Today: a tribute to musical episodes of TV shows.
I love TV. Love, love, love it. As I may have mentioned here once or twice. I love the scope for character and plot development, the threads that play out over months and years, twenty or forty or sixty or a hundred hours instead of the two you get in a movie.
And I love musicals. Ergo. Musical episodes of TV shows – they bring the happy. They bring the Glee, in fact, but that’s a separate issue. But they can also be done horribly badly. One of the reasons Glee works is that every episode is the Very Special Musical Episode – the viewers know, and are tuning in, to see musical performances interwoven into the episode. When it’s something out of the ordinary, you need a reason.
Grey’s Anatomy used an out-of-body experience recently, and – oh, I had fears. I had fears when I heard that they were doing a musical episode, because it’s not a musical episode kind of show. And then having it be songs already used in the show – when Callie (Sara Ramirez) started singing, I wasn’t convinced. Even though she has a stunning voice.
Then Owen (Kevin McKidd) started singing. And oh dear lord swoon. It grew on me. I still think Addison (Kate Walsh) was underused. I think they used their strongest singers well though. It does not surprise me at all that Lexie (Chyler Leigh) can sing, and we’d heard Bailey (Chandra Wilson) on the show before. But Sara Ramirez and Kevin McKidd. Whoa.
It’s not your typical musical episode – it’s dark and twisty. It’s an episode of sadness and angst and worries. (And Arizona having sadness and angst and worries, which is just extra-sad.) But it works.
I think the best musical episodes are the ones that take the best from the TV show and the best of what a musical can do, and merge the two. Another favourite is the Scrubs musical episode – which has a sort-of medical explanation for the singing, in that a patient (Stephanie D’Abruzzo of Avenue Q fame – part of the writing team were also involved in the music for this, which explains a lot) is hearing everything sung and it’s actually a symptom. It’s zany and wacky with some poignant moments – pretty much your standard Scrubs episode, so, except with singing.
And the standard amount of JD/Turk subtext. Or, um, text.
Other TV shows have tried. Ally McBeal, for example, even though it didn’t necessarily need it – it’s a show that’s so closely tied to music anyway, and has plenty of opportunities for getting characters singing. (Oh, Robert Downey Jr, your duet with Sting remains a favourite.) The Simpsons have had a variety of musical numbers. (Cartoons tend to be able to pull off musicals more so than live-action shows.) It’s tough – you do need to justify it in some way, and to ensure that it works as an episode as well as a musical extravaganza, moving storylines along, making things change.
I think we all know where this is going. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ‘Once More With Feeling’ – one of my favourite episodes of anything, ever. From the moment Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) opened her mouth, I was there, ready to buy it, ready to love it.
Like the Grey’s episode it does suffer from some cast members being weaker singers than others (oh, Alyson Hannigan) and doesn’t always hide them away (I’m not mad about Xander [Nicholas Brendon]). But most of the cast do an extraordinary job – I especially love Tara (Amber Benson) and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) and Spike (James Marsters), which actually is pretty much most of the rest of the cast.
There’s a reason for the music – it’s a demon! And one can actually dance oneself to death – the singing and dancing is out of control and needs to be stopped and might be bunnies. They can’t help themselves – they just have to sing. And like any good musical it ends with a kiss – which, this being Buffy, is messy and complicated and vampiric. Oh. It is excellent.
I love musicals but like films they’re only a couple of hours long – plenty of time for great music, but not so much for ongoing character development. With TV shows we get to see what happens next – and we know these characters already, so what they sing doesn’t need to set them up for us but can move straight into their current predicament.
It can go horribly wrong. But sometimes, it can go so beautifully right.