When Schmigadoon! began, it showed a lot of promise as an exploration of modern relationship dynamics in the hypertraditional environment of classic musicals. The connection between Melissa and Joshua should have been at the center of the series the entire time, but instead the story pushed them further and further apart, struggling to justify their affections for each other as they discovered new partners. Is there any reason to root for these characters to be together other than wanting them to escape their musical-theater prison? Finding their rock hearts is apparently some sort of profound reminder of the love they share, but like everything else in this show’s conclusion, it blazes past actual development to get to the unearned happy ending.
The last opening flashback takes us to 17 hours before Schmigadoon, when Melissa and Josh are trying to put together a tent in the woods. They don’t understand the directions, and they rig something up that immediately collapses on them once they get inside. I’m reminded of a scene in Ted Lasso’s first season when Ted is joyfully putting together a Lego set with his wife and son. The music and camerawork present this as a beautiful moment of family bonding, but the series knows that singular moments aren’t enough to solve pervasive issues in a relationship. Schmigadoon! thinks the camping cuteness will wipe away all of the obvious problems Melissa and Josh need to deal with if they’re going to make their relationship work, but it doesn’t.
One of the biggest problems with Schmigadoon! is that it expects viewers to accept shallow characterizations and rushed plot points because it presents the sloppy writing as satire. The Countess’s situation is quickly resolved offscreen so that Doc Lopez and his mother can retrieve Melissa from the outskirts of town. Surprising no one, Melissa confirms that she doesn’t have strong feelings for a man she met less than a week ago, and she decides she really wants to make things work with Josh.
While trying to soothe the betrayed Carson, Josh realizes that relationships take work, and when he has the opportunity to cross the bridge with Emma, he’s unable to move forward without Melissa. Of the Schmigadoonians, Emma is the only one who comes close to being something more than a caricature, yearning for Josh to take her and Carson over the bridge and away to New York City. She’s trapped too, and even if Josh isn’t a perfect partner, he represents an opportunity to escape.
At the end of the series, I have no idea how Melissa and Josh’s experiences in Schmigadoon affirm their love. They’ve barely spent any time together in the back half of the season, and that one scene where they deliver a baby isn’t enough to reignite their flame. There’s been no sense of longing for them to get back together, no sense of what they lose by being apart. They each discover alternative partners, but that doesn’t make them more compatible. Ultimately, the show puts a lot of the responsibility on Melissa to change her thinking to make the relationship work. She apologizes to Josh for acting as though anything that wasn’t perfect was a failure and for treating him like a burden she had to carry on her way to a fantasy. She expected him to change without having to make any changes herself, but she’s ready to be who he needs her to be so their romance can last.
Huh? Melissa’s character arc ends in a weird place of resignation as she apologizes for expecting more from her partner, choosing to change herself and accept Josh’s behavior that causes her pain. They may have that wonderful memory of bungling their tent and cuddling on the forest floor, but what about the memory of Josh leaving Melissa alone on the dance floor at a wedding when she needed him there? Are they ever going to address that Melissa communicated the things she needed from Josh and he didn’t give them to her? It seems like Schmigadoon is a hell engineered to make Melissa shift her expectations for a partner, whereas Josh just has to learn that sometimes relationships are hard.
This series has had some strong musical numbers — the delightfully silly “Corn Puddin’,” Emma Tate’s exuberant “With All of Your Heart,” and the Countess’s sultry “I Always, Always, Never Get My Man” — but it goes out with two clunkers. The sheer act of singing isn’t enough to sell Josh’s character journey, especially when “You Make Me Wanna Sing” is so bland and passionless. I appreciate that Josh and Melissa don’t have the same singing or dancing prowess as Schmigadoon’s musical-theater experts, and the vulnerability in Keegan Michael-Key’s performance reinforces Josh putting his guard down but, damn, this song is a snooze. It’s a tepid proclamation of love, and while I understand that Josh is showing his softer side, it could have been done with music that evokes more enthusiasm.
Last week, I wondered how the show would wrap up all of its plot points with just one more episode, and it does so by removing conflict so everything can resolve quickly. Josh’s and Melissa’s new lovers let them go without a fight, and Mildred Layton’s mayoral race falls apart when the townspeople decide to stop hiding who they really are and be honest with their neighbors. Mayor Menlove is gay, and his wife still loves him. Emma tells everyone Carson is her son and she’s proud to be his mother. Mildred Layton has her own secrets too, and it turns out the pregnant woman Melissa helped earlier in the series is Mildred’s daughter. Pastor Layton also comes out as homosexual, and when Mildred is at her lowest, Melissa gives her the opportunity to change and show them all that she can be a better person.
The finale number, “How We Change,” breaks from classic musical-theater pastiche to channel a more contemporary sound, but it’s still completely generic. At times, it feels as if this series wants to be a “so bad it’s good” satire in the vein of something like the “Original Cast Album: Co-Op” episode of Documentary Now!, a parody of Original Cast Album: Company, but the earnestness of “How We Change” indicates that the writers aren’t making a joke with their saccharine song about basic empathy. They think there’s something profound in repeating “This is how we change” over and over, then upping the tempo and throwing some tambourines on top. But the tambourines just feel like a last-ditch effort to bring some sort of spice to this musical plate of buttered noodles.
All of the changes happen in the final moments, so we never actually see how the town transforms. I thought a lot about Pleasantville while watching this series and how that movie creates dramatic stakes by having modern interlopers change an antiquated world. We didn’t get to see much of that here, but the finale would have us believe the entire town is now more progressive because of Melissa and Josh’s influence. It’s another example of the show relying on musical-theater logic to drive the plot, but it could have been so much more effective if it had spent more time having Melissa and Josh make a bigger impact on the society around them.
Schmigadoon! preaches a valuable message about accepting people for who they are, but it does so without any real insight into how communities can truly evolve to serve all people. Pedestrian sentiment buries the more incisive social commentary, and it feels as if creators Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio were afraid to go too hard on the classic musicals they revere. But then what’s the point? The show didn’t use the genre to say anything particularly interesting about relationships or deliver any provocative critique, so it ends up playing as a pale imitation of the classics with a cast full of wasted potential.