“You know how much I hate musicals. People don’t just burst into song in real life,” complains Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) to girlfriend Melissa (Cecily Strong) early in the new Apple TV+ miniseries Schmigadoon!. At the moment, Josh thinks they’ve just stumbled into a weird tourist trap filled with performers aping styles of classic Forties and Fifties musicals. Only later will the pair realize that Schmigadoon is a magical place — not unlike the titular town of Lerner and Loewe’s 1947 Broadway classic Brigadoon — where the musical numbers are for real and neither of them can leave until they’ve found true love, whether with each other (at a moment when their relationship has seen better days) or one of the locals. This discovery only makes Josh more miserable, while Melissa finds herself taken with some aspects of the place, the songs in particular.
Schmigadoon!, created by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio and produced by, among others, Lorne Michaels (with Barry Sonnenfeld directing the premiere), is very much made for the Melissas of our world and not the Joshes. If you don’t arrive with a pre-existing affection for Rodgers and Hammerstein, et. al., you too will be eager to find the way out. But the miniseries attempts to simultaneously spoof and pay affectionate tribute to famous shows and show tunes, only sometimes getting that tricky balance right. Despite a deep cast of actors with impressive vocal chops and/or Broadway resumes — including Alan Cumming (as closeted Mayor Menlove), Kristin Chenoweth (as busybody Mildred Layton), Fred Armisen (as Mildred’s husband, Reverend Layton), Aaron Tveit (as town bad boy Danny Bailey), Dove Cameron (as lusty single girl Betsy), Jaime Camil (as conservative medicine man Doc Lopez), and Jane Krakowski (as a local aristocrat) — Schmigadoon! seems built more to rekindle a love of musicals in general, rather than this one in particular.
Like the show’s title, its songs rarely try to disguise their inspiration, for good and for ill. The creative team has a lot of fun pointing out the ways that mid-century musicals danced around issues such as sexuality, which leads to some amusing numbers like OB-GYN Melissa teaching a local woman how reproduction works to a sound-alike version of “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music. But when Danny launches into a pastiche of “Soliloquy” from Carousel, or when Mildred Layton manipulates the town with a riff on “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man, it will mostly leave you wanting to see Tveit and Chenoweth actually play Billy Bigelow or Harold Hill.
Still, if a lot of it is an inferior knockoff of the real thing, it’s a mostly pleasant and often appealing one. The supporting players (including Ariana DeBose as schoolteacher Emma and Liam Quiring-Nkindi as lisping Carson, the two of them a hop, skip, and jump away from The Music Man‘s Marion and Winthrop) all throw themselves wholeheartedly into the songs and the show’s overall goofy, self-aware tone.
The main problem is with the central couple — Josh, primarily. Both of them are constantly commenting on the strangeness around them, and the various musical tropes present throughout Schmigadoon. Sometimes, these observations are clever — Krakowski is obviously playing a version of the Baroness from The Sound of Music, leading Melissa to suggest, “It’s never explicitly stated, but I think you’re a Nazi” — but a lot of the meta humor proves a distraction from material that’s already funny, like putting a hat on a hat. Meanwhile, Josh’s constant grousing about the place — “It’s like if The Walking Dead was also Glee!” — is meant to provide both comedy and tension, since it’s yet another thing he and Melissa can’t agree on, when reconnecting may be their only means of escape. But in short order, his complaints feel less a source of humor then defensiveness on the part of the show — as if it’s trying to pre-empt objections from the kind of viewer who likely wouldn’t watch in the first place. And while Josh’s disdain for the town provides him with a character arc for the season, it also feels like the straw that broke the relationship camel’s back, suggesting that he and Melissa have no business being together, no matter what this magical community might suggest.
Sometimes, Josh’s running commentary proves harder-hitting than perhaps intended. While working as a handyman at Emma’s schoolhouse, he’s flummoxed by the kids’ behavior, at one point wondering, “Why are they laughing? Nothing even remotely funny just happened.” This feels accurate to Schmigadoon! as a whole, with both its music and its comedy: Everything has the shape and feel of the real thing, but very rarely the substance that makes either one satisfying. At a brisk six, half-hour episodes, it’s painless, and sometimes genuinely enjoyable. Just not as enjoyable as the schoolchildren, or anyone in Schmigadoon, seem to find everything around them.
The first two episodes of Schmigadoon! premiere July 16th on AppleTV+, with additional episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen all six.