It breaks my heart that an episode of TV spotlighting two Tony Award–winning musical-theater icons is so bland. Kristin Chenoweth and Jane Krakowski (finally making her appearance after four episodes of opening-credits teases) are the featured performers in “Tribulation,” and despite their best efforts, they can’t overcome the script’s shortcomings. Schmigadoon!’s romantic threads are extremely flimsy, and whatever the show is trying to say about modern relationships gets lost in its increasingly basic parody.
Most of the development for Melissa and Josh’s relationship happens in the opening flashbacks, and I wish those sequences informed the rest of the episode more strongly. “Tribulation” opens with Melissa consoling Josh after he loses a fellowship opportunity, which leads to a low-grade argument about Melissa saying “doggy dog” instead of “dog eat dog.” It’s a tiff that spotlights Melissa’s stubbornness and the ways she rationalizes her thinking when she’s wrong. Josh ultimately giving in is another way that he picks a path of least resistance, but in a more positive way than taking every single woman in town across a bridge. He says he’s sorry and that she’s right about “doggy dog,” which he’s just lying about to make her feel better. Sure, it might be a nice gesture in the moment, but it doesn’t do Melissa any favors if she’s out with other people and starts talking about a “doggy-dog world.”
It’s unclear what we’re supposed to take away from this flashback. Is this an example of Melissa and Josh overcoming some sort of challenge together? Is it an example of an incompatible couple that makes concessions to keep the relationship alive when it probably doesn’t work? I’d still rather have this complicated ambiguity than the emptiness of their new relationships in Schmigadoon. Krakowski’s Countess Gabriele Von Blerkom arrives to complicate Melissa’s burgeoning romance with Doc Lopez, but there’s barely anything there to threaten the countess’s engagement.
Josh and Emma’s courtship isn’t quite as flimsy, but it still lacks an emotional foundation because it’s predicated on the audience accepting musical flights of fancy rather than providing a believable reason for the relationship to thrive. The reason the characters in Brigadoon get sucked into their mystical world is because they exist in a musical and that’s just what happens. It’s a lot harder to sell that idea when the characters know they are in an artificial world where people don’t act rationally. The show needs to justify why Melissa and Josh would want to stay in Schmigadoon if it’s going to have genuine tension. But it never reaches that point.
Thanks to the presence of Jaime Camil, I’ve been thinking a lot about Jane the Virgin these last couple of episodes and how well that show lovingly satirized telenovelas while also telling honest, heartfelt stories about people who existed in a heightened world. The plots were often absurd, but the emotional arcs made sense and relationships had real stakes. Schmigadoon! could really use some of that energy because it specifically struggles with creating convincing romance within fantastic circumstances.
Krakowski is the saving grace of this episode, but all of the appeal of the countess is in the performance rather than the writing. She’s an exaggeration of The Sound of Music’s Baroness Elsa Schraeder, but the countess is fundamentally a copy rather than a take on a specific character type. Even her lines are variations of dialogue in The Sound of Music, which just comes across as a lazy act rather than a loving homage. Luckily, Krakowski’s sharp comedic timing and over-the-top line delivery bring a lot of personality to the character, like the moment when she shrieks at the sight of Melissa’s bare feet in the middle of their conversation.
Like last week’s episode, “Tribulation” has one song that succeeds by riffing on classic musical-theater themes and another song that falls flat because it parodies a specific tune. Krakowski has the winner in a delightful number that has her singing and dancing while driving in front of a rear projection. She gives slinky “Call From the Vatican” vibes as she laments the romantic partners she’s lost because they fell in love with people who work for them. There’s a great build to this number as the countess moves away from the wheel, starts kicking her legs in the back seat, and finishes the number standing on top of the dashboard. There’s also some really fun wordplay here, and Krakowski relishes the song’s humor while still bringing the intensity that makes her character more of a threat.
Kristin Chenoweth is an incredible vocalist who can sing at lightning speed, so it’s very strange that it sounds like she’s trying to catch up throughout her big number, “Tribulation.” Like last week’s “Do-Re-Mi” rewrite, “Tribulation” is an uninspired ripoff of The Music Man’s “Ya Got Trouble,” in which Mildred Layton sings about all the ways their town is going awry to get the town onboard her mayoral campaign. The clumsiness comes from the songwriting; it evokes the rapid-fire rhythm of its source material, but it replaces con man Harold Hill’s hoodwinking storytelling with a literal explanation of the plot thus far, delivered very quickly. It really makes me appreciate the clarity and cleverness of Meredith Wilson’s work on “Ya Got Trouble,” and how well that song flows, considering what a mouthful it is.
The single-take direction aims to capture the momentum of the live musical experience during “Tribulation,” but it ends up making the entire number feel more labored because Chenoweth is already dealing with the unforgivably packed lyrics. “Ya Got Trouble” is a more challenging song to parody than “Do-Re-Mi,” and it’s difficult to achieve Wilson’s level of musicality while delivering all that information. There are multiple instances in “Tribulation” where Cinco Paul forces a phrase into a rhythmic pattern where it struggles to fit, and I think no matter who was performing the song, it would always feel like it’s lagging.
Elsewhere in Schmigadoon, Josh keeps macking on Emma and connecting with Carson, showing him a workaround when Emma forces him to write lines as punishment for eavesdropping on her picnic canoodling with Josh. There’s a big revelation that Carson is actually Emma’s son, and she’s been saying that he’s her brother to avoid the wrath of Mildred Layton. It certainly complicates Emma’s romance with Josh, but again, there isn’t much there to begin with, so this doesn’t feel like any sort of challenge for the two of them. This show never convinced me that Melissa and Josh’s relationship was ever at risk, so it’s no surprise when the end of this episode starts pushing them back together.
After being abandoned by the countess, Melissa finds herself lost and alone on the outskirts of town. She rejects a dream ballet as it starts around her, which is disappointing because it would be nice to see how this show brings humor to this aspect of classic musicals. I also balk at the knee-jerk disdain for the dream ballet because it diminishes how important dance is to the storytelling in musicals, suggesting that audiences only want to see dance if it accompanies a sung piece of music. I want to see ballet get this kind of platform, and this is a missed opportunity to show audiences a new take on something they may have dismissed in the past.
There’s a lot for Schmigadoon! to resolve with just one episode, and unlike Maria von Trapp, I don’t have confidence that the writers will satisfyingly wrap up all these plots because they’ve been so underbaked the entire time. It feels like we’re at an act break when we’re actually at the end of the show, and I have no idea how the show will hold a mayoral election and dismantle two love triangles without rushing through everything and using musical-theater absurdity as the excuse.