With ‘The Flash’ and ‘Supergirl’ set for musical hi-jinx, we unpack some of the best examples of how to do a musical episode right!
“Oh my God. You will never believe what happened at school today.”
“Everybody started singing and dancing?”
“…I gave birth to a pterodactyl.”
“Oh my God, did it sing?”
Few combinations of intense visuals and overwhelming audio are able to conjure the same effect that musicals are capable of achieving. Whether you’re a fan of the genre or think that they’re absolutely insufferable, there’s no denying that musicals require an incredible amount of production and precision to pull off properly. It’s for this technical reason that the intricate exercise of musicals is usually reserved for the cinema rather than the medium of television. That being said, there have been times where TV has shot for the moon and attempted the sprawling genre on the small screen. With recent films like La La Land and Beauty and the Beast only confirming that the public’s love affair with musicals isn’t going anywhere, even the superhero genre hasn’t been able to remain immune. Musical madness might truly be at a fever pitch as a two-part musical crossover is set to go down on Supergirl and The Flash on March 20th and 21st respectively. In honor of CW’s heroic avengers being forced to hit the high notes this month, we’ve decided to look at the 15 best examples of musical episodes of television (and the one worst).
15. Ally McBeal – “Ally McBeal: The Musical, Almost”
Part of the fun of musical episodes of television is trying to figure out what the conduit for all of this singing is going to be. Sometimes a perfectly believable excuse is stumbled upon, while other shows completely shoehorn a music-based premise into things for the excuse of getting some music involved. David E. Kelley’s Ally McBeal was already a show that featured a very elastic sense of reality and a protagonist with quite the excitable imagination (remember that Dancing Baby and how that was a big cultural moment?), so resorting to a musical all of a sudden doesn’t feel that out of place for the series. While a particularly silly entry, Kelley still decided to pull the trigger on this musical episode in a big way by making it the third season’s finale. A lot of changes go down in this episode with many relationships being left in flux by the end of things. Remarkably, the impromptu singing comes courtesy of the characters being in therapy and getting a little overmedicated. It’s a rather flimsy excuse for all of this, but the show didn’t even really need one in the first place. The cast even performs a version of the show’s theme song, “Searching My Soul,” in this one.
14. That 70’s Show – “That ‘70s Musical”
Sometimes musical episodes are used to signify landmark occasions for television shows, which is the strategy that That 70’s Show turned to for their 100th episode (How I Met Your Mother would do the same thing for their 100th entry, albeit in a less encompassing scale). That 70’s Show already had a very musical quality to itself to begin with. The show is set in an era where music is especially influential, with many episode seven revolving around topics like disco. On top of that, the variety hour style of programming that Sunny and Cher lent themselves to was consistently being aped on in the series, resorting to musical homages whenever possible. In spite of all of that, “That ‘70s Musical” feels different and grander by the fact that the musical sequences are a result of Fez’ rattled imagination as he himself prepares for a musical performance. The meta-ness isn’t lost on the audience, and in an even more brilliant move, the song selections are all from pivotal ‘70s artists like The Carpenters, Peaches & Herb, and The Turtles. Plus, how great is it to get Red Foreman singing?
13. Oz – “Variety”
The aggressive, “watch through your fingers” HBO drama, Oz, is the absolute last show that you would picture to do a musical episode. The prison drama was one of the hardest shows on the groundbreaking network when it was on the air, with something like this feeling like a huge gamble for the series. It’s the sort of decision that could make viewers walk away and never come back. Necessity ended up leading to Oz taking this risk, as during the show’s sixth season, Harold Perrineau had to be written out of an episode due to filming commitments on The Matrix sequels. With Perrineau’s character, Augustus Hill, acting as the series’ narrator and contributing to the show’s fourth-wall breaking “fantasy” sequences, the series decided to fill this gap by inserting absurd musical numbers in his place. Accordingly, the episode “Variety” is full of instances of the prisoners singing and performing, with these terrifying brutes actually doing a really good job due to a lot of the cast having theater experience. The rendition of “The Last Duet” between Schillinger and Beecher is almost too crazy to believe. Even those two can find a break between the prison rape and shivings to belt out a few hits.
12. Fringe – “Brown Betty”
Fringe is cutting edge sci-fi that absolutely should not be playing around with musical endeavors, but the series only lightly brushes up with the genre and in the most plausible way. It’s worth giving some necessary context here. With Glee being such a ratings super-hit for FOX, they enacted a “Musical Week” for a number of their other series, where incorporating singing in some context was “mandatory” by the network. Of course, not every show was participating in such an unusual mandate, but Fringe was popular and they wanted to roll the dice with this. The episode looks to Walter, the series’ hallucinogenic-using mad scientist, with the limited singing that crops up in the entry being a result of the massive trip that he’s on. Fringe doesn’t go to the musical well too often, and even when it does it’s in a controlled manner like Olivia belting out lounge hits in a club. The whole thing is still a fun time and it’s enjoyable to see Fringe let its hair down a little. The show doesn’t get to feature corpses singing “Candyman” every week, after all.
11. South Park – “Elementary School Musical”
South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone are no strangers to musicals. Not only is the South Park feature film a rather accomplished ode to the genre, the two are also responsible for one of the most popular Broadway musicals of all time with The Book of Mormon. Clearly musical theater is a part of these guys’ DNA as they have an impeccable ability to deconstruct songs and lyrics. South Park has featured musical sequences through all of their many seasons, but one time where they full-out try to go the actual musical route is in their “Elementary School Musical” episode. The episode, which acts as a beautiful dissection of the High School Musical franchise (remember those?), sees the boys of South Park trying to resist the wave of singing and dancing that’s taken over their classmates. Eventually when the boys do give into their desires, the latest fad of musicals has passed, leaving them all looking incredibly foolish. “Elementary School Musical” coasts off of its bounding energy and precise point of view, making it one of the best episodes from South Park’s 12th season. Warning though, once “Do What You Wanna Do” is in your head, it’s never going to leave it.
10. Supernatural – “Fan Fiction”
Much like Fringe, something like Supernatural might not initially seem like the smartest best for a musical installment. That being said, over its lengthy run, Supernatural is a series that has steadily grown more capable of taking itself less seriously and delivering a hell of a silly meta episode when it feels like it. “Supernatural: The Musical” is one of the most blatant examples of this, but not without good reason. It’s the series’ 200th episode and largely devised to be one big love letter and thank you to the fans. As a result, the plot of the episode sees a girl from a high school having written a Supernatural musical that Sam and Dean find themselves getting roped in. All of the moments from the musical-within-a-musical are pure bliss and play like self-aware fan fiction in the best possible way. Haven’t you always wanted to see the plot of the series and arcs of the characters done in musical form? Sam and Dean have found themselves in many crazy situations, but watching women dressed up as them as they sing pieces like “The Road So Far” are certainly moments that will be sticking with them to the bitter end.
9. Futurama – “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings”
Before Futurama was miraculously brought back to life on Comedy Central (where it would ultimately be cancelled again), “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” stood as the show’s unplanned series finale. In spite of the episode not meaning to be the end of the Futurama story, it does still revolve around a number of pivotal themes for the series, particularly the Fry and Leela relationship. The episode might save its musicality until its final act when Fry is performing a holophoner opera for Leela, but it makes the most of them. First off, an opera is one of the more uncommon musical styles for a comedy to dip into, with Futurama pulling it off well, but it also plays with plenty of operatic ideas like Fry’s Faustian bargain with the Robot Devil. The finale’s singing might be sparse, but it’s still one of the show’s stronger episodes, with the music only accentuating all of this. Not only was the episode’s writing singled out by it earning an Emmy nomination, but the episode’s song “I Want My Hands Back” also drummed up both a nomination for an Annie Award as well as an Emmy. You’d think that’d be enough to get Leela’s attention…
8. Daria – “Daria!”
It makes a lot of sense that a series that was airing on MTV would turn to a musical episode at some point in its run. In fact, it feels like the sort of decision that the network would even push on a show. Daria is sort of the perfect choice to go the musical route due to it taking a cynical, sarcastic series and draping it in the positivity and elegance of a big budget musical. Daria really takes this thing seriously by relegating most of the episode’s script to singing, as opposed to the series just have characters crooning existing songs that suit the plotline. Somehow this episode crams nine original songs into its meager 21 minutes, with the installment acting as a very strong way to kick off the show’s third season. “Daria!” is one of those insane, bewildering musicals that you want to watch again as soon as it’s over. Something this jaded shouldn’t work as well, but the combination of these elements somehow holds together.
Not to mention, where else are you getting a musical number called “God Goddammit!”?
7. Batman: Brave and the Bold – “Mayhem of the Music Meister!”
So it’s actually because of this episode that this musical Supergirl/Flash crossover is happening in the first place. Well, that might not be entirely true, but the original DC villain, the Music Meister, which is created in this episode of Batman: Brave and the Bold is set to reappear on the CW and acting as the reason for all of this singing come March 20th. Batman: Brave and the Bold goes about all of this in the completely right way by introducing their new villain in the flashiest way possible. The show taps Neil Patrick Harris to voice the character and he delivers a memorable performance. Music Meister is basically able to control people through his songs, with his ultimate aim to broadcast his voice via a UN satellite so he can take over the entire world. Music Meister doesn’t pull off his scheme, but he does manage to get control of Green Arrow, Aquaman, Gorilla Grodd, Black Canary, Black Manta, and Clock King, which is pretty damn good for a newbie to villainy. The episode features eight songs (Good luck getting “Death Trap” out of your head any time soon…) and even earned the show an Emmy nomination. The only shame in Music Meister returning is that NPH won’t be reprising his role in the live-action version.
6. Scrubs – “My Musical”
Like it or loathe it, Scrubs is still a series that experimented a tremendous amount with what a sitcom was capable of pulling off. The show is given a major luxury by the fact that the series’ perspective is largely filtered through J.D.’s point of view. As a result, the basic structure of the series would often see itself morphing into something new—whether it was The Wizard of Oz, a three-camera sitcom, or in this case, a musical—in order to symbolize something that the staff of Sacred Heart were going through. This episode involves a patient that is suffering from a condition where she sees everyone around her breaking out into song, with that being all that’s needed to get off to the races here.
The Scrubs team take this opportunity incredibly seriously and even hired Avenue Q scribes Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez to help with the musical numbers, as well as Tony Award winner Doug Besterman to assist with the orchestration. These efforts weren’t done in vain with “My Musical” impressively racking up five Emmy nominations and the episode’s 11-track album seeing high sales on iTunes. Not only are the musical numbers well written, but the episode is also marvelously shot with the songs all feeling especially theatrical. Often being a series to throw an ice bath of reality at you during its final moments, Scrubs caps off its peppy extravaganza with the bleak message, “In musicals, there’s always a happy ending. But in life, sometimes when you get what you want, you end up missing what you left behind.” So much for an encore.
5. Psych – “Psych, The Musical”
Psych, along with the likes of Scrubs and Community is one of those rare shows that is about form and structure, which allows the series to become a chameleon of sorts and often dress up as another genre. Psych has done some outright weird things over the course of its eight years—they even did a remake/reboot of a previous episode they did from their first season—so a musical shouldn’t even seem that crazy for the show. The only issue was having the right elements to do the idea justice, and finally in the show’s seventh season finale they were able to make that dream come true. Hell, they even devoted a full two hours to the spectacle. 16 songs are spread across the show’s two act structure as Shawn and Gus try to apprehend an insane playwright. While the episode is a little wonky due to some creative continuity placement, the episode is still a favorite for many fans. The installment is full of huge, lavish outdoor numbers that feel reminiscent of the beauty that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is somehow creating every week as an official musical comedy series.
4. Clone High – “Raisin the Stakes: A Rock Opera in Three Acts”
Clone High might have only run for one glorious, near-perfect year, but the mere fact that its creators, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, are pretty much running Hollywood now should be an indication of this show’s worth. Clone High’s premise, if you’ve never seen the show (and if that’s the case, stop reading this and stream that shit immediately), sees a bunch of famous figures throughout history like Lincoln, Ghandi, Cleopatra, and Joan of Arc all cloned as teenagers and attending high school together. The bold show attempted a number of ambitious premises in its brief run, but one of their best has to be their attempt at a rock opera (the best sort of musical if you ever have to do one) entitled, “Raisin the Stakes.” Clone High impressively pairs up musicals with “a very special episode” as a new drug plagues the Clone High students, and that drug being raisins of all things. Jack Black even steps in to play the episode’s raisin pusher, too. Everything about this episode is a delight and it all just acts as confirmation that Lord and Miller need to return to the world of musicals immediately. It won’t be long until you’re addicted to this show’s complex songs.
3. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – “The Nightman Cometh”
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has been on long enough now that it actually has the right to say that it’s pulled off two musicals now. While the show’s more recent musical offering is a musical in more of the traditional sense, there’s something very charming about the show’s fourth season finale, “The Nightman Cometh.” This episode adopts a popular structure for musical episodes where the songs are coming from a musical that’s taking place within the series rather than some magical element bringing it out in everyone. Charlie enlists the rest of Paddy’s Pub to pub on a seemingly innocent musical that’s actually a parable for his warped, upsetting childhood (even if he isn’t aware of such a thing). Not only is this level of theatricality a great turn for the gang, the twist ending and reason for this musical (“Nobody puts a musical on for no reason,”) is beyond satisfying. “The Nightman Cometh” is classic Always Sunny at its best, with songs that are just as twisted and hilarious as the rest of the show is.
Hell, the Always Sunny stars even briefly took the “Nightman” show on tour, performing the musical live all across the country. That’s something that not many other shows on this list are capable of claiming.
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Once More, With Feeling”
This episode of television has such an incredible following that I may very well be writing my own death sentence by not putting it as number one on the list. The feat that Joss Whedon accomplishes in “Once More, With Feeling” is so powerful that public sing-a-longs of this episode are still being hosted in theaters with a Rocky Horror level of fandom in place. Always one to try and mix things up, Whedon had been trying to crack how to work out a musical episode of his series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer for some time (he had already done a silent episode). It took Whedon actually teaching himself how to play the piano and write music in order to compose the episode’s delightful songs, but the results are what many people consider to be one of Buffy’s all-time best episodes—if not the best. Never one to be indulgent, not only does Whedon pull off a musical episode in his show about killing demons, but he also makes it an episode that’s incredibly crucial to the larger plot of the season. Every character goes through a colossal change due to the singing that’s brought onto them courtesy of the demon, Sweet. In that sense, the episode accomplishes what many other examples here do not, which is a musical episode that actually progresses the plot of the show along in a major way, too.
1. Community – “Regional Holiday Music”
Dan Harmon’s Community is a show that is often putting on its best impression of other famous shows and genres as it’s a series that is deeply interested in television and how it informs who people are. The show has gone quite literally all over the map, delivering episodes that go anywhere from a zombie homage, to becoming a 16-bit video game, to turning into an episode of G.I. Joe. Community is a show that can literally do anything, so when it eventually decided that it wanted to do a holiday-themed musical episode, expectations were reasonably high. Even though the production of said episode reportedly nearly drove Harmon and cast insane, the end result is a sterling example of what this show is capable of. Every character gets a brilliant song that captures their character, but what’s even more exciting is that the entire thing doubles as an Invasion of the Body Snatchers riff. Singing—or more specifically, “glee”—is becoming contagious and acting as the “virus” to avoid. It should be added to everyone’s queue of holiday viewing immediately.
And the Worst: 7th Heaven – “Red Socks”
“Red Socks” was billed as a special Valentine’s Day episode during the “so wholesome it hurts” ninth season of 7th Heaven. What followed is one of the most awkward, cringe-worthy examples of musical television that you’ll ever come across. This perplexing baseball scene is surprisingly the most competent number from the episode. The series even had Broadway performers in its main cast, and yet the results are still incredibly uncomfortable. 7th Heaven is already a show where its overdone perspective is enough reason to give it a good hate-watch, but “Red Socks” turns everything up to 11. The episode’s description was listed as, “The Camdens get into the Valentine’s Day spirit by performing some classic musical hits.” Can you picture anything more irritating? No one was taking the intended romantic vibes away from this episode and getting lucky that night. It might have even caused divorces.
But what say you, intrepid readers? Have we overlooked any formative dips into musical territory on television? Do you think that The Simpsons, Grey’s Anatomy, Home Movies, or Xena: Warrior Princess are more deserving of a spot here? Let your melodic voices be heard in the comments below!
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