Take a gamble on Schmigadoon!, the inventive Scream of musicals [Apple TV+ review]

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Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key in Schmigadoon!
Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key wind up in a surreal situation.
Photo: Apple TV+

With a murderers’ row of talent behind and in front of the camera, and nods to handsome musicals and TV of the past, Schmigadoon! could become a major crossover hit for Apple TV+.

The new musical comedy injects a thoroughly modern sensibility into the classic Brigadoon storyline. Loaded with the obligatory singing and dancing you’d expect, it’s good and occasionally great.

If you like musicals, you’ll almost certainly love Schmigadoon!. The only question is, is the public’s thirst for musical theater enough to sell this high-concept gamble?

Schmigadoon! review

In the show, which premieres today on Apple’s streaming service, Josh (played by Keegan-Michael Key) and Melissa (Cecily Strong) are having problems. A few years after their whirlwind courtship, they’ve grown distant and short with each other. They no longer tolerate each other’s interests, and they can’t get through most conversations without a little passive aggression.

Melissa suggests a couple’s retreat, which quickly turns into a rain-soaked nightmare. They veer off the path and wander in the direction of the sound of church bells — and find themselves in the magical land of Schmigadoon.

For those who never saw the musical Brigadoon or the musical movie made out of it by the great Vincente Minnelli, it’s about a pair of city boys who take a holiday into the Scottish countryside and happen upon a place stuck outside of time. They find love and re-evaluate their lives, but then must decide if they want to return to the real world.

Schmigadoon! is an attempt to transport the lessons and ideas of Brigadoon, first performed in 1947, into the 21st century.

Brigadoon for modern times

In this six-episode series, our modern-day transplants, both riddled with hang-ups and confused about how woke they’re meant to be, contend with a land and its people all trapped sometime around the industrial revolution.

Schmigadoon! boasts old-fashioned songs in the Lerner and Loewe tradition (that’s the pair responsible for the original Brigadoon score), beautifully choreographed dance numbers every few seconds, and a visual template coined by director Barry Sonnenfeld, best known for directing Men in Black but hired because he directed the pilot for Pushing Daisies.

This show isn’t Pushing Daisies, though. It’s missing that indefinable special something. But the fact that everyone involved in Schmigadoon! was aiming for Pushing Daisies is a very, very good sign.

Talk about a deep bench

Schmigadoon review: Fred Armisen, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming and Ann Harada give this show some oomph.
Fred Armisen, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming and Ann Harada give this show some oomph.
Photo: Apple TV+

The creative team here is pretty wild. Variously this has involvement of Sonnenfeld, Bowen Yang, Julie Klausner, Martin Short, Alan Cumming. And Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Live creator and the Henry Kissinger of comedy, lurks vampirically in the background because of SNL alum Strong’s involvement.

Kristin Chenoweth and Fred Armisen are also here because I guess there’s a law that says you can’t do musical comedy without them. The writing and performances are variously excellent and labored, which can make the show feel inconsistent.

Schmigadoon! was created by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (the latter of whom wrote the great old-school songs), the veteran screenwriters behind all 600 Minions movies, and you can sense the same tension between spelling everything out and leaving a little to the imagination per ancient comedy rules.

This unbalanced dynamic is perhaps best summed up in the first few town-square numbers where Mel and Josh are first subjected to the rules of Schmigadoon. The two outsiders take in the big performance with equal parts disbelief, awe and annoyance, but the scenes aren’t quite tight enough to make everything cohere.

Key and Strong interject with their modern cynicism to object to the old-school gender rules (which doesn’t really make sense considering the show has no racism, but uhh I know why they can’t do that) and it’s only funny half the time. After the show gets the introductions out of the way, it can start being funnier.

A few unfortunate foibles

Key in particular, despite his speed as a comic performer, lets a little too much empty space fill in the gaps between his fellow performers and his own line reads and reactions, which makes the jokes feel awkward. The last thing a show this snappy can afford is to drag. Seven out of 10 punchlines land the way they’re meant to. (It helps that because this is Apple TV+ and not NBC, the actors can swear.)

Strong, too, displays a series of tics as an actor she developed during her years on Saturday Night Live. She now faces the unenviable task of divesting herself of them. There is an enormous difference between the energy required of Strong and Key’s time spent in sketch comedy, and the drum-tight timing required to make a musical comedy work.

Alan Cumming and Ann Harada (who play Schmigadoon’s closeted mayor and his wife) know the score here and probably do the best work in the cast, all perfect timing and sincerity.

The rules of musicals

Schmigadoon review: Are you ready for some singing and dancing?
Are you ready for some singing and dancing?
Photo: Apple TV+

I don’t want to sound overly harsh. This show is for the most part cute and winning and the energy is infectious. Strong and Key do prove themselves elsewhere. Strong has a song about vaginas that’s not really funny per se, but it’s a lovely tune sung with conviction. It conveys the show’s anachronistic through-line by just being and not belaboring the point.

Key is allowed to be funny a few episodes in. He takes a job as the village handyman and tries to fix the schoolmarm’s broken closet door. He throws his toolbox heavily on the ground, shakes the handle once and throws up his hands. “This is really jammed, what else is there to do?” he says. That’s just funny.

I also like that in the middle of the main storyline (Josh and Mel trying to get out of Schmigadoon), we hear a lot of talk about the rules of musicals. Josh realizes he must play by those rules to leave, even though he hates them and refuses to sing. This makes the show seem like the Scream of musicals and I am all for that.

Ultimately I’m willing to concede that a show like this does not have to meet every one of my expectations to be good. It’s rare enough to see a musical TV show that isn’t so earnest you reach for a noose. The fact is, Schmigadoon! is marvelous some of the time and winningly propulsive and buoyant basically all of the time. I’ll take it.

Schmigadoon! on Apple TV+

The first two episodes of premiere on Apple TV+ on July 16. New episodes arrive on the following Fridays.

Rated: TV-14

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.