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A Journey to the Dark Side of Goofy: ‘Schmigadoon Season 2: Schmicago’

Season 1 of Schmigadoon was a one-joke show, but it was a good joke. The setup of this Apple TV+ series—a disenchanted couple gets trapped in a perky, perfect town that’s a real-life, 24/7 musical comedy—is a riff on a familiar idea (welcome back to Pleasantville), one that the citizens of Schmidgadoon play like seventy-six trombones in heat. The show lampoons and celebrates everything that makes classic American musicals so very weird.

I don’t mean like people suddenly bursting into song, although that gets talked about a lot (for me, it’s just something you go with: as my old theatre professor used to say, nobody complains about people in pornos suddenly bursting into sex).

That’s not the one joke.

The joke is that every fan theory you’ve ever had about popular musicals—all the dark and twisted subtext lurking beneath the glossy surfaces of Oklahoma! and The Music Man—is by-God true. Did Curly more or less get away with murdering a man he’d bullied for years? Is Winthrop the secret love child of his “sister” Marian the Librarian? Is The Sound of Music’s Baroness a Nazi? Are we actually supposed to root for an abusive husband in Carousel?

Showrunner-songwriter Cinco Paul deftly answers all these questions and more in jubilant song: yes, yes, yes, and it’s really effed-up but also yes. Don’t forget to buy a T-shirt at intermission.

Parody works if it lets us go on enjoying the thing we’re making fun of.

This is why Galaxy Quest is still the best Star Trek movie that Paramount never made, and why This is Spinal Tap has aged better than most of the bands it’s mockumenting. Before Schmigadoon could work as a parody of musicals, it first had to work as a musical.

Sometimes Season 1 landed hard (now that we finally have a song about delicious corn puddin’, I’m pretty sure we don’t need another), but mostly it got our toes tapping. The final ensemble number “This is How We Change” is serious uplift because it affirms the deep faith that all musicals are based on: eventually you will figure out who you are and where you belong in this crazy world, and when you do the chorus will be right there to back you up.

It sounds corny because it is corny—but sometimes you just need to lie back and let the corn do its work. As Harold Hill says in The Music Man, “I always think there’s a band, kid.” If you want to hear the band, you have to believe in the band.

And this is exactly how Schmigadoon Season 1 ended: with the perfect town opening up to imperfection, letting its characters outgrow their paper-thin descriptions—and in the process freeing its protagonists, Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) and Melissa (Cecily Strong), to rediscover their faith in happy endings. Then, as with all sequels, the happy ending un-ended.

And now we’re in Season 2, Schmicago, with Josh and Melissa once more looking for a way to believe. Which is tough news for them, because this time it’s not a feel-good 1950s musical they’re trapped in. We’re in the 70s now, baby: the decade where hope went to die.

Just as Season 1 played on peppy mid-century musicals by Rogers & Hammerstein and Meredith Willson, Season 2: Schmicago dives into the gaudy, gritty razzle-dazzle of 70s-era Stephen Schwartz and Kander & Ebb—mostly sampling Cabaret, Pippin, and the schmeponymous Chicago with the promise of Sweeney Todd waiting in the wings.

It’s a real test of how much mileage the one joke still has in it. The 70s were a big time for musicals but a bad time for America. The self-confidence of the American century had dashed on the rocks of Vietnam and Watergate, bringing into vogue a slew of Broadway hits that dealt in exuberant nihilism and sexy lies. In The Sound of Music, we had Nazis who could be foiled by nuns. In Cabaret, the Nazis take over the club and ship the performers off to concentration camps with pink stars on their shirts. Maria Von Trapp tells us to Climb Every Mountain. Sally Bowles advises us to have as much fun as we can before the drugs kill us.

So when Josh and Melissa get a flat tire (a nod to The Rocky Horror Show), they’re both delighted and disappointed to find that all the ice cream socials and bloomers have been replaced by bowler hats, sequins, and Fossean hip swivels—not to mention a hella lot of minimally covered human flesh. Delighted because, come on, nearly naked people in fishnets. But also disappointed because the nakedness comes with clown makeup and, let’s face it, shock value isn’t what it used to be. 70s musicals broke ground on previously forbidden topics like sex, antiwar demonstrations, sex talk, gender-bending, existential angst, sexy dancing, and people having sex. Hot stuff in its time, but nothing that would get you blurred on Instagram today.

One number in Season 2’s second episode, “Do We Shock You?” plays on this as a blowsy line of chorus girls (Sweet Charity) does their hip-grinding best to titillate Josh and Melissa with such alleged shockers as “I’ve got a tattoo” and “I’m into boys and girls—does that just blow your mind?” (“Wonder if the meat loaf’s any good?” Josh asks Melissa as the gals spank their own butts).

It’s a fun moment—the first two episodes of this season are full of fun moments, and the songs really nail it in a way even Season 1 couldn’t—but that’s also where Schmicago starts off on a rough note: sometimes they really hammer the hell out of those nails.

The best musical parodies don’t poke fun at a particular song but a whole kind of song that we all vaguely remember and have tried to forget and kind of hate but also secretly love. They evoke not a moment in a story but a time and place in your life. When This is Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge” suddenly breaks for a freaking mandolin solo in the middle of a heavy metal rampage, you might think of Styx or Zeppelin or Rod Stewart, but you’re more likely recalling how practically every hair band seemed to keep a harpsichord or a lute tuned up, just in case you forgot that these guys were serious mystical poets (you might also be thinking of those little people trying not to knock over the Styrofoam Stonehenge; it’s a classic).

Season 1 Schmigadoon excelled at this kind of pastiche. Season 2 mostly settles for in-jokes. Every song is a direct spoof of That Song from That Musical. “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line? Check. “Corner of the Sky” from Pippin meets “Save the People” from Godspell? Check and check. Across the first two episodes the references piled up, so bang-on and so bolted onto each other that at times it felt as if we’d drifted into Seltzer and Frieberg Date Movie/Disaster Movie/Epic Movie territory.

But the songs are fun. The problem isn’t the riff, it’s what they’re riffing on. In Season 1, Josh and Melissa weren’t sure if they wanted to be in love, and so it made sense that they’d landed in a 1950s musical. Mid-century shows had no shortage of duets where the lovers are trying not to be in love—“If I Loved You,” “People Will Say We’re In Love,” “Almost Like Being In Love,” etc. When Josh and Melissa finally stop denying and take hands, the happy ending felt earned.

In Season 2, Josh and Melissa are once again trying to find the spark in their relationship… only this time, they’re in the wrong era for romance.

60s and 70s musicals could be glitzy, but sentimental they were not. Cabaret ends with Sally selling the fur coat she got from the producer she slept with for a part and using the money to pay for an abortion so she can keep singing in her sleazy nightclub instead of marrying a boyfriend who prefers men. Chicago is a fun show about women killing their boyfriends that includes an onstage execution. Pippin very nearly ended with the title character setting himself on fire, until the money people talked Fosse out of it. Note that Bob Fosse directed all three shows: dude had demons. And we haven’t even gotten to Sweeney Todd yet.

Schmigadoon is at its best when it’s goofing around—but, as Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey showed us all, it’s very hard to goof on dark. I somehow don’t think they’ll parody the moment in Cabaret when a Jewish grocer gets a brick thrown through his window, or the flashback in Sweeney Todd when the title character’s wife is raped at a masked ball.

So we’ll probably carry on with the One Joke, pretending that these musicals are silly even when they really weren’t. I don’t mind, because I happen to love the shows they’re goofing on. So much that I’ll probably watch the episodes a few more times and buy the songs on iTunes.

Tonal dissonance or not, the joke still lands.

 

 

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