Photo: Apple TV+
It’s not a good sign when someone in a relationship starts looking for an escape route. When Josh gets a cosmic sign that his relationship with Melissa isn’t true love, he leaps at the opportunity to move on, all under the pretense that he’s just trying to find his way out of a situation that he describes as “if Walking Dead was also Glee.” And sure, maybe he is trying to break free from Schmigadoon, but he also throws on his old-timey outfit and bowler hat really quickly when given the opportunity to hook up with the ditzy, cute waitress.
The opening flashback of “Lovers’ Spat” establishes the different ways Melissa and Josh approach a relationship. Josh likes to take things day by day, while Melissa is fixated on the future. She recognizes a special thing when she finds it, and she wants it to keep going without making it seem like she’s too eager. Her mind has been poisoned by musicals, where people fall in love and commit to each other within hours of meeting, and now that she’s had a magic moment, she wants to hold on to the magic forever. Josh thinks she’s cool and expects to spend more time with her, but he’s not rushing into any commitment.
The leprechaun’s revelation at the end of the pilot drives a giant wedge between Josh and Melissa in “Lovers’ Spat,” and of course that wedge is driven further by the musical number that gives the episode its title. Melissa and Josh immediately groan when the chorus appears out of nowhere just as they’re starting to fight, interrupting their argument but in the process also driving it forward. The town’s regressive gender dynamics come to the forefront during this number, starting with the men singing about how they give their ladies a smack on the behind. I’m a little concerned about the show’s musical numbers becoming repetitive, and “Lovers’ Spat” plays like a mash-up of pilot’s two big group numbers (“Corn Puddin’” 5eva). Incorporating the dialogue between Melissa and Josh does set it apart, along with the moments when the choreography incorporates waltz steps to bring more romance to the dancing.
In Schmigadoon, an argument is a low-stakes “lovers’ spat” because men are in control and women are subservient, although there are some exceptions, like the outspoken librarian Emma Tate (Ariana Debose) and her town rival, the tyrannical Mrs. Layton (Kristin Chenoweth). Mrs. Layton is an intriguing villain, a woman who expects everyone else to stick to their roles while holding the power in her relationship with her preacher husband (Fred Armisen). We don’t know much about Emma Tate yet, although we do learn that the little boy announcing everything is her little brother, Carson (Liam Quiring-Nkindi), who has no friends because his tongue is too big for his mouth.
After getting a rapid-fire introduction to the townspeople of Schmigadoon in the pilot, we get to spend some more time with individual characters in “Lovers’ Spat,” starting with Melissa’s woodland encounter with Mayor Menlove (Alan Cumming). The production design pops here, with the painted forest background and artificial foliage along a small creek, an ethereal setting for a song that starts as a generic ballad about finding love before shifting into a more personal expression of Menlove’s closeted affection for another man. Cumming sings in an operatic tone that initially stuns Melissa, and he relishes in the overblown pastiche of it all, whether he’s offering advice to the young lover or drifting off into his own homoerotic memories. He makes this satisfied face at the end of the reprise that plays especially stage-like, beaming with pride like he just nailed an opening-night performance.
Melissa flat out asks the Mayor if he’s gay, to which he replies, “I try to be.” He’s hearing gay as happy because he’s stuck in the early 20th century, but whichever the definition, the conclusion is the same. He has to try to be happy because he’s in the closet, and he comes to the forest to feel gay. Melissa is quickly discovering just how regressive Schmigadoon is, and she starts to turn on the town. Meanwhile, Josh starts to get on board really fast when Betsy hits on him and strokes his ego, and his quick acceptance of the circumstances for an easy hookup is a big leap considering how turned off he’s been by Schmigadoon from the jump,
Julie Klausner joins writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio on this episode’s script, and you can hear Klausner’s influence in Melissa’s drunken rant at the picnic basket auction. The auction is pulled directly from Oklahoma!, and it’s a great way to alienate Melissa from a world that she is predisposed to enjoy. She’s in a world where women aren’t allowed to drink alcohol and willfully let men bid on them, and she wants the women in the town to assert their agency and the men to change their expectations for the ideal partner. No one is interested, but Melissa is saved from her embarrassment by Danny Bailey, who is immediately drawn to anyone who stands out from the crowd. Cecily Strong has some fantastic line deliveries at the auction block. The venomous way she calls the crowd “horny sickos.” Her tipsy delight in telling Danny Bailey to “make it rain.” And most passionately, her defense of herself: “This piece of meat has a brain and it is filled with … thoughts … and ideas.”
Danny Bailey’s number in the first episode was a cute tribute to songs like Brigadoon’s “Almost Like Being in Love” and Carousel’s “If I Loved You,” and Aaron Tveit’s earnest performance has a dorkiness that removes any possible edge from the character. He’s a great singer and dancer, but also his pants are really high and his general vibe is so corny. His duet with Melissa gives her the opportunity to live her Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds fantasy, and while Cecily Strong clearly doesn’t have the same dance training as her partner, I appreciate that her movement isn’t as graceful and effortless. It helps sell the conceit that Melissa is a regular person sucked into a musical world, and while the lyrics and dance moves might come to her supernaturally, she doesn’t magically gain the musical-theater talent of the Schmigadoonians.
Having Disney star Dove Cameron play the oversexualized, underage Betsy feels like commentary on how Disney publicly packages their young female talent, but she’s also a stand-in for characters like Oklahoma!’s Ado Annie, who sings the problematic “I Cain’t Say No.” The recent Oklahoma! revival successfully turned that tune into an anthem of sexual empowerment thanks to a Tony Award-winning performance from Ali Stroker, who brought Ado Annie to a place that Betsy is still trying to reach in the repressed town of Schmigadoon. Cameron is a lot of fun in the role, especially once she switches into sex-kitten mode for Betsy and Josh’s date at Virginity Ruins.
This episode focuses on homophobia and misogyny in Schmigadoon, but it leaves the racial discussion off the table. No one has a problem with Josh and Betsy’s flirting or him buying her basket, and while I understand why the show’s two white lead writers may not want to dive too deep into the subject of race, it’s disingenuous to explore the social shortcomings of classic musical theater without addressing this pervasive problem. This episode ends with Betsy’s father catching her and Josh in a compromising position and threatening to shoot Josh if he doesn’t propose, so I’m very curious to see if this conflict will expand the show’s critique of the genre.