It’s easy to change someone in a musical. A love interest’s entire attitude can change after the right music number, and the audience will believe it if the song and the performance land. That conceit becomes trickier when you’re dealing with real characters who are thrust into a musical world yet fully aware of how the genre manipulates emotions. Melissa and Josh don’t know if their love is real and are now being courted by new romantic prospects, but it’s challenging to create dramatic stakes when working with very deliberate leaps in logic. Can we really expect either one of them to fall for a citizen of Schmigadoon when these people are basically musical automatons designed to create a tidy romantic arc?
The opening flashback has Melissa and Josh escaping a black-box theater production their friend is in, which is presented as a cute thing but is really just another example of Josh being a stick in the mud. He complains that Melissa didn’t tell him there would be naked people onstage, and while she appears to share his discomfort, I wonder if she would have stayed throughout the entire show and maybe even enjoyed it if she didn’t have her whiny boyfriend with her. But this is early in the relationship when the cynicism is still cute, and she tells him she loves him when they step onto the snowy sidewalk outside the perfectly named Lonely Room Theatre. He reciprocates the feeling, and this experience connects Josh’s affection to his negativity, which would explain why Melissa stays with this sourpuss for so long.
“Suddenly” has Schmigadoon! moving into Julie Andrews territory on multiple fronts, with schoolmarm Emma Tate channeling Mary Poppins while Melissa is faced with her own condescending Captain von Trapp stand-in in Doc Lopez. Josh is pushed into his traditional gender role as Emma Tate’s new handyman, and Melissa fights against hers when she starts work as a nurse but decides to be much more proactive than her employer would like. Doc Lopez is a widower like Captain von Trapp, but instead of seven rambunctious children, he has two horny parents who are denied good sex because of their son’s conservative views and tyrannical behavior. Doc Lopez’s hotness is quickly diminished by him being a total jerk, and Melissa takes it upon herself to provide Schmigadoon with the progressive medical services that it needs.
Ariana DeBose was one of the few good things about Ryan Murphy’s painful film adaptation of The Prom for Netflix, and she’s about to ascend to new heights of stardom as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story remake. She’s getting all this attention because she’s a genuine triple threat. She’s a musical-theater professional who can fully emote through song and dance, and an actor with sharp comic timing and tons of charisma. Her performance as Emma Tate nails that Mary Poppins blend of dainty and feisty, serving as a comforting presence that also takes no guff. Her playful antagonism with Josh brings a lot of chemistry to that relationship, and while she’s stern with him, she’s not fierce like she is with Betsy’s father when he comes storming into her schoolhouse with his shotgun. That moment really establishes Emma as an influential figure in town, making her a more viable opponent to Mildred Layton, who sees an opportunity to gain more power in this episode.
DeBose’s big number in this episode is a new high point for this series, evoking the spirit of classic musicals without resorting to shallow imitation. Mary Poppins’ “A Spoonful of Sugar” meets The King and I’s “I Whistle A Happy Tune” for a peppy song about believing in yourself and getting work done, energized by Christopher Gattelli’s rousing tap choreography. DeBose moves with a mix of grace and power that exudes pure confidence, and there’s a collective joy in the room that can only come from a group of kid actors getting the extremely rare opportunity to perform in a big-budget TV musical. There’s an earnestness there that you don’t have from the adult performers, who are far more in on the joke, and it brings a lot of charm to a sequence that is also very technically impressive. The song ends with the teacher and students all collapsing with laughter, and Josh responds with one of my favorite line reads: “Why are they laughing? Nothing even remotely funny happened.”
The singing kids intensify the Sound of Music vibe, but the episode is still in remix mode rather than straight-up replicating. That changes when Melissa heads out into the hills to see a pregnant young woman Doc Lopez won’t treat because the baby was conceived out of wedlock. The woman and her sailor boyfriend know nothing about sex, so she decides to teach them with an informative song. It’s a one-to-one parody, following the exact structure of The Sound of Music’s “Do-Re-Mi” with some minimal melodic variations. It’s straightforward and basic without any of the clever wordplay that makes the original song so memorable, and the writers overestimate the comedic mileage they can get out of describing the reproductive system.
Melissa and Josh are starting to make an impact on the people of Schmigadoon, but not all of it is positive. Melissa helps the exiled couple and delivers their baby, but she also drives Doc Lopez’s father to a fatal mid-coitus heart attack because she gives him lubricant for sex. At the funeral, Melissa uses Reverend Layton’s eulogy to compel Mayor Menlove to come out to the entire town. He goes up to the pulpit to sing about how he’s a homosexual, sending his wife running out in tears while sparking an idea in Mildred Layton’s conniving mind. Melissa’s disruption causes chaos while Josh provides support, helping Emma Tate’s little brother, Carson, gain confidence by giving him a kazoo.
The show isn’t ignoring race, but it is afraid to speak explicitly about this other insidious element of the musical genre. A picture of Abraham Lincoln hangs on the wall in Emma’s schoolhouse and is consistently in frame when she interacts with Josh. The town’s outcasts are predominantly people of color. And Josh starts to talk about his own past experiences of alienation when he connects with Carson, and tells him about how he stood out from the other people in medical school. Josh doesn’t make that experience explicitly about race, but there’s strong subtext there considering that Black men make up less than 3 percent of physicians. He had to ignore what other people thought about him and become self-sufficient, which might be why he’s so set in his ways. His current attitude has helped him succeed in unwelcoming professional circumstances, but it prevents him from connecting with romantic partners.
Josh and Doc Lopez both fill the classic musical-theater role of “morally adrift narcissist who needs to change,” and they both win over their romantic counterparts by showing vulnerability. Josh’s transition is more organic than Doc Lopez’s, and Jaime Camil does a good job exaggerating the character’s change of heart to convince Melissa that he’s a different person. All it takes is one bland, lethargic love song about how he’s suddenly fallen for her. “Suddenly” falls between Emma and Melissa’s song on the parody spectrum, not quite a copy, but also not an especially compelling twist on the standard love-song tropes. It’s fine, but the show needs a song that’s better than fine if it’s going to convince us that these couples could potentially end up together.
I’m trying not to let the physics of Schmigadoon interfere with my enjoyment of the show because it’s not supposed to make sense, but I do find myself occasionally falling out of a moment because I start thinking about how Melissa and Josh are experiencing and perceiving the world around them. That happens during the split-screen dance sequence in “Suddenly,” which has the two couples dancing side by side in their respective settings before crossing the screen into the other environment. It’s a choreography joke that emphasizes the absurdity of the entire situation, but what kind of insane roller coaster are Melissa and Josh on as their surroundings morph to fit inside the camera frame? It makes me want to see the horror cut of Schmigadoon! that leans into disorientation and the sinister way this town sucks people in, messes with their heads, and refuses to set them free.