There's a song in episode 4 of 'Schmigadoon!' where Melissa (Cecily Strong) sings to a young expectant mother and her boyfriend about the details of sex and pregnancy. It's all done to the 'Do-Re-Mi' theme from 'The Sound of Music' and even backed up by a mountainous backdrop. It's the only time 'Schmigadoon!', the new 6 part Apple TV+ series, drops into full-on musical parody, but it speaks to the divide between tribute and parody.
On the one hand, you have parodies like the Scary Movie franchise (remember them? Hopefully not) and loving tributes that have a self-aware, satirical view of a genre. (Shaun of the Dead is an excellent example.) Apart from the previously mentioned scatological song, 'Schmigadoon!' firmly falls into the latter camp. It's that overall feeling of loving tribute that makes it easy to let that song slide. It also helps that despite the concept of it (it exists entirely as a joke; what if 'The Sound of Music' was naughty?), Strong leans into the idea so enthusiastically, and the pure fun of the music is hard to resist.
Produced by SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels (and, judging by his 'Lorne Michaels Presents' in the classic-style opening credits, the show wants you to know this), 'Schmigadoon!' is from writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (Despicable Me). It's directed in its entirety by Barry Sonnenfeld. Sonnenfeld is probably best known for 'Men in Black', but it's the series 'Pushing Daisies' with which the show shares an obvious stylistic relationship. Shot entirely on sound stages with deliberately artistic but fake backgrounds and bold, stylised sets; it has a beautiful, old-school feel that's a coming together of classic Hollywood musicals and all singing, all dancing Broadway shows.
The show centres on New York couple Melissa and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key), who go on a couples camping trip to try and refresh their flagging relationship. While getting lost in the forest, they cross a bridge and enter the town of Schmigadoon. Quickly realising they are in a musical (the residents seem unaware), they try to go back across the bridge, only to be told by a leprechaun (an enjoyable insane Martin Short cameo) that leaving is impossible until they find 'true love'. This unravels many hard truths and realisations about their coupledom, making it even harder for them to cross the bridge. With nowhere else to go until they can figure out 'true love', they gradually get to know the township. Of course, this involves many songs and getting to grips with the dated views of the town run by Mayor Menlove (Alan Cumming) but actually ruled by the hateful Mildred Layton (the ever-wonderful Kristin Chenoweth).
As both our leads navigate the town and its residents, we're introduced to rapscallions (Aaron Tveit), doe-eyed lolitas (Dove Cameron), doctors (Jaime Camil) and schoolboys who pop into the frame to exclaim plot developments. What's great is that most of them get a chance at centre stage with solos and even plot lines of their own - we're not just tied to Melissa & Josh's story. There's a rather sweet storyline of closeted love involving Mayor Menlove and another centring on the 'schoolmarm' Emma (Ariana DeBose, the stand out among the supporting cast). Interestingly, some of these storylines address various uncomfortable themes often found in older musicals and theatre. Themes such as the 'sin' of homosexuality, young girls being married off, the shame of single motherhood and promiscuity. They are all addressed not in a judging way but by acknowledging - through the new eyes of our leads - that these are old fashioned, not appropriate anymore and often cause more hurt.
I don't mean to imply that this show ever gets really gloomy or preachy on the issues, more to say that it's so well constructed as a whole that these themes can be weaved into the plot along with lots of silly jokes and many song and dance numbers. Speaking of which, the songs, all written by Cinco Paul, are very strong. Sometimes performed with 20+ dancing extras, the range of styles, tempos, and moods are very broad. Songs jump from ridiculous numbers about pudding to genuinely heartfelt songs about falling in love, even in the same episode. But it never feels jarring. Quite the achievement considering there are at least 3 songs per episode.
The size of the cast is quite large, but they're well spread across the shows 6 episodes. Some characters, such as Emma, the schoolmarm, don't appear until halfway through, and Jane Krakowski is basically a one-episode guest star. Not that she lets it go to waste, of course, stealing several scenes before performing an over-the-top number while at the wheel of a car. It's an over-the-top, funny, and very Krakowski role, but not the only one that feels written for it's actor. From Alan Cumming as Mayor Menlove all the way down to Liam Quiring-Nkindi as the lisping child-announcer Carson, everyone is very well cast. This is the shows most considerable strength. 6 episodes focused solely on Melissa and Josh's quest to leave wouldn't have worked.
Speaking of our leads, Key is good as Josh, and although I found him difficult to connect to at first - as he spends the first two or three episodes acting like a selfish dick - his character progression is good to watch throughout the series. This show, however, belongs to Strong. As a long time player on SNL, she's always been one of the standouts, even up to this past season (Bowen Yang, a standout of SNL's recent season, is also on the writing staff). Outside of the show, there's been lots of smaller roles and guest appearances, but never the lead she's so richly deserved. 'Schmigadoon!' is that role. Strong turns in a layered performance that's tough, vulnerable and self-aware. All delivered with great comic skill. She walks through the show like she's been doing broadway musicals for years (she hasn't) and provides a perfect 'in' for us, the audience, to this crazy world.
From it's songs, to it's performances, jokes, sets, costume design (Emmy win prediction for Tish Monaghan) or anything else, 'Schmigadoon!' is a full-throated love letter to Hollywood musicals and Broadway itself. It's pretty moving to watch this series, which owes so much to those shows that had to shutter during COVID. Additionally, the overall message from the show about being yourself, being honest with those around you, and being open to change strikes a tuneful chord.
I just can't say a bad word about 'Schmigadoon!'. As we start to get back to normal and return to live shows, this is a perfect warm-up act. It's a tribute. A knowing tribute that isn't afraid to laugh at itself, but a tribute non-the-less. No mean feat for such an ambitious project.
This review originally appeared on Screen Times.