Review: Schmigadoon!

Schmigadoon! (2021)

I need to get a couple of formalities out of the way up front. I’d assumed I’d be able to binge this series and review the whole thing, but only the first two episodes were available upon launch. I’m not a fan of reviewing works in progress but I’d already put the time aside to write this up, so I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

 

Second, I’ve known Schmigadoon! director/executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld for a while and have interviewed him a number of times, including in these pages. That has in no way inflected this review. Oddly, and fortunately, once a movie or episode begins, the experience takes over completely and I’m able to consider it on its own terms. Anything I might have 

heard about it or any outside influences become irrelevant. That’s no great skill or anything—it just is.

 

Some series telegraph exactly where they’re going straight out of the gate and subsequent episodes become minor variations on what was laid down at the beginning. That’s not the case here, so my comments will very much pertain to just the first two episodes, along with some likely misguided speculation (i.e., blind guessing) about where the show will go from there.

 

It’s good Apple has two episodes out there at the start because if they’d launched with just the first one, the show would likely be in serious trouble. I realize that in a culture that’s given over its creative soul to fantasy, anything resembling plausibility is strictly optional, and even a sin, but given that this is supposed to be a series about relationships, it would have helped a lot if there had been 

SCHMIGADOON! AT A GLANCE

The jury is still very much out just two episodes into Barry Sonnenfeld’s deliberately pared-down take on classic movie musicals. 

 

PICTURE
The 4K/Dolby Vision presentation is (with the exception of a couple of soft frames) sharp and vivid throughout.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix is surprisingly tight and upfront, lacking the expansiveness you usually associate with big production numbers.

more of an effort to develop the core relationship and show how it necessitated the transition to a fantasy world.

 

But there’s a bigger problem: The dominant lead, Cecily Strong, is just unpleasant, both as a character and as a presence. I’ll readily acknowledge that, in her brattiness, she well represents some kind of current cultural ideal, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily want to go along for the ride. The idea of enduring her throughout a six-episode run is right up there with preparing my taxes as an inherently odious task. But I’m only two episodes in, so hopefully things will somehow get more interesting or in some other way improve—but I doubt anything will much change with her voice, which is a constant reminder that I need to get someone to come look at my garbage disposal.

 

It doesn’t help that her partner, Keegan-Michael Key, is as insubstantial as a wraith. He works hard to try to manifest himself but—so far—hasn’t been able to make much of an impression. It’s hard to have a show about relationships when half of the pair is barely there—but I have to wonder if, on some level, that wasn’t intentional. O, and I don’t believe for a second that either he or Strong are doctors. If you should ever find yourself with a physician as fundamentally immature as either of 

these two, it’s time to turn to prayer.

 

That’s not to say there’s no benefit to watching Episode One. There’s something fundamentally appealing about finding yourself lost in a world based on classic movie musicals, and the production numbers have an inherent verve and charm, even if some of them feel a little forced. And there’s a certain fascination to the overall approach to the production (about which I’ll have more to say below).

 

And even if you have to shield your eyes in the presence of the leads, focusing on some of the standouts in the supporting cast—in particular, Aaron Tveit as the town bad 

boy, Alan Cumming as the perpetually popular mayor, and Kristin Chenoweth as the scolding preacher’s wife—helps make the ride more enjoyable.

 

But Schmigadoon! doesn’t really begin to get interesting until early into Episode Two, when the ensemble breaks into “Lover’s Spat,” the first genuinely satisfying moment in the series and the first indication the hands at the levers might be able to steer the show someplace intriguing. It’s engagingly staged while bringing some new twists to the movie-musical conventions, and manages to strike the right balance with the somewhat treacherous equation that lies at the heart of the series without ultimately coming down on one side or the other.

 

About that equation: It seems possible the whole relationship thing is little more than a pretext for wading into the quagmire of the culture wars and, if true, there’s a chance Schmigadoon! could end up being bolder than it appears at first blush, and could ultimately redeem itself. The series places two moral systems in opposition: An archaic one, associated with movie musicals and rooted in a sense of community, and a more contemporary one that eschews community in favor of the individual. 

 

Putatively framed as a present-versus-fantasy-world-based-in-the-past thing makes the whole exercise seem pretty anodyne, but stand just off to one side and squint a little and it’s not hard to see it as what happens when smug urbanites happen to wander beyond the castle walls and go out into the countryside to mingle with the peasants. There’s so much I could say about that but I’m really biding my time and hoping the series has the courage to mix things up a little and show some understanding of those forgotten parts of the country and doesn’t become yet another exercise in coastal elitism (like, say, Space Force), just adding another echo to a chamber already deafening with noise.  

 

Maybe the most interesting thing about the production, though, is its claustrophobia. You expect a movie musical to feel big and lavish, but Schmigadoon! feels intimate, even squeezed, with no effort made to hide the scaled-down nature of the main set (or of the town’s populace) and with the dancers forced right up against the edges of the frame, with barely an inch of room to spare. Part of this is an extension of the aesthetic Sonnenfeld explored through his Series of Unfortunate Events for Netflix, shooting the whole series on a soundstage and deliberately emphasizing its staginess, which made it feel like a throwback to early cinema—as in really early cinema—giving it a Black Maria/Victorian feel. Deployed here, it makes the action seem constricted, like it’s all playing out inside a Cornell box. Again, it’s too early in the series to know if this will pay off, but it’s undeniably intriguing. 

 

So far, I haven’t been real happy with how that approach has been translated into the audio mix, where all of the voices are tightly focused and upfront, with none of the sense of space you’d expect with ensemble numbers. But it’s a strategy that may yet justify its existence. 

 

There are some surprising choices with the color palette as well. You expect Technicolor—what you get is a kind of candy striping, with pumped-up whites (of all things), which, again, makes this feel way more Victorian than Studio Era. (The 4K/Dolby Vision presentation, with the surprising exception of a couple of soft frames, is sharp and vivid throughout, although there have been a few moments that seemed a tad too video-like.)

 

Sorry to have hedged so many of my bets, but it’s impossible (or at least irresponsible) to say anything definitive based on incomplete information. Schmigadoon! is worth a look—it’s diverting enough and may yet morph into something more substantial. But at this point, your guess at where it’s going to land is as good as mine.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

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