Ariana DeBose Is a Scene-Stealer in ‘Schmigadoon!’ Too

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[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]

Where to Watch ‘Schmigadoon!’: Apple TV+

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It’s no surprise that Ariana DeBose is soaring her way through awards season, complete with a “Saturday Night Live” hosting gig for good measure. Her breakout role as Anita in the “West Side Story” screen revival is the kind of performance that demands your attention at all times, whether she’s twirling around a gym floor, dancing through the New York City streets, or grieving in an apartment hallway.

“West Side Story” wasn’t DeBose’s only on-screen appearance in a 2021 musical, though. The Apple TV+ comedy “Schmigadoon!” may not offer the same gravitas as one of the most famous shows in Broadway history, but it does offer further proof of DeBose’s ability to give her part in a heightened story the exact energy it requires.

She pops up in “Schmigadoon!” well after the foundation has been set. Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key), a couple in their own metaphorical tailspin, get trapped in the fictional musicals-inspired town of Schmigadoon. Their arrival is met with a parade of winking archetypes and self-aware rundowns of the rules, delivered in songs with costumes and choreography straight out of the movie musical heyday of the early half of the 20th century. After a few early tests of limits and loyalties, Melissa and Josh are even more on the outs than when they got there.

Just past the midpoint of the six-episode season, the whispered-about local “schoolmarm” finally makes her entrance. Josh finally makes a trip to the town’s one-room Schmigaschoolhouse, where he instantly finds that DeBose’s Emma Tate isn’t like everyone else in town. She’s not just an easy foil for the line of bonnet-wearing, ambiguously-aged girls making googly eyes at Josh from across the main square. After a series of failed attempts at a surface-level romance, Emma flips the dynamic and turns Josh into the fumbling, stumbling mess. She doesn’t do it by being overly aloof or icy, and it’s a credit to DeBose that she stands out just by being natural and confident. (Of course, it certainly helps that she gets to deliver maybe the best joke of the entire season late in the episode.)

It’s that same steadiness that makes her big classroom tap number with all the students a fun addition, too. There’s a steady build, helped along by the go-to “Schmigadoon!” editing trick of cutting back to a big group of people in wildly different configurations than when you see them two seconds before. It’s the freewheeling spirit of “Schmigadoon!” as this specific, gleefully executed thing that has room for her to lead a roomful of kids through a motivational tap number, and then literally disarm someone in the next sequence.

Just when the show is tiptoeing to the edge of peak self-awareness, Emma comes in as a character who isn’t just driven by fate or the expectations of the genre or setting up a punchline in a chorus yet to come. She’s one of the only people who responds to Josh’s resistance with disappointment rather than bewilderment, partly because she already has some of the skepticism toward the way things are in Schmigadoon that Josh and Melissa bring with them in full supply. As the rest of the season follows (and upends) the rhythms of a musical’s final turns, that drive to the finish is set up by Emma making a choice rather than following a template.

This is certainly a show bursting with charm in so many other ways beyond the hard-to-crack teacher flitting on the sidelines. Kristen Chenoweth is a hurricane of diction and indignation, Aaron Tveit puts his own mark on Billy Bigelow, and there’s a character so pummeled by off-screen accidents that he becomes a live-action twist on Erica from “BoJack Horseman.” Key fine-tunes Josh’s exasperation and Strong makes the most of upending all of the town’s standard operating procedures. (One guarantee: You will never hear “Do Re Mi” the same way again.) By the time it gets to that midway pivot point, there’s just enough room to slip in that last, needed layer to make the show really sing. DeBose helps crystallize “Schmigadoon!” as something with a little added depth beneath the candy-coated surface.

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