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 ~ Spirited

The Facts:

Synopsis: Each Christmas Eve, the Ghost of Christmas Present selects one dark soul to be reformed by a visit from three spirits. But this season, he picked the wrong Scrooge.
Stars: Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, Octavia Spencer, Sunita Mani, Patrick Page, Tracy Morgan, Joe Tippett, Andrea Anders, Jen Tullock
Director: Sean Anders
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 127 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Before we journey through this Spirited review, I feel I must be transparent about a few things off the bat. That will help better frame how I came to this new musical re-telling of A Christmas Carol, one of the multitudes of versions of the Charles Dickens perennial classic. I love A Christmas Carol. I will watch a performance (or versions) of it every year and be struck by something new about the piece each time I see it. There’s a lesson to be learned from Dickens’s story of redemption, and my opinion is that the darker, the better. Let the story start from a deep, despairing place because the renewal of salvation Scrooge experiences at the end means much more; the takeaway is more impactful.

The next thing I’ll say is that I’m not generally a fan of either star of the film, Will Ferrell or Ryan Reynolds. Both actors trade in schtick, and while it has made them a boatload of money, it’s a schtick that’s beaten to death and quoted by those less talented on the delivery forever after. (“No really, I don’t need to hear that Anchorman bit again Kevin. Thank you.”) Each has occasionally struck out with work that has shown their acting chops, but to say they are comfortable with coasting along is putting it mildly. I also am not the biggest fan of Dear Evan Hansen, the multiple award-winning musical Spirited songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul composed for Broadway and helped adapt for the bomb-tastic 2021 musical. It even took me a second viewing to appreciate their Oscar-winning songwriting for 2017’s The Greatest Showman.

There was the dilemma I faced when Spirited was staring me down the other night. Dickens=good.  Ferrell/Reynolds=iffy.  Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) being third billed tipped the scale in the right direction, and I committed to at least starting the movie but not finishing it at that late hour. It’s rare in our house not to pause for a bathroom break or other distraction, but after the two hours was up and Spirited’s charming closing credit sequence was complete, my only regret wasn’t staying up past my bedtime but that I wasn’t able to see this joyous holiday entertainment on the biggest screen possible. (It’s in limited release now but widely available on AppleTV+ on November 18.)

Written by John Morris and director Sean Anders (Daddy’s Home), Spirited takes the story we’re all familiar with (A Christmas Carol) and gives it a modern twist. Scrooge gets redeemed on his Christmas Eve night, but what about the next Christmas? And the one after that? And the one after that? The “haunt “business is a well-oiled machine and by the time we join the crew, Marley (Patrick Page, In the Heights) is running a tight ship. The Ghosts of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani, Evil Eye), Present (Ferrell, Holmes & Watson), and Yet-To-Come (voiced by Tracy Morgan, The Boxtrolls, and physicalized by Loren Woods) get in, do their job, and pass their torch to the next on the schedule.

They’ve just completed their latest mission (a Karen-esque suburbanite played by a recognizable star), and are planning their next when Present suddenly turns his focus to Clint Briggs (Reynolds, Deadpool), a smarmy public relations exec that can spin any story (illustrated by Reynolds in a go-for-broke 11 o’clock musical number that comes around the 9:00 am mark). The only problem is Clint is classified as ‘Unredeemable’ and automatically excluded from the yearly haunt – but Present sees a challenge and, facing retirement, pushes Marley to take on Clint despite the warnings that their efforts will fail. Of course, they can’t know that Clint truly is as nasty as he looks and isn’t as easily rattled as the centuries of souls that came before him.

The screenplay (and songs) takes some unexpected turns, sometimes following the Dickens text but diverging enough, so you’re never sure where you’ll find yourself at given beats. That’s nice to find, especially for the experienced fans of A Christmas Carol, but also for those willing to let Ferrell and Reynolds try on a new side of themselves. Both are nicely musical and dance well, culminating in several smashing full-out dance numbers set to Pasek/Paul’s lively tunes and performed with dazzling choreography by Chloe Arnold. Sure, they start to sound the same after a while, and you won’t be turning the TV off humming them, but they’re clever and fun while you’re in it, and the old time pub song ‘Good Afternoon’ is a showstopping riot.

If the film drags its feet a little, it’s when we go down the rabbit hole of Clint’s past. That’s where we find good actors like Joe Tippett (Mr. Harrigan’s Phone), Andrea Anders (The Stepford Wives), & Jen Tullock (TV’s Severance) struggling with some saccharine dialogue (or, in Anders’s case, several bizarrely ugly wigs). So much effort is spent on the production numbers looking great, I wish more time were spent on the dramatic scenes being as tight. At least Spencer’s scenes are razor-sharp, and if you had seeing Spencer in a musical on your Christmas wish list, you could check that off now because she’s lovely in her few moments of musicality. Spencer is the epitome of the heart that Spirited is going for, so anytime she’s on screen, she has a way of centering everyone in the film.

There’s so little to offend here; I’d encourage you to block out the early negative buzz from some ‘unredeemable’ Scrooge-y critics who can’t see what the film is going for and ultimately achieves. It shows us a new way of approaching a story while at the same time illustrating the flaws we all examine in ourselves. The flaws can define us and make us embittered against the world, or we can take ownership of them and use them toward doing good. The message is clear, and sometimes, in the case of Spirited, it’s sung. This will be added to the holiday rotation in my home, no question.