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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.

Review: The Snoopy Show

The Snoopy Show (2021)

One of the things I love about Roku is the ability to quickly and easily customize its home screen. Find yourself watching content from one app more than any other? Just click the asterisk and move it closer to the top of the screen. Left cold by the offerings of another streaming service? Bump it down in the list, perhaps to page two or three. It seems a little trivial, but I use the arrangement of apps as a metric for deciding whether or not to cancel streaming subscriptions. If I have to scroll down past the topmost three and a half rows of icons to get to an app, that app is no longer worth paying for.

I only mention that because, after having watched The Snoopy Show, Apple TV+ has moved up from the precarious ninth position (right near the bottom of the screen at bootup) and is now resting more comfortably on the second row of icons, just below YouTube, Netflix, and Disney+.

 

Not to put too fine a point on it but The Snoopy Show is better than it has any right to be. And if that seems a little harsh, think back to when you first heard that Apple would be producing new Peanuts animated specials. Was your initial reaction even slightly hopeful? If so, I wish I could bottle your optimism.

 

But maybe I’m just jaded. Thanks to Ronald Reagan’s reign of deregulation, I grew up in the era of cartoons as commercials, when every 22-minute animated romp—

SNOOPY AT A GLANCE

Both family-friendly and charmingly weird, this Apple TV+ series presents the new adventures of everybody’s favorite cartoon beagle without lapsing into franchise-itis.

 

PICTURE
The Dolby Vision presentation, while not expansive in its luminance, gives the gradience and shading of the backgrounds plenty of room to breathe.

 

SOUND     

It’s a shame the score doesn’t aspire to be anything more than poor-man’s Vince Guaraldi.

whether it aired on Saturday mornings or after school—was trying to sell me all manner of things I immediately begged my parents to buy. Robots in Disguise. Real American Heroes. Whatever M.A.S.K. was about. And, in the case of The Peanuts, Dolly Madison snacks, Coke, and Mickey D’s. (Although, to be fair, that last one wasn’t Reagan’s fault—that was true from the giddy-up.)

 

We’re in the midst of something of a cartoon renaissance, though. Kids today (and yes, it hurts my soul to type those words) have an embarrassment of legitimately good, kid-friendly, non-propagandist episodic animation to devour, from Steven Universe to Craig of the Creek to Hilda and Infinity Train, and it’s only been a couple of years since Adventure Time ended its run as one of the hands-down best TV series of the past 50 years.

 

Given that this is the environment The Snoopy Show is parachuting into, perhaps my expectations should have been a little higher. But I’m still honestly shocked that the creative talents behind this new Apple-exclusive series have put so much effort into making it so darned good.

 

Its virtues begin with its animation, which is both an homage to the classic Peanuts animated specials and a loving upgrade of their style. The characters themselves seem pulled straight from Sparky Schulz’s pen, and although the foreground animation has been giving a big boost (both in draftsmanship and resolution), there’s still something incredibly comfortable about the way Charlie Brown and Snoopy and the gang are animated. The herky-jerky, overly dramatic body language for which 

everyone’s favorite cartoon beagle is known translates beautifully into this new world of cartoons.

 

The background art, meanwhile, is a whole new ballgame. The canvas upon which these little animated adventures take place is of a quality quite unlike anything we saw in Peanuts specials of yore. There’s some Looney Tunes influence, for sure, especially in the way the background artists play with 

abstractions and intentional registration errors. There’s also some obvious homage to the earliest Peanuts Sunday strips, before everything got simplified down to flat secondary colors. The Dolby Vision presentation of The Snoopy Show, while not expansive in its luminance, gives the gradience and shading of the backgrounds plenty of room to breathe without banding.

 

But what impresses me most about the imagery is that the background artists have cobbled their influences and inspiration into something unique, with a character of its own, and of a quality you just don’t expect to see outside of feature-length animation.

 

It’s a shame that the same can’t be said of the music. Composer Jeff Morrow seems content to play a poor-man’s Vince Guaraldi here, aping the musical style of the old animated specials without taking any risks. Classics like “Linus and Lucy” may seem in hindsight to be an essential element of the Peanuts, but it’s important to remember that laying down a jazz soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas was a creative risk at the time. The studio suits thought it would never fly. So while Morrow’s soundtrack feels comfortable, and is incredibly well-recorded and mixed, it’s not really true to the spirit of what 

Guaraldi and producer Lee Mendelson were aiming for with the music of that original special and its increasingly less-interesting followups.

 

That’s really the only bummer of note here. I could also grumble about the fact that some of the Peanuts gang have been voiced by actors who fail to capture the old-soul timbre I associate with the characters, but 1) that’s more of an observation than a criticism and 2) the humans are really the 

The Snoopy Show (2021)

secondary characters here. As its name implies, The Snoopy Show is about Charlie Brown’s canine companion, not Charlie Brown himself. And the focus on Snoopy (and Woodstock) results in a genuinely chaotic vibe that I just love to pieces.

 

Yes, the show still captures the existentialism inherent to The Peanuts (and in that respect, it hews closer to the comic strip than previous animated efforts), but given the rich imagination for which Snoopy is known, and the fantasy worlds he famously inhabits, the shift in focus away from the human gang and toward the pup results in a commensurate shift toward the whimsical and downright weird.

 

As such, there isn’t always a clearly defined narrative arc to the three eight-minute vignettes that make up each episode, nor is there any continuity between them. Each is its own little universe. One entire short is dedicated to Snoopy trying to cool off on a hot day. Another is entirely about his spastic and unselfconscious dancing. The latter, by the way, is one of the few vignettes to have any sort of overt moral, but it echoes the more covert ideology that permeates the series so far: Life may suck sometimes, but it’s a lot more bearable if we choose to actively rebel against the darkness and embrace the goodness and joy and goofiness in the world.

 

That may not be profound but it’s true to Schulz’s creation, and it gives The Snoopy Show a timeless quality that’s rare, even in this new golden age of children’s animated programming. It also means that the series isn’t insufferable when viewed through adult eyes. This is one of those rare shows parents might actually enjoy just as much as their little ones.

 

And that’s not purely a function of nostalgia. Part of it is the fact that the show never panders to anyone. There’s some stuff here that will fly straight over the heads of anyone under 10, but that’s okay. There’s certainly nothing inappropriate for such young eyes and ears. I just can’t imagine our young niece laughing at the same things that made my wife and me chortle.

 

Will you enjoy it as much as we did? I can’t say for sure. The missus and I are both overgrown kids and weirdos to boot. But I hope you do. Because as fanciful (and mischievous!) as it is, the world needs more cartoons like The Snoopy Show.

 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.