Series Review ~ Schmigadoon! Season 2 (Schmicago)

The Facts:

Synopsis:  Now married and struggling to start a family, Melissa and Josh set out to reclaim the feelings they found in Schmigadoon…but wind up entirely in a different musical world. Welcome to Schmicago, a darker and more menacing land inspired by the musicals of the 1960s and 1970s.
Stars: Keegan-Michael Key, Cecily Strong, Tituss Burgess, Patrick Page, Ariana DeBose, Martin Short, Dove Cameron, Jaime Camil, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Ann Harada, Jane Krakowski
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  You don’t even understand how much I anticipated the AppleTV+ original series Schmigadoon! when it was first announced. Here was an original musical created by true fans of Broadway, employing a mix of talent from the screen and stage that had the chops to back up their desire to perform. The setup, a married couple facing difficulties losing their way during a weekend retreat and finding themselves in a mystical land populated with singing and dancing townsfolk straight out of the musical theater heaven of Broadway’s Golden Age, was right up my alley. The pilot episode was promising, and the innovative songs from Cinco Paul (who would win an Emmy for ‘Corn Puddin’’) were in-joke-filled knee-slappers that felt like they were talking to theater kids/adults, not looking down on them. 

By the time the season finale of Schmigadoon! aired in August of 2021, the joke had been stretched too thin for me. Not that the cast didn’t give it their best effort or that it didn’t offer some terrific opportunities for standout performances (check out a pre-West Side Story Oscar-winning Ariana DeBose stopping the series cold in ‘With All of Your Heart’), but the concept didn’t seem as fully fleshed out as it could have been. It’s almost as if the show started filming before all the scripts had been finalized. I have no idea if that’s true, but it feels like it. As our lovebirds walked off into the fairy-tale happy-ending sunset, I believed this was a series finale.

So, many months later, I was surprised to see the show get an unexpected renewal and thrilled about its slight rebranding in Season 2. For its sophomore season, the setting would move to a new era of musicals, leaving the age of frilly happiness behind in favor of the edgier and ominous stylings of what came to the stage in the ’60s and ’70s. I’ve had a chance to watch all six episodes of the second season, and while Apple’s embargo prevents me from giving you too many details (and honestly, I wouldn’t want to spoil all of the surprises for you), I can, like the best Fosse dance move, give you a tease of what you can expect to see.

Since returning from their time in Schmigadoon, Melissa (Cecily Strong, The Boss) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key, Pinocchio) have found adjusting to their lives difficult, especially when it comes to starting a family. When they both realize the last time they were sincerely happy was when they resided in the land of song and dance, they pack up their car and try to find the world they had stumbled upon before. They’re about to turn back when an unmistakable musical note is struck out of thin air, indicating they may be close. They’ve driven straight into a funkier groove, this time with a Narrator (Tituss Burgess, Respect) to introduce them to Schmicago and its various residents that look remarkably like the ones they previously met in Schmigadoon.

Jenny Banks (Dove Cameron, Vengeance) is a nightclub singer too good for her establishment but content to be a big fish in a dingy pond. She’s the headliner in the Kratt Klub, named for its owner Octavius Kratt (Patrick Page, Spirited), who may or may not be involved with a murder that Josh and Melissa get involved with. Once that crime is in play, the couple needs legal advice, and that’s where Bobbie Flanagan (Jane Krakowski, National Lampoon’s Vacation) comes in. The leggy lawyer is all about the razzle-dazzle, never failing to nail her entrances and exits with flair. 

As Josh winds up on a jailbird adventure with trippy-hippie Topher (Aaron Tveit, Les Misérables) and his troupe that practice peace and parables, Melissa gets a job in the chorus (line) at the club and crosses path with grim butcher Dooley Flint (Alan Cumming, My Old School) seeking revenge and discounted meat and Miss Coldwell (Kristen Chenoweth, The Witches) who is overrun with orphans and might be willing to partner with Flint to make both of their problems go away. 

It’s all set to a new batch of songs from Cinco Paul, who has another Emmy in the bag for – take your pick – any of the smash bang wonderful gems that fill each episode. Besting Season 1 with ease, Schmicago feels heads and tailfeathers above its original six episodes, and maybe it’s because this era lends itself more to easier winks and nudges in the wry directions the series seems like it wants to travel. Starting with the pilot, the jokes are well-spaced and timed to land with thunderous impact, and it only gets better (and more tuneful) with each episode. 

Again, without going into too much detail, I will tell you to brace for the impact of Episode 3 (airing on April 12) because it has Krakowski bringing down the house with her big showcase moment and Tveit besting himself from last season. Don’t forget about Cumming and Chenoweth, dependable stage comics that can quickly bring that humor to the screen – they have a fantastic production number in Episode 5 that, like many of the well-staged bits, you’ll want to have your remote at the ready to rewind and watch again. Oh…and did I forget to mention that DeBose pops up again for a few fun appearances as the Kratt Klub’s Emcee? Once a theater kid, always a theater kid.

This is deliriously good stuff, hampered only slightly by Strong and Key, who, like the first season, are the weakest links. Being the ones with the least “Broadway” experience, they can come off as a little “try-hards,” in Schmicago, and the effort shows when compared to others on screen. Strong acquits herself nicely in numbers that challenge her far more than last season, but Key gets more obnoxious as the series continues. If we get to Season 3 (Schminto the Woods? Les Schisérables?), perhaps we leave Josh and home and let Melissa have a girls weekend?

Movie Review ~ The Super Mario Bros. Movie

The Facts:

Synopsis: While working underground to fix a water main, Brooklyn plumbers Mario and brother Luigi are transported down a mysterious pipe and wander into a magical new world. But when the brothers are separated, Mario embarks on an epic quest to find Luigi.
Stars: Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, Jack Black, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, Fred Armisen, Sebastian Maniscalco, Charles Martinet, Kevin Michael Richardson
Director: Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic
Rated: PG
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  Thirty years ago, the live-action Super Mario Bros. movie was a spectacular early summer bomb at the box office. Starring the late Bob Hoskins as Mario and John Leguizamo as Luigi, the infamous dud immediately made a critical error in bringing characters that should have stayed animated to life. While directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel gave the Hollywood Pictures release some grandiose visuals thanks to their well-honed eye from years of making music videos, it was sort of a gonzo mess. Even though it was aimed and marketed to tykes, it didn’t look like a family-friendly film, and that’s ultimately what it needed to be. 

I haven’t revisited that movie since I saw it in a second-run theater during its original release, but even as a 13-year-old, I recognized the filmmakers had gone out on a limb to take some risks. It didn’t work out as anyone had hoped, but at least they dared to try. That’s more than I can say for the marginally creative minds responsible for the drippy (but properly animated) The Super Mario Bros. Movie. One of the least complex films you’ll likely come across, I’ve opened cereal boxes with more challenging mechanics than this lackluster effort.

Before you throw balls of flame or green tortoise shells at me, let me give you the good news. The animators at Illumination have again delivered a gorgeous-looking movie with visuals that truly make the eyes pop. It’s very much as if the best version of your favorite Mario game has sprung to life on the big screen, and even though the projection at my screening was a tiny bit dark from what I deem to be a fading bulb, I would love to see this one again in IMAX3D. Your favorite characters all show up, and composer Brian Tyler has nicely worked in many of the themes from various iterations of the games, springboarding off of Koji Kondo’s instantly recognizable jingle.

If only Minions: The Rise of Gru screenwriter Matthew Fogle had brought that same sense of tipping-of-the-hat fun to this origin-story adventure. You’d think that after thirty years, Nintendo (who took greater creative control over this film after letting anything fly the previous go-around) might have pushed for a more dynamic scenario than what Fogle laid out. 

Mario (Chris Pratt, The Tomorrow War) and Luigi (Charlie Day, I Want You Back) are Brooklyn brothers that have just started their own plumbing business after breaking off as underlings for rival laborer Spike (Sebastian Maniscalco, Tag). Putting on hammy Italian accents (‘Mamma-a-Mia!’) and wearing uniforms with their initials on their hats are just a few of the gimmicks older brother Mario wants them to try to get them noticed and drum up customers.

When a water line breaks and the brothers rush to help, they find a sealed room and a series of pipes that Luigi is quickly sucked into, followed by Mario. The brothers are separated, and while Luigi spends most of the film imprisoned in a cage, Mario lands in the Mushroom Kingdom that’s set to be attacked by Bowser (Jack Black, Bernie), King of the Koopas, who intends to marry the ruler of the kingdom, Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Menu). The Princess needs her neighbors in the Jungle Kingdom (including Donkey Kong, played by Sausage Party’s Seth Rogen) to help fight back Bowser and his crew and brings Mario and devoted sidekick Toad (Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland) along so they can look for Luigi.

What’s happened with The Super Mario Bros. Movie is that it has been designed to please the largest capacity crowds as possible by putting in the least amount of critical thinking. The widest net has been cast, and when you do that, you may bring in more money, but you sacrifice the creative energy that almost always fuels these features. Absolutely nothing is put up to block/challenge/question norms or nature, so we don’t feel any real reward when our heroes succeed. Directors Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic have so little to work with from a narrative angle that they may get a few exciting performances out of the group (why people are trashing Pratt’s performance is beyond me; it’s Black’s they should be concerned about) but much of the film is flat as an angry mushroom squashed by a powered-up Mario.

A big disappointment is that there aren’t enough references to other properties in the Nintendo Universe. With Super Mario Worlds now at several Universal Studios theme parks, the companies should be front-loading characters and easter eggs into this movie for use down the road. Fogle was the screenwriter for one of The Lego Movies, and those films worked out brilliant ways to include winking references to other pieces of pop culture. There’s none here, with characters moving from Point A to Point D and no one bothering to discuss the B and C moments that are often the bread and butter to deepening characters, animated or not.

Resorting to cheap ‘80s nostalgia needle-drops (films should have to be approved to use Bonnie Tyler and a-ha music and prove why it makes sense from now on) is the final straw that Game Over-ed The Super Mario Bros. Movie for me. Why not take a page from the recently opened Super Mario World in Hollywood and have Toad sing some of these songs instead? YouTube some of the squeaky-voiced character’s covers of pop music that’s played in the park and enjoy the weirdness. Even with the last ten minutes that rallied back with the frenetic energy the entire movie should have been running on, there isn’t enough power to level up very far from its 1993 predecessor. It only made me want to go back and try that one again.