When I examine my life, the aspect I’m always the most grateful for is my friends and community. Despite my debilitating nerdiness, I’ve always managed to have fantastic, varied social groups. I’ve been blessed with a certain amount of extroversion and social capability, and I pride myself on my awareness of social issues, especially sex and gender issues.
All of this is thanks to my early and continued exposure to the theatre. When I was a child in an arts magnet school, my favorite class was Drama. Drama in high-school introduced me to a world of new people, many of which I’m still friends with today. Majoring in Theatre Arts in college awarded me with some of the richest social experiences of my life, something I prize more than any other sort of experience.
While I loved theatre, there was nothing I ever loved as much as musical theatre. I had a chorus role in high-school in Grease, and played Linus in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown when I was a senior. I was completely obsessed with Rent, and was lucky enough to audition for it in college, though the production was shut down before anyone was cast. Reefer Madness is one of my favorite comedic films, and I don’t even like weed at all.
So when a fantastic show has a musical episode, it’s like my whole artistic world coming together. Luckily, some of my favorite shows have fantastic musical episodes.
Some stipulations on musical episodes: First off, no animated shows: Most cartoons have a music number or episode sometime during their run, and there are way too many to include on this list. So The Batman Brave and the Bold episode “Mayhem of the Music Meister”, guest starring Neil Patrick Harris, is out, as is Adventure Time’s “Fiona and Cake”, with Neil Patrick Harris. Secondly, no TV shows that are already musicals. I’d love to include Glee’s “Dream On”, in which Neil Patrick Harris guest stars, but I can’t. Finally, no episodes that only have one musical number in them, so I can’t include How I Met Your Mother’s 100th episode, “Girls vs Suits”, in which Neil Patrick Harris has a surprise break-out musical number about suits.
So here what’s left: The top five musical episodes of nerdy tv, broken down and rated for your convenience. You might disagree with some of these points, but then you’d be wrong.
5. “Brown Betty”–Fringe
You can tell a lot about a person by the music they listen to.
Not really much of a musical episode, and I’m reluctant to put this on here. But it was either this or Xena‘s episode “The Bitter Suite”, which is so cheesy I couldn’t watch enough to review. “Brown Betty” is a great episode of television, and Wikipedia lists it at a musical episode, so I’m dealing with it instead.
The Reason:*** “Brown Betty” has one of the best reasons for the music: A very stoned Walter tells Olivia’s niece a story, complete with song, as a way of processing his own guilt. It’s tragic, but redemptive.
The Talent: ** Surprising. Who knew Agent Broyles had such a good crooning voice? And John Noble, as in every episode of the show, completely makes the episode. But I can’t give it more than two stars because no one ever sings for long, and there’s no dancing.
The Songs: * Not an original song in the book, but a selection of classic songs that aren’t even ever sung all the way through.
The Structure: ** As an episode, it’s great, with the salvation of Walter at the end well earned, and the story being told by him well-structured. Still, as a musical it’s weak: No big introduction or finale. How many ways can I say this isn’t a musical while still including it on my musical list, I wonder.
The Production: ** Going for a noir feel was fun, the episode delivers with the narration, but as far as the musical production, it’s definitely the weakest of the bunch, with, again, no real musical numbers.
Total *: 10.
4. “My Musical”– Scrubs
Why are you singing…wait, why am I singing?
I resisted putting this episode on the list for some time, mostly because I get tired of hearing people praise the song “Guy Love” all the time. It’s not a bad musical episode, but it lacks something. I should note that I completely love Scrubs as a show, so I’m not sure why this episode fails to resonate with me. Let’s break it down:
The Reason: *** It’s a hospital show, so it’s because a patient has a blood-clot in her brain, leading her to think everyone is singing. Works great with the already fantastical premise of the show, and leads to a sad, believable conclusion.
The Talent: ** No one on Scrubs is a terrible singer, but Donald Faison is the only one who stands out, winning a star just for himself. If you’re going to bring in a guest star for your musical episode they better blow you away, like Buffy’s guest star Hinton Battle.For some reason, the Tony nominated Stephanie D’Abruzzo fails to bring much to the table; I think it’s the song-writing, more than any fault of hers.
Structure: *** Good. Has an intro song, some others, and a finale.
The songs: ** Besides “Guy Love”, what other songs are even memorable in this musical? I realized they were going for a “classical musical” vibe, with the Grease and Pirates of Penzance homages, but it all feels very rushed. Even “Guy Love” is only enjoyable because of the sincerity that Zach Braff and Donald Faison bring to it.
The Production: ** I think this is where the musical fails. The songs, which might have been charming and fun, fall flat due to a rushed production. There’s no change in the usual camera work outside of a few spinning, overhead shots, the actual music behind each song sounds canned, and it just feels like a TV episode that happens to have music in it. This episode aired five years after Buffy’s “Once More With Feeling”, but completely failed to have the same level of production.
Total *: 12
3. “Regional Holiday Music”– Community
Everything’s cooler when cameras are spinning
Remember when Community was the best show on TV? They also had one of the best musical episodes ever, which relentlessly and brutally parodied Glee. In this episode, the Greendale Seven must fill in for the school’s Glee Club, who tragically died in a bus accident.
The Reason: **** I almost gave it three stars, because there isn’t any real reason for them to be singing…which is kind of the point. The episode is a parody of musicals, especially Glee, and it mocks the entire premise of musical episodes.
Structure: ** The only thing that brings this episode down: Most of the songs have the same level of energy, and the whole thing isn’t actually structured like a musical, but rather as a series of songs in an episode.
The Songs: **** Absolutely brilliant. The only problem is that most of them are duets or solos, there’s not really any big group performance, except for the partial number at the end. But “Baby Boomer Santa” pretty much destroys the competition on this list, and is one of the funniest, catchiest musical numbers from TV.
The talent: **** Also really great. Donald Glover channels his Childish Gambino, Dany Pudi is surprisingly talented, and Alison Brie is hilarious.
Production: *** As they say: “Everything’s cooler when cameras are spinning.” “Jehovah’s Most Secret Witness” has the best production of the episode, but the whole episode delivers, especially with the Glee style soundtrack.
Total *: 16
2. “Once More With Feeling”– Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I think this line’s mostly filler…
“Once More With Feeling” set the standard for television musicals. It’s impossible to have a TV musical and not compare it to OMWF. The reason is that it was the first, and for a long time, only, fully realized and executed musical episode.
The Reason: **** Evil demon? Why not, it’s Sunnydale. But the real reason is more metafictional, of course. Buffy the Vampire Slayer in season 6 was suffering the pangs of an extended run; the titular character had already died (twice), battled a God, and saved the earth multiple times. Lines like, “So, Dawn’s in trouble. Must be Tuesday.” and “Where do we go from here?” reflect the problems with the show’s continuing storyline. The only answer for these characters that are so filled with drama, and for a show so glutted with history and demand to continually be “bigger” is for the characters to burst into song.
The Structure*****: OMWF sports the best structure of any TV musical, complete with the intro song (“Going through the motions”), exposition song (“I’ve Got a Theory/Bunnies), separate songs for each characters(“Standing”, “I’ll Never Tell”, “Rest in Peace”, “Under Your Spell/Standing Reprise”, “Dawn’s Lament/The Ballet”, & “What You Feel”), the “11 o’clock” song (“Walk Through the Fire”), the finale (“Something to Sing About”), and the conclusion/denouement (“Where Do We Go From Here?”).
The Talent: **** Anthony Stewart Head, Amber Benson, Emma Caulfield, the guest star Hinton Battle, and James Marsters all vie to steal the show. Sarah Michelle Gellar performs well enough, though her pronunciation of the word “fire” nearly destroys an otherwise perfect musical number. Nicholas Brendan valiantly stands his ground as an amateur singer, and Michelle Trachtenberg saves us from her song with a lovely ballet number, instead. Only Alyson Hannigan underwhelms, and hey, her lines are “mostly filler” anyways.
The Songs: ***** These are songs that could eventually be considered classic musical numbers. There’s a variety of styles, themes, and emotions. “I’ll Never Tell” is a wonderfully catchy homage to Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, “Rest in Peace” is a rock song that James Marsters continues to play in his band to this day, “Walk Through the Fire” has the feeling of classic epic musicals like “West Side Story”, and only the coldest, blackest hearts would not be moved by Head and Benson’s Duet “Stand/Under Your Spell” reprise.
Production: ***** Background dancers galore, wide sweeping shots, expanded sets, and the only episode to be shot in a wide-screen letterbox format made Once More With Feeling the best produced musical episode on television at the time. Whedon says in the DVD commentary that he was eager to prove what television was capable of being, “you just need to care”.
Final *: 23
1. “Two Girls, One Tongue”–Todd and the Book of Pure Evil
I fucking hate musicals! So proletariat.
I can’t help the math: Todd beats out Buffy in this, for one simple reason: It manages to deliver everything Buffy did, but in 22 minutes. It’s such a tight, well executed musical episode. Any show ever attempting a musical episode has to contend with “Two Girls, One Tongue”, and God help them.
The reason: **** The same as literally every episode of Todd. This would be a problem if it weren’t so purposefully done. Plus, it’s the only episode with a returning curse from the book, making it even more brilliant.
The Structure: **** This musical starts off with a bang, diving right into the first number and finishing with the most amazing denouement ever. Even Buffy’s last line of “where do we go from here?” has nothing on Todd’s final line, with Atticus Murphy Jr. Passionately singing a sustained “Fuck You!” to his recently murdered minions. Pure brilliance. It loses a star because of its forgettable finale song, which pales in comparison to songs like “Love is Heaven Love is Hell” and “Wolf Rape”, but what’s most amazing about this episode is that, unlike “Once More With Feeling”, “Two Girls, One Tongue” managed to fit an entire musical into 22 minutes.
The Talent: **** There’s some auto-tuning, and Jason Mewes is maybe the worst singer I’ve ever heard. Still, Bill Turnbull and Melanie Leishman make up for a lot, and Chris Leavins, like Anthony Stewart Head, steals the show. While Alex House isn’t the best singer in the world (though he’s not bad!) he’s completely willing to throw himself into the musical. Just watch “Horny Like the Devil”.
The Songs: ***** This is where 2G1T shines. Like OMWF, 2G1T boasts multiple styles, from metal ballad, to doo-wop, to Elton John-esque piano “duet” between a man and his father’s decapitated head, with only one singer. But its real strength is in the brilliance and hilarity of its lyrics.
“I’m so torn, I’m almost numb
Caught between two girls and a tongue
This is some freaky shit
But I must admit
I never stopped loving you”
“No time to theorize or postulate
I need your help before you masturbate
Curtis is about to fornicate
With a girl who’s evil incarnate!”
“I’m back in the forest again
Lost and scared, without a friend
In the place where I was abused
And became sexually confused
WOLF RAPE WOLF RAPE WOLF RAPE!”
And of course
“I can’t fight it
Don’t want to hide it
Being horny makes me horny!”
Production: ****** Yeah, that’s right: 6 out of 5 stars. This episode’s production, along with the the AV Club episode, must have drained the entire show’s budget. The whole thing feels like one long professional music video, complete with brilliant special effects, lighting, editing, and phenomenal support from background dancers.
Total *: 24
So there you have it. The final say in which musical episodes of TV are worth watching.