There’s a duality to splashy Broadway-style musicals that garner almost equal shares of love and hate. For many, musicals are universes where conflicts arise and conclude with enviable ease, and sweeping melodies are conduits for otherwise complex expression. Whether the story ends with hope or tragedy, impactful musicals have the ability to emotionally rock audiences and offer worlds where one can truly escape or feel inspired. That said, there’s also a very vocal population that will attest, sometimes fairly, to the genre’s inherent absurdity. After all, where else can predictable character archetypes reign and large groups of strangers digress into coordinated dance troupes who sing through their issues? Even the biggest Broadway devotee can set aside their love for a moment to recognize when something is ripe for parody.
Schmigadoon!, a new musical comedy executive produced by Lorne Michaels for Apple TV+, straddles the thin line between lauding and lampooning the artform with a story that harkens to the Golden Age of cinematic musicals. Equipped with a cast of comedy and live theater aces, the six-episode saga wastes no opportunity to flex with crisp numbers that aesthetically jibe with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer features of yore. It also digs at the subgenre of saccharine storytelling and its now-outdated approaches to love and humanity with the introduction of modern-day elements—that is, a New York couple that is magically transported from 2021 to the old-fashioned town of Schmigadoon with little hope of escaping. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water tale where two outsiders are dropped into an environment that they are invariably meant to alter with their big city ideas, like gender equality or songs without corresponding tap routines.
But those newer elements don’t affect much at all. For all its fun and flair, Schmigadoon! doesn’t bring much in terms of real stakes, perspective, or even a strong comedic voice. It’s just enjoyable enough to get into the sunny, familiar music breaks, but beyond that, the first season ultimately squanders its stacked cast, fumbling a chance to enmesh two totally opposite worlds.
Schmigadoon! centers on Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key), two doctors who have been dating for years. It’s clear from the beginning that they are emotionally on different pages: Melissa is eager to advance to the next stage of their relationship whereas Michael is perpetually laid-back and much more hesitant to broach the topic of marriage. This causes enough strife for them to seek intervention in the form of a couples retreat where they hope to reconnect. Instead, they end up lost in the woods and arrive at a magical bridge. Seeking shelter from bad weather, they cross the bridge into Schmigadoon, a small town frozen in time. They are immediately confronted with an introductory musical number that presents the town, its stable of characters, and its old fashioned ideals of romance and gender.
This moment also reveals the mostly static dynamic between the two newcomers and this odd community. Melissa, an ardent fan of musical theater, is delighted by the display. Josh, who clearly doesn’t share his girlfriend’s enthusiasm, mostly rolls his eyes while looking for the nearest exit. When it’s revealed that their only way to escape the town is to cross the bridge with their true love—a message delivered by a bridge leprechaun played all too briefly by Martin Short—it becomes clear that the struggling couple must interact with the townspeople in hopes of finding their tickets back to the reality they once knew.
Throughout the season, Strong and Key, two comedic heavy-hitters who have more than proven their cleverness over the years, are mostly relegated to meaningless observations of their surroundings (“Yay, another song,” for Strong; “Oh no, not another song,” for Key) and the occasional circuitous argument. They don’t really influence their new home, often looking on from the sidelines as the town offers heaps of melodic exposition. In turn, the Schmigadoon residents don’t have much to sing about either. There aren’t many twists, shocking revelations, or anything that makes the story a particularly interesting one to tell.
To her credit, Strong appears genuinely entertained and can hold a lovely note alongside the rest of the stage-ready cast. Still, neither the writing nor direction take advantage of the skills that Strong has honed throughout her time on Saturday Night Live. They also do no favors for Key, whose character is mainly focused on getting out of the town by any necessary means. Selfish and somewhat uncaring, Josh is, by definition, unlikable. But he isn’t engaging enough for his unpleasantness to make any lasting impact on the viewer. Key, like most of the cast, appears to hold back a lot, which makes Josh as forgettable as Melissa—the only factor that seems to bind this couple at all. Schmigadoon!’s two stars join Alan Cumming, Jaime Camil, and Fred Armisen, all of whom have their potential ultimately wasted on stilted storytelling and lackluster jokes. Cumming is especially trapped in a one-note bit as the mayor who is secretly gay. Oh, and his name is Mayor Menlove. Get it?
The show’s saving grace arrives in the season’s penultimate episode, where Kristin Chenoweth is granted the space to show off her Broadway prowess in an impressively quick-paced number. Between the jaunty tune, Chenoweth’s unmatchable energy, and the singular shot that captures the major performance, “Trials And Tribulations” speaks to Schmigadoon!’s theater strengths as well as its latent potential. Ariana DeBose, who plays the town’s controversially single school teacher Emma Tate, Ann Harada as the mayor’s wife, and Dove Cameron as Schmigadoon’s pigtailed ingénue Betsy also show real promise and the production team’s eye for great casting, despite working with a story that falls short.
Overall, it’s difficult to pinpoint Schmigadoon!’s intentions. It doesn’t offer a new narrative like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or impressively catchy tracks like Netflix’s Julie And The Phantoms. It doesn’t tap into the real potential of its seasoned cast like 30 Rock or Portlandia, nor does it have anything new to say for or against musicals, in general. But if you’re looking for something breezy in which to escape the world’s heaviness for a song or two, Schmigadoon! is a watchable enough option.