When it comes to satire, classic musicals are an easy target. Offensively regressive politics, absurd situations, and shallow characterizations provide myriad opportunities to poke fun, and the new Apple TV+ series Schmigadoon! is one big commentary on the Golden Age of musicals and how those stories clash with modern sensibilities. Created by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, the screenwriting team behind flop comedies (Bubble Boy, College Road Trip) and hit animated movies (The Secret Life of Pets, the Despicable Me series), Schmigadoon! uses the language of old-school musicals to tell a story about a contemporary couple whose relationship has stalled after four years and two months.
The series takes its name from Brigadoon, the breakout 1954 musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, the team that would go on to make hits like My Fair Lady and Camelot. That musical follows two men as they discover an idyllic town in the Scottish highlands that appears for one day every 100 years, and the only way they can stay is by falling in love with one of its citizens. But Schmigadoon! is a mash-up of many musicals, with the works of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II having a large influence, specifically Oklahoma! and Carousel. Schmigadoon!’s titular song shares much more in common with Oklahoma! than Brigadoon, mimicking the former’s quick tempo and lyrical quirks, like repeating the first two syllables (“Schmiga—schmiga—schmiga—schmiga!”) and spelling out the entire word at the end.
Barry Sonnenfeld directs all of Schmigadoon!, and he makes the most of that meaty Apple TV+ budget. Sonnenfeld won an Emmy for his direction of the Pushing Daisies “Pie-lette” back in 2008, which is one of the most confident and compelling pilots ever made. It exists in a similar heightened world as Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family movies, combining camp with macabre in a broadcast TV fairy tale about a pie-maker whose touch raises the dead. Pushing Daisies was too good for this world and only lasted two seasons, but its spirit lives on in the vibrant design sensibility and cartoonish yet charming performances of Schmigadoon! The cast is stacked with musical theater veterans, including Tony Award winners Alan Cumming, Jane Krakowski, and Kristin Chenoweth, who won an Emmy for her performance in Pushing Daisies’s second season, and you can feel the cast’s enthusiasm radiating in this first episode.
The most successful aspect of Schmigadoon! is its replication of classic musical aesthetics, starting with an opening credit sequence that presents the cast and crew names on a literal card against a gingham backdrop while an instrumental version of the title track plays. In Schmigadoon, the plants are fake and the backgrounds are matte paintings and everyone wears heavy stage make-up. The show is satire, but it also has a clear appreciation for this brand of entertainment, recognizing the appeal of its exaggerated theatricality. That appreciation is shared by Melissa (Cecily Strong), who watches musicals in bed while her cynical boyfriend, Josh (Keegan-Michael Key), is asleep next to her.
After the opening credits, the episode switches into a naturalistic mode as it flashes back to Melissa and Josh’s first meeting at the hospital where they both work. The title cards are written in the Law and Order font on a black background, a far cry from the bright fantasy of the musical action to come. The colors are washed out and the shot compositions box the characters in their surroundings, creating a drab, sterile, isolating environment for the couple’s origin story. They find each other at the vending machines, where Melissa is trying to free a stuck Snickers bar. Josh suggests that she give the machine a kick, and when she does, all of the rows start emptying at once. This magical moment leads to them jumping into bed together, and the candy deluge becomes a symbol for their relationship at its best, returning at their one-year anniversary when Josh has a server bring out a silver tray full of sweets.
But candy isn’t a meal, and after four years and two months, neither one of them is satisfied anymore. They embark on the Sacred Heart Love Trail to fix their relationship, a rainy, miserable experience that leads them to the town of Schmigadoon, twisting the plot of Brigadoon to make the town a prison that people can only escape when they’ve found true love. There are few things worse than forced audience interaction when you aren’t expecting or desiring it, and Schmigadoon is a hellscape where you are always surrounded by performers who can break into a full production number at any minute. The singing is one thing, but Christopher Gattelli’s choreography takes everything to a new level of aggression, with dancers throwing themselves at the new couple in a highly coordinated assault of the senses.
Much of this pilot’s humor stems from the novelty of this musical world and the commitment of the performers, which becomes even funnier thanks to Melissa and Josh’s reactions to what they are seeing. The thorny chemistry between Cicely Strong and Keegan-Michael Key captures the bond of two people whose frustrations with each other have outgrown their affections, and Schmigadoon is an environment that expands the gulf by catering directly to Melissa’s interest that repels Josh the most. A musical hater, Josh is immediately turned off by everything about Schmigadoon and desperate to escape what he assumes to be a deeply sinister immersive theater production.
But there’s also a racial element to Josh’s disdain. Classic musicals are notoriously racist, and if people of color appeared in them at all, they were typically as racist stereotypes. American musical theater’s roots in minstrelsy informed the offensive depictions of people of color onstage and onscreen, often played by white actors in makeup. Schmigadoon! isn’t ignoring this history, but it’s still too early to tell just how much it will engage with the genre’s racist past. The ensemble of townsfolk is racially diverse — leading Melissa to praise the “color-blind casting” — but the preacher’s wife (Chenoweth) gives off a vibe that makes Josh think she doesn’t approve of his relationship with a white woman. The show is making a statement on antiquated social views in older entertainment, but how far is it willing to go?
“Schmigadoon!” gives us four different types of musical numbers: the expository opening number, the syrupy ballad sung by an extremely unthreatening bad boy (a delightfully earnest Aaron Tveit), a nonsense song that gives the ensemble something to do, and a clarifying ditty from a supernatural character. These are actual musical theater tropes, and I have a particular weakness for nonsense songs like The Music Man’s “Shipoopi” or Grease’s “We Go Together.” Schmigadoon!’s “Corn Puddin’” is most reminiscent of Carousel’s “A Real Nice Clambake,” a song about a bunch of people getting really damn excited to eat some seafood. “Corn Puddin’” is the highlight of this first episode, a song that’s as stupid as it is catchy. It also epitomizes a big reason why musicals are so much fun to watch: They use song and dance to turn the mundane into something spectacular. Melissa wants some wonder in her monotonous life, and she joins the chorus for a her own quick verse about corn puddin’, singing about how she’d like to have a taste if they have any “extree.”
Ultimately fed up with the all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza, Melissa and Josh try to leave Schmigadoon but quickly realize that the town’s strangeness goes beyond the musical stuff. The path that led them there is gone and there’s no way out. A leprechaun played by Martin Short convinces the couple of Schmigadoon’s mysticism when he materializes out of thin air to sing about their current entrapment, dropping the bomb that only true love will set them free. But … aren’t they in love? It’s a reveal that pulls the story back down to earth, and unless Melissa and Josh want to live the rest of their days gobblin’ down corn puddin’, they’ll need to rekindle the flame that’s fizzled out.