a prim young teacher with an enthusiastic little, lisping brother.
If you know your musicals -- either stage or filmed versions -- you can spot some of the reference points for Schmigadoon!, a choice that creators Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio have made very intentionally. Melissa’s first paramour, Danny, recalls the rough-and-tumble roustabout lead of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel; Josh’s burgeoning relationship with Emma recalls that of Harold Hill and Marian the librarian in The Music Man (a connection Melissa speaks to directly when trying to aid him in understanding the role he has to play). Paul and Daurio, along with the rest of the writing staff (also including Julie Klausner and SNL cast member Bowen Yang), have their tongues firmly planted in cheek in every song-and-dance number nodding to the work of some seminal Broadway composers and shows. The original songs, all written by Paul, carefully walk the line between being genuinely effective pieces of music, from the welcome number that the townsfolk sing for the benefit of Melissa and Josh to a bouncy number Emma has with her class about the value of working hard and not taking the easy way out, and being brilliant parodies of familiar showtunes. (Melissa has a very funny teachable sex-education musical moment directly riffing on “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music.)
One of the most important parts of what makes Schmigadoon! is its director, Barry Sonnenfeld. His list of feature credits is impressive enough, having helmed Get Shorty, Men in Black, and The Addams Family. But what makes Sonnenfeld’s work stand out is that he inherently understands the correct way to film what is in essence an old-fashioned movie musical. While Schmigadoon!’s six episodes briefly cut back to Melissa and Josh’s relationship in the real world to offer context for some of the choices they make and where their relationship went astray, it’s primarily a musical fantasy that’s brought to life with the right amount of visual patience and staging. Where many modern movie musicals are stacked full of quick cuts and close-up shots of performers dancing and singing, the various musical sequences in Schmigadoon! boast wide shots to let us see Cumming, Tveit, DeBose, and even Strong and Key moving their bodies rhythmically. Some of the seasoned stage performers (Tveit and DeBose, the latter of whom cut her teeth in the original Broadway production of Hamilton, are the standouts) are just so much fun to watch, and Sonnenfeld wisely lets them do their thing without adding a lot of unnecessary flash in the staging and presentation of the sequences.
At the core of the show are two very solid performances by Strong, best known for her now-concluding run on Saturday Night Live, and Key. The show takes a risk by throwing Melissa and Josh into emotional disarray from the start -- within the first five minutes of the first episode, they’ve already arrived in Schmigadoon, basically ready to break up without us fully getting a sense of how their relationship morphed over time. But Strong and Key are able to build on the foundation of the characters throughout the six episodes to make clear why these two opposite personalities connected initially, and what draws them back to each other time and again.
Schmigadoon!, in calling back to so many wonderful stage musicals that themselves were turned into major motion pictures, does raise an obvious question: why wasn’t this just a movie? It’s a minor critique at best, but Schmigadoon!’s relative brevity and slick pacing are such that the overall story could easily have been packed into a feature-length runtime. (If you exclude the opening and ending credits of each episode, it’s just under 170 minutes, which fits quite well into the standard runtime for a Broadway show, and many cinematic adaptations of said shows.) And that same brevity makes it so some of the cast members get more to do than others -- Martin Short and Jane Krakowski should thank their agents for getting opening-credit placement in each episode despite only making brief single-episode appearances, and Jaime Camil as the town doctor could’ve stood to get even more material.
But these are trifling problems at most. Apple TV+, nearly two years into its existence, is slowly but surely becoming a genuinely fierce bit of streaming competition amidst the Disney+ and Netflixes of the world. Shows like For All Mankind and Ted Lasso have proven that the streamer has the chops to make appointment television. And now, they’ve made another such must-see. Schmigadoon! is a wonderful way to combat the summertime blues, a smart, witty, and unexpectedly emotional story that’s able to both pay homage to the great musicals of old while creating something new in the process. It’s one of the best shows of the year.
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