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Best, Worst, Weirdest: Musical episodes of TV
If music be the food of love, play on. Or, if music be the stuff of TV gimmicks, bring it on. If a series stays on the air for long enough then there’s a solid chance that they’ll eventually give in and do a full-on musical episode. It doesn’t matter if the show in question has no prior musical moments or is a genre/style that is entirely incompatible with the concept of spontaneous sing-alongs and toe-tapping choreography. What, your show is too serious or realistic for magical musical madness? That's what magic is for! Or scientifically dubious medical emergencies! Or a good old-fashioned drug-induced hallucination!
Whatever the excuse, television has a long, proud, and entirely bananas history of random musical episodes, and we're here to look at just some of the best, worst, and weirdest examples.
(Full disclaimer: This list does not include entirely musical shows such as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.)
BEST: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
“Once More with Feeling” is the gold standard of one-off episodes of musical television. It’s the measuring stick for every other show that even attempts to make a musical moment happen, and frankly, most of them fail to even come close to the lightning-in-a-bottle that Joss Whedon and company captured. A demon who comes to town to make everyone reveal all their secrets through song, who can then only be stopped by an epic dance-off? Perfection. The cast isn't always on tune (or are helped out extensively by autotune) but who cares? What matters most is that the sheer emotional heft of the show remains in place, and even throughout an obvious gimmick episode, the characters' arcs are given the appropriate room to breathe. “Once More with Feeling” is both a spoof of musicals and an earnest attempt at one, and it’s a tightrope walk that the show pulls off with aplomb. There’s a reason that Buffy fans still hold sing-along screenings of this episode.
WORST: Grey's Anatomy
We can't get entirely mad at Grey's Anatomy for deciding to give Sara Ramirez, a bona fide Tony Award-winning musical star, their rightly-earned moment to shine as a singer, but "Song Beneath the Song" is a true nadir for the long-running drama. The episode revolves around Ramirez's Callie and her girlfriend Arizona after they've been involved in a car crash, with most of the songs being sung by her colleagues as they try to save her life. Indeed, the song "How to Save a Life" is even included here, subtlety be damned. The concept falls flat, despite the best effort of many evidently talented cast members.
HBO's prison drama Oz always blended the surreal with the harsh, finding its sweet spot somewhere in-between brutal realism and a Brechtian drag show. When the show needed to find a replacement for its narrator, Harold Perrineau, while he was off shooting some Matrix movies, they decided to lean in hard to the series' already-present hallucinogenic style and went full musical. When you have the legendary Rita Moreno in your cast, you must let her sing. And for those of you who were wondering if going musical somehow softened Oz: Nope. The show was still as violent as ever. Perhaps even more so! Sondheim would have been proud.
Futurama was no stranger to musical interludes when the series originally came to a conclusion with “The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings,” but there was one thing that fans could be sure of: If the robot devil was in town, there would be music (hopefully provided by the Beastie Boys). Fry’s eagerness to find a way to fully express his love for Leela results in an exchange with metal Satan for a pair of hands that will allow him to compose the perfect opera of romantic declaration. Of course, making a deal with the devil never ends well, and this musical climax includes deceitful marriage proposals, a giant alien puppet, and the sung definition of irony (as well as one of the all-time great Zoidberg memes.) The kicker is in that final shot, a moment of such tenderness that you almost resent the show for coming back and ruining it. Almost.
WORST: That '70s Show
We don’t blame actors who are hesitant to do these kinds of musical episodes. Singing well is a talent one can’t just pick up. If you’re a star of a popular sitcom, it would probably send chills up your spine to discover that, four seasons into your run, you were expected to belt from the rooftops for one episode. So, we sympathize with the cast of That ‘70s Show, but wow, it does not make it any easier to actually sit through “That ‘70s Musical.” You can tell that this ensemble is practically gritting their teeth throughout these timidly sung numbers as if they’ve been forced on stage at an especially awkward karaoke party.
In the early 2010s, Glee was king over on Fox. For Sweeps Week, the network decided that all their shows should get in on the fun for what they called the "Fox Rocks" campaign. Family Guy, The Simpsons, and even Bones got in on the fun, but Fringe was ahead of the game and had been planning their own musical episode way before such corporate mandates. "Brown Betty" features the ever-surly Walter Bishop deciding that the best way to console himself over the disappearance of his son Peter is to get high off his balls. To pass the time, he tells a story, one drenched in the smoky intrigue of a 1940s detective noir. It doesn't entirely work but Fringe gets points for swinging for the fences with a gorgeous noir homage. It's also sort-of hilarious that a show knee-deep in the paranormal decided that the best way to spontaneously introduce musical numbers was casual drug use.
BEST: Batman: The Brave and the Bold
There are so many variations of Gotham’s finest detective over the decades of DC Comics’ run, and each and every one of them offers a bright/bleak new perspective on Batman for the masses. Whether you prefer Frank Miller's ceaseless grimdark violence or Adam West's jiving with Eartha Kitt, there is a Bruce Wayne for you. Cartoon Network's Batman: The Brave and the Bold aimed for a lighter, more pop-art-friendly aesthetic akin to the 1960s series, and there was no better platform for a big musical episode. And who else should play the toe-tappingly dastardly Music Meister than Tony Award-winner Neil Patrick Harris? He's got a zoot suit and music note accessories and he clearly takes home decor advice from the Phantom of the Opera. What's not to love? Our tuneful antagonist can control others through song, which results in lots of catchy numbers performed by Batman, Black Canary, and the murderer's row of Arkham inmates. It makes you wish that Robert Pattinson would commit to a soulful ballad or two in the new Batman movie. It's not too late to make some changes, Matt Reeves!
MTV’s Daria helped to make a whole generation of outcast adolescent girls feel that bit more normal in their refusal to embrace the oddities of high school hell. The show remains fresh for its sharp wit and frequent reminders that embracing a nihilistic approach to life won’t always save you from its pain. Daria took a number of strange speculative diversions, so of course, there was a musical episode, and it’s easily one of the series’ weakest. The songs aren’t very good, and the distinctive voices of this ensemble are not particularly well-suited to sing-alongs. If Daria were ever to have her own musical, it would need to be far more like the show’s iconic soundtrack and not this weak attempt at an old-school Hollywood showstopper.
Supernatural and weird go hand in hand. The entire latter half of the long-running series feels like a giddy grab-bag of tropes, novelties, and the writers flinging spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. It would have been much odder had the show not done a musical episode. It's a meta-stravaganza to celebrate the series' 200th episode, wherein the Winchester brothers see themselves as part of a musical. The whole thing will probably be entirely indecipherable to you unless you're in the deepest recesses of Supernatural fandom, but given that the episode is basically an achingly composed love letter to those very fans who kept the show on the air for so long, it's only fitting. The episode is even called “Fan Fiction.” At its best, the episode is rather sweet in how it acknowledges that the show is always open to myriad interpretations and the creators are happy for you to embrace whatever version of that makes you the happiest.
What’s more fun than a sexy teen soap opera full of murder, Twin Peaks references, and bisexual lighting? One that does regular musical performances! Riverdale feels like it was engineered in a lab to be the most potent fandom bait ever conceived, and nowhere is this more evident than in their regular musical shows. Their ambition is palpable, with the cast putting on productions of cult hits like Carrie, Heathers, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Some fans are vocally opposed to these musical breaks, but you can’t fault the show for aiming high. While music is a key part of the show overall (hi there, Josie and the Pussycats), it’s in these moments of theatrical grandeur that Riverdale is at its most fascinating.
WORST: Chicago Hope
After an angry customer has a brain aneurysm while yelling at a self-playing piano, he starts to imagine the hospital staff in tuxedos at a bar in the operating theater joyfully lip-syncing to "Ain't That a Kick in the Head." It's a strange form of medical revenge against a d-bag who seems to hate all forms of music. One wonders if deftly choreographed musical hallucinations are anywhere near as common in real-life as they are on TV. The rest of the episode is seriously dour and makes the weak song-and-dance interludes all the more awkward.
WEIRDEST: Even Stevens
Three words: Singing Shia LaBeouf. In the episode “Influenza: The Musical”, Ren comes down with a case of the flu which she chooses to battle through rather than risk her perfect attendance record. The Disney Channel of the 2000s certainly knew a thing or two about musicals, having molded an entire generation of teeny-bop talent who could sing, dance, sort-of act, and inspire legions of devoted tween fans. It helps that Ren herself is played by Christy Carlson Romano, who would go on to play Belle in the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast, so she certainly holds her own. Shia… Well, he tried. Even Stevens always felt a bit too sardonic for Disney’s sugar-sweet brand, but “Influenza: The Musical” feels right at home alongside the High School Musicals and Camp Rocks of their brand. Stick around for an educational song about the moon landing.