Between WandaVision and Kevin Can F*ck Himself, shows revolving around warped pocket realities have been having quite the moment in 2021. It seems like a moment that Apple TV+’s new musical series Schmigadoon — from co-creators Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, and director Barry Sonnenfeld — very much wants to be a part of.
But where this year’s other reality-within-a-reality stories have often treated their conceits as mysterious novelties for viewers to theorise their way out of, Schmigadoon leads with the understanding that knowingly giving into the fantasy of musicals is a key part of engaging with their stories. After their new relationship begins to settle into a familiar, mind-numbing rhythm that exposes some cracks in their bond, doctor couple Melissa Gimble (Cecily Strong) and Josh Skinner (Keegan Michael-Key) wind up embarking on a couples’ retreat that goes more than a little sideways.
While lost in the woods, the pair stumble upon a mysterious bridge leading into Schmigadoon, a quaint and lively town plucked out of the golden age of American musicals where all of the townsfolk spontaneously break out into song at the drop of a hat.
Like many modern, self-aware musicals, much of Schmigadoon’s premise and its jokes work on the assumption that you’ve got some familiarity with shows like Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loew’s Brigadoon (which the series parodies) and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. But as Josh and Melissa begin to spend time in the town, they soon begin to realise that its initial charm is hiding a strange secret. No matter how many times the couple try to get back across the bridge into the real world, they end up right back in Schmigadoon, and none of the people living there seem to understand how unnatural it all is.
Because Josh and Melissa’s relationship woes are front and centre in their minds, it’s not hard for them to put one and two together to figure out that their rough patch is somehow tied to whatever pocket reality Schmigadoon exists in. For Melissa — a musical fan who sees herself as being more emotionally invested in their relationship — Schmigadoon’s a weird but exciting invitation for adventure.
Josh, on the other hand, has a harder time coping with the Schmigadoonians’ schtick, which they begin to invite them both to participate in. But as characters like moody rapscallion Danny Bailey (Aaron Tveit) and farmer’s daughter Betsy McDonough (Dove Cameron) dance their way into the story, both Melissa and Josh begin to give themselves over to the roles that Schmigadoon itself seemingly wants them to play with.
Though Schmigadoon is technically a streaming series, it is unabashedly a musical production first and foremost in terms of its overall sense of scale and place. Within Shmigadoon, the camera pulls you into an imagined confined space that traditional musicals have to exist in, and in doing so the series gives each of its cast members multiple opportunities to show off their singing and dancing skills. Supporting characters like Mayor Aloysius Menlove (Alan Cumming), Reverend Howard Layton (Fred Armisen), his wife Mildred Layton (Kristin Chenoweth), and schoolteacher Emma Tate (Ariana DeBose) fill out the cast as Schmigadoon’s embodiments of musical archetypes whose machinations all serve to teach Josh, Melissa, and the audience parables about life.
As often as Schmigadoon takes potshots at other musicals, each of its episodes only ever goes so far to subvert the genre before getting back to the important business of slipping in jokey songs about the reproductive system. The series isn’t all that interested in trying to throw you for the most surprising loops, because that simply isn’t how the narratives of many classical musicals tend to unfold. Every time a character stops to remind Melissa and Josh about how true love is the only thing that will set them free, they’re — perhaps unknowingly — being quite serious, and telegraphing how things are meant to end.
To that end, there’s a sort of inevitability that begins to loom around Schmigadoon as it draws to a close that makes its studiedness of the musical genre work against it, somewhat. You can see its neat and tidy ending coming from a mile away, but its effectiveness really does boil down to how one feels about capital “M” musicals in general. If they’re not your bag, this might not hit the ear right, but for people open to a low-stakes theatre sendup that definitely feels like an overblown SNL sketch, Schmigadoon’s worth giving a go.
Schmigadoon’s first two episodes are now streaming on Apple+, with the following four dropping weekly from there on out.