Once More, With Feeling? When TV Goes Musical
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The most successful movie musicals weave song and dance numbers into the narrative so seamlessly the audience doesn't question what's happening - no mean feat, especially nowadays. On television the trick is even harder to pull off, chiefly because we've spent several episodes, even seasons, getting used to characters acting a certain way within the constraints of a clearly defined environment.
(Cast your mind back to when Phoebe kept launching into her own musical during the last episode of Friends. Thankfully she was cut off at every juncture, as the alternative doesn't bear thinking about.)
In spite of this, once-off musical episodes have popped up so frequently over the years they’ve almost become a staple of TV (consider the fact bothOz and Fringe had musical episodes). Even so, more often than not these are throwaway, intermittently entertaining, escapist interludes that add little to the greater story-line. Sometimes, as with Grey's Anatomy, they're downright cringe-worthy.
Widely considered to be the best example, Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "Once More, With Feeling" sidestepped the question of why by placing the denizens of Sunnydale under a spell, causing them to spontaneously burst into song while simultaneously expressing their deep and not-so-deep-seated feelings. A joyous little escapade, it showcased the cast's not-terrible singing and dancing abilities while also moving the plot along nicely (including that bombshell kiss at the end).
Elsewhere, Xena: Warrior Princess featured two musical episodes over the course of its run, the first of which, season three's "The Bitter Suite", even received two Emmy noms (not an uncommon trend, oddly enough). Also held in (mostly) high regard is Community's Christmas-themed musical episode/Glee satire hybrid, “Regional Holiday Music”, which neatly avoids the casual smugness usually inherent in these kinds of interludes (looking at you, Scrubs), by retaining the show's unique sense of humour.
It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia did similarly good work in "The Nightman Cometh", utilising a clever premise involving the gang putting on a catchy, yet suitably bonkers, rock opera. A more obscure, but no less impressive example, is Internet heroes Mega64's take, "Mega64!" which incorporates a talent show while also having a musical spontaneously exist with no explanation. The characters react to, and question, it accordingly - one is even told repeatedly to shut up during a particularly emotional solo moment. The episode also boasts a top-notch homage to Misery that is both hilarious and completely terrifying.
However, writers often rely on the ol' reliable dream/fantasy sequenceclichéto justify the detour, so events happen in one character's head, as with That '70s Show's "That '70s Musical", which takes place almost entirely in Fez's imagination.
Animated shows offer the ideal setting for musical episodes because the rules of cartoon universes can be bent accordingly to accommodate the weirdness. Rarely ones to follow the crowd, South Park, in typically biting satirical fashion, had the kids question why everybody in school was suddenly so into musicals. And naturally, once the boys reluctantly came around to the idea, their fellow students had already moved on to the next fad.
Likewise, "Daria!"retained the cult TV show's deadpan wit while simultaneously imbuing its take with the fun, kitschy sing-along energy of a particularly low-budget musical - complete with entertainingly dodgy songs. In the middle of it all is the titular character, who responds to these events in her usual manner, by anticipating more strangeness the following day.
The Simpsons kept it classic with their Shary Bobbins character,a well-meaning British nanny tasked with looking after the brattiest kid of all, who completely falls apart in the process. It was one of the long-running show's many musical moments, but arguably also its strongest.
Matt Groening's Futurama later employed a similar technique for a lively musical episode of its own (thought, at the time, to be the end of the show) which, again, incorporated the idea of a rock opera being produced for a specific purpose. In this case, it was Fry's last ditch attempt to confess his feelings for Leela.
On the slightly weirder end of the spectrum is Batman: The Brave And The Bold, the Emmy-nominated and Comic Con-approved musical episode of which sees the Caped Crusader take on the dastardly Music Meister (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris, who was in How I Met Your Mother's eye-rolling sort-of musical episode "Girl Versus Suits" - the epitome of one particular variety of self-serving, try-hard TV musical fare).
As much as writers might try to make their musical episodes go down easier with viewers, it's those that embrace the madness (Buffy being the most obvious example) which end up being the most memorable, and that enjoy the most staying power. Naturally, this is easier handled for those working within the sci-fi and fantasy genres, as with Supernatural's meta-musical (lovingly entitled "Fan Fiction").
Most notably, sadly short-lived Canadian horror-comedy Todd And The Book Of Pure Evil utilised the idea for a thrilling, and completely mental, musical that befit its already ludicrous premise. Taking a similar tack to Buffy, Todd utilises the titular book as the catalyst for the sudden swerve into all-singing, all-dancing territory. The show actually featured two musical episodes, with season one’s instalment setting up a Phantom Of The Opera-style mystery around a rock opera masterminded by dastardly guidance counsellor/secret Satanist, Atticus.
There weren’t a whole lot of songs the first time around - although any episode that ends with someone making out with a severed tongue is all right by me - so, when the series took a second stab in season two, "2 Girls, 1 Tongue" went full-blown metal musical. There was the so-called "Metal Dude Wop" (exactly what it sounds like), an Elton John-style piano ballad and a hugely entertaining, show-stopping number boasting the immortal refrain "Being horny makes me horny".
The episode is laugh-out-loud funny and sticks to the typical Todd formula, but crucially the songs are major ear-worms, too. Much like similarly self-aware musical TV episodes, the characters acknowledge they're singing and that it's super lame, but it doesn't stop them giving it their all. And, in keeping with the tone of the show, Atticus gets the last laugh (of course).
It may not be hugely well-known, but "2 Girls, 1 Tongue" is the only real example to come close to matching the spirit, panache and downright catchiness of "Once More, With Feeling" - shocking, considering they aired eleven years apart. "Fan Fiction" is understandably beloved of fans, but it doesn't quite hit the same high notes. Maybe it's that musical episodes have fallen out of favour since, or perhaps shows like Nashville, Glee, et al have filled that void for audiences in the intervening years.
Musicals should be easier to swallow within a shorter, TV time slot, but more often than not, they smack of a lack of ideas, or fall apart in the execution. There are so many elements to consider, outside of the fact most people don't really want to watch a musical episode of their favourite show, like is it better to have the cast give it their best shot singing-wise or to hire professionals to make them look better?
The most successful musical TV episodes embrace the weirdness, either by refusing to explain what's happening or by having the characters question it, usually with the addition of a live production/otherworldly element of some sort, for which everyone is begrudgingly prepping. In certain cases, as with Buffy, Todd, and Daria, the musical episodes are standouts in their own right, usually thanks to the common themes of self-awareness, good humour, catchy yet silly songs, and gutsy, give-it-your-all enthusiasm from the cast.
But hey, maybe the best is yet to come. If nothing else, it’s fun to imagine which of our favourite shows could go musical next. Westworld, perhaps? It certainly couldn't complicate things any further in that universe...