Some things you just never see coming. One of those things for me is tuning into your typical weekly helping of a given television show and having the characters uncharacteristically burst into song. Musical episodes are nothing new and, in fact, are beginning to become a bit obvious and passé. They’ve even crafted entire series around the premise, apparently in a desperate attempt to oversaturate them to the point that we never want to see another one again. But I still love that moment when an episode just comes out of nowhere and treats you to something special.
Here are a few examples of musical episodes that have caught me off guard over the years not only with their trademark absurdity, but with great execution and love of the medium that can elevate an oddity into an instantly memorable classic.
When you think about HBO’s legendary prison drama Oz, singing is not something that comes to mind. In its day, the tone of the show was gritty as television got. But at some point somebody got the idea to replace the spoken-word interludes featuring characters giving serious monologues with musical numbers because why the hell not.
Now I know what you are thinking. Were there disco Nazis? There were disco Nazis. If nothing else, Variety deserves a place as a television landmark for that. On the other hand, with Evan Seinfeld in the cast I was kind of hoping for a full on NYHC-style Biohazard performance that didn’t happen, but Hoyt gave us a decent showing regardless.
While not exactly the first serious show to give itself over to the rhythm, Variety is the first instance I remember of watching a musical episode when it first aired. It was kind of an event for my significant other and I and I’ll always remember it for that.
While Seth McFarlane regularly integrates show tunes into Family Guy, it’s usually as one of that show’s trademark ploys to eat up screen time with something zany and random because writing actual stories and characters is for those dorks who watch The Simpsons. But over the years American Dad has built up an impressive repertoire of gags and characters that are actually integrated into stories rather than presented as disjointed cutaway gags or other joke formats that serve to derail any attempt at an actual narrative.
Hot Water is funny, it serves the characters, the songs are catchy, Steve and Roger’s R&B parody is particularly spot-on, the episode is paced like the classic horror films it homages, and it features a talking hot tub voiced by Cee Lo Green. There is no room for lose in that equation.
The episode was damn entertaining with genuinely funky music that advanced the narrative, and it even got an Emmy nomination for its trouble. Not bad for a show that too often gets ignored in favor of its stupider and louder big brother.
Regional Holiday Music
Okay, the first three seasons of Community are chock full of madness so it’s actually more surprising that there wasn’t a Christmas musical episode sooner (oh, wait….there was), but I don’t think anybody expected a full-on mockery of one of television’s most obnoxious fanbases. Am I saying gleeks make bronies look like kings of cool in comparison? Maybe.
In a parody of all things Glee, the Greendale study group is tasked with filling in for the glee club because reasons. In spite of their dislike of the very premise of a glee club, each member is convinced in their own way, involving everything from Troy impersonating Bob Dylan to Annie going full Boop.
The best moment comes in the form of a rare non-zany Abed quote that serves to further mock the Kidz Bop: The Series show that inspired the episode’s satire: “Forcing things to be bright just makes the darkness underneath it even darker.” That is to say that a trend towards ridiculously upbeat and annoyingly earnest positivity in our entertainment choices only highlights how screwed up people’s lives are outside of their escapism. Damn, Community, you scary.
Mayhem of the Music Meister
Batman: The Brave and the Bold was both of those things. All three, if you count Batman as one of the things. Right smack in the middle of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight mania, Cartoon Network cashed in; not with a dark, gritty, realistic series about a tortured avenger of the night, but with a zany Golden/Silver Age tribute with Adam West overtones featuring weekly team-ups with lesser known DC heroes including goofs like Plastic Man and Animal Man. It even transformed the too-often mocked Aquaman into a fan favorite by making him particularly doofy. Outrageous!
While the show took some getting used to for sure, its unique blend of comic book tribute and parody, dry tongue in cheek humor, and regular flights of fancy led to a significant following over time. One of those flights of fancy was an episode which began with a typical confrontation between some of the JLA and Legion of Doom’s finest suddenly transforming into a musical number. It was an awesomely unexpected and hilarious WTF moment.
Turns out a villain calling himself the Music Meister (voiced by the always-game Neil Patrick Harris) is controlling people and bending them to his will through music and song. It was 25 minutes of pure, unadulterated quality entertainment that left me with a huge grin on my face.
Once More with Feeling
Why such an obvious pick? Why must I bring up Joss Whedon and Community every time I sit at a keyboard? My theory is that somewhere deep down in my psychological dark places, I believe that if a day goes by where I don’t type the words “Joss Whedon” and “Community”, they will somehow be erased from this world’s continuity and cease to have ever existed. Can you prove it’s not true? I, for one, am not taking that chance.
When it comes to musical television episodes, this is the standard and arguably the biggest musical television landmark of the modern era. Once More With Feeling was famously conceived at a Shakespeare reading at Whedon’s home attended by the Buffy cast that ended up involving singing, the man in charge realized that he had some serious musical talent going on on his sets. Having always dreamed of making a musical and being in charge of a show that could do no wrong, he decided it was time.
This was supposedly Whedon’s first time writing music. So it’s not enough that he’s a talented writer/director with multiple successes in comics, television, and film; he’s also awesome at music. And I still suck at everything. Break out the haterade.
The episode has several memorable songs that portray Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s trademark humor, further the development of its characters, incorporates larger season 6 plot points, is cited by nearly every fan (me included) as their favorite episode of one of their favorite shows, and almost single-handedly saved what many consider the show’s shark-jumping season. It doesn’t come any better.
Five great shows, five great musicals. You could argue that episodes like these spawned an entire genre of hit series that get by largely by including musical performances as a regular part of the show; Nashville, Smash, and the aforementioned Glee to name a few, in addition to dozens of other musical episodes from decidedly non-musical shows like Grey’s Anatomy. This is definitely a trend I can (usually) get behind.
Combining the musical and visual arts to create super-entertainment is a can’t-miss concept and one that‘s as timeless as entertainment itself, and doing it in the context of a show that typically doesn’t utilize the format can make for a memorable good-times experience for the fans if it’s done right.
I’m going to go ahead and leave you with a standout moment from last season’s crop of television for me. It wasn’t a full musical episode, but the spirit of this article was definitely with this slice of insanity from American Horror Story: Asylum where one of the show’s antagonists sees the grim sanitarium in a different light after undergoing a little shock treatment. Enjoy.