Life sure looks less gloomy when everyone is bursting into song and dance! Television’s “musical episode” trend started with Xena: Warrior Princess which in 1998 released “The Bitter Suite,” an episode told entirely through a traditional musical style. The show’s actors found themselves being pulled from their regular set routine and plunged into a recording studio. Working with voice coaches and choreographers, a majority of the show’s actors did their own singing for the episode and worked directly with the Broadway choreographer Jeff Calhoun. The music in the episode was composed by the show’s regular composer and found itself being nominated for two Emmy Awards. “The Bitter Suite” was a major hit and opened the door for many non-musical television shows to sprinkle in a musical number or two into their programme — or, even more ambitious, host an entire musical episode!
Before we list some of the best and worst musical episodes on television, here’s our criteria: In order to qualify, the musical episode must have been featured in a non-musical live-action show, that automatically bumps out shows like Glee, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Smash, etc., and fun animated shows that have musical numbers like Bob’s Burgers and Daria. The musical episodes are judged upon their incorporation of song and dance into the storyline— Did it make sense? How were the vocals? Did it offer anything new? Original songs? — and most importantly, no matter how much of a musical expert we dub ourselves as, this list is entirely subjective. If we don’t bust a move to an episode that truly resonates with you, no harm done. Keep on singing along!
Without future interruption, here are the hits and misses of musical television episodes.
Hit: Buffy, “Once More With Feeling”
This season six episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer surely gave us something to sing about. “Once More With Feeling” has received mostly-favourable reception from television critics, and has been nominated for multiple awards and added to many “best episodes of all time” lists. Airing in 2001, director and creator Joss Whedon truly changed the game for television, having seamlessly incorporated this campy all-musical episode into his fantasy drama show. The musical numbers were built for his characters, giving the princess-esque Hell demon Anya both a breakout rock scene in the group number “I’ve Got A Theory” and a cute, little ditzy-pop number called “I’ll Never Tell.” Resident bad guy, the broody vampire Spike had a full-blown angry rock song coupled with some hot boy band moves in “Rest In Peace,” and softies Giles and Tara both got to sing their own sweet, slow ballads.
One of the biggest demands from non-musical audiences when watching a musical episode is that there has to be a practical reason for all of the songs and dance numbers— Buffy, of course, provided that. The change of scenery was brought upon by a jazzy demon who was summoned to Sunnydale. He forces people to randomly break into musical numbers, once even seen making an unnamed man tap dance to his death. The episode was perfectly dark and moody, just like it’s followers prefer, while also using the musical numbers to deliver pivotal moments— like Buffy revealing to her friends that when they brought her back to life they pulled her out of heaven, Tara leaving her girlfriend Willow after finding out that she erased her memory with a magical spell, and Spike expressing his love for Buffy (the brilliant and romantic line “if my heart could beat, it would break my chest” is a definite standout).
Buffy’s “Once More With Feeling” is easily the greatest musical episode ever made and I highly recommend using it as a screener for friendships— If they like it, they’re in. If they don’t, give them the boot.
Hit: Scrubs, “My Musical”
Similar to “Once More With Feeling,” there are not enough words in the world to describe the greatness of the Scrubs musical episode, “My Musical.” This episode follows the Sacred Heart Hospital crew as they treat a patient who was brought in for treatment after suffering a fall. Here’s the hook: Due to a neurological complication, the patient now imagines that everybody around her is communicating through song, including herself.
This episode is filled with bangers like “Guy Love” and “Dominican” and features songs that match the character’s personality, such as “The Rant Song” which accompanies Dr. Cox’s habitual rants with a fast-tempo and steady rhythm. “My Musical” took direct pointers from the musical theatre community, rather than just shoving a bunch of songs into a normal television episode. The showrunners rearranged the Scrubs episodic pattern to incorporate large dance numbers and “finale” showstoppers.
“My Musical” was nominated for four Emmys and still remains an essential part of popular culture history.
Miss: Grey’s Anatomy, “Song Beneath the Song”
Appropriately transitioning from Scrubs to Grey’s Anatomy, their musical episode “Song Beneath the Song” was a major miss. Grey’s Anatomy has a long history of being criticized for coping Scrubs and the medical procedure shows that came prior. Disappointedly enough, the show copied the plot from the Scrubs musical episode and didn’t elevate it in any way— the showrunners didn’t offer any original songs.
In “Song Beneath the Song,” Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital surgeon Callie Tores suffers neurological damage after being involved in a car crash and ends up envisioning all of her colleagues communicating to her through song. Sound familiar? While the episode received praise for the vocal talent of its singing leads, the critical reception was not favourable. It was called “dull” and “unimaginative,” even the show’s actor Patrick Dempsey referred to it as “a big mistake.” Super awkward.
Hit: Community, “Regional Holiday Music”
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This third season episode of the whimsical sitcom Community was a hoot. “Regional Holiday Music” was a blatant spoof of the ever-popular American musical show Glee. The episode follows the Greendale Community College study group as they one-by-one join the school’s Glee Club and prepare to perform in a Christmas pageant. This episode featured original Christmas songs, tons of popular music references, and starred Saturday Night Live alum Taran Killam as the episode as the showy-but-delirious Glee Club instructor.
What made “Regional Holiday Music” such a joy was that the show didn’t put its unusual sense of humour on the backburner— it followed its standard episodic pattern: Someone (likely a Greendale instructor) ends up making a dark admission, Brita kind of ruins everything, and at the tail end, the group comes together with some sort of a heartwarming gathering. Although relying on Christmas is a bit of a cop-out as the holiday season naturally comes with showy decorations and festive carols, Community made this story its own and delivered tons of laughs before going away on its mid-season break.
“Regional Holiday Music” may only satisfy those with an acquired taste of humour but they didn’t sacrifice their characters or the taste of their audience in order to deliver this chucklesome musical episode.
Hit: The Flash, Duet
Speaking of Glee… Season three of the CW superhero show The Flash featured a crossover with Supergirl in their musical episode. Lots of expectations to meet there. Funnily enough, the lead actors from both of these shows are alums of Glee, Grant Gustin and Melissa Benoist. “Duet” also welcomed a few musical guest stars, Darren Criss (who was also a beloved actor from Glee) and renowned Broadway actors Jeremy Jordan, Victor Gabor, and John Barrowman. With a cast this talented, you can’t go wrong.
The episode’s premise follows the superpowered enhanced characters as they try to bring down the new villain Music Meister who, as you can probably guess, traps them in a fantasy world where they are forced to engage in musical numbers. In addition to their show-stopping cast, the show’s creators also sought out professional songwriters to write the original songs that would be performed in the episode.
With all of the hard work done by The Flash’s and Supergirl’s respective teams, it was a no-brainer that this episode would go down in history as a fan-favourite!
Miss: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina & Riverdale
Both teen dramas Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Riverdale have incorporated musical numbers into multiple episodes of their show. In Sabrina, the musical numbers are awkward and ill-framed, usually just sporadically sprinkled throughout the episodes. Many fans have referred to the show’s restyling as “riding on the coattails of Glee” and later, drawing it’s comparison to Riverdale.
Riverdale first featured musical numbers performed by Josie & the Pussycats and Archie, the Justin Bieber-esque teenage heartthrob. At the beginning of the series, whenever Archie would perform (with leading ladies Veronica or Betty) it was at a talent showcase or a community gala. In later seasons, the show sacrificed their reasonable and unabashedly fun schtick in order to incorporate full musical episodes, usually at the excuse of the teenagers performing in a school musical. Things got rather confusing as the Riverdale showrunners decided to select raunchy cult musicals for the fictional school to perform and misinterpret them (like Heathers: The Musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Carrie: The Musical). These episodes tend to be overproduced with dream-like sequences and heavy autotune resulting in these special lo-fi musicals being turned into unenjoyable messes— they abandon the hard work and care that these musicals require and instead, just make the biggest spectacle they can.
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