The Do’s and Don’ts of Musical TV Episodes

Kelly Woo
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

“The musical episode.”

It’s a phrase that can inspire delight or dread. Over the years, many TV shows have made musical episodes (and there have been entire series that are essentially musicals), starting with I Love Lucy in 1956. ABC’s fairy-tale drama, Once Upon a Time, is doing one this Sunday.

OUAT stars dish on the musical episode:

Musical episodes (or musical numbers included in an episode) have become something of a trend, with the CW’s The Flash and Syfy’s The Magicians both airing one this year. But musical episodes aren’t easy to pull off, and it’s easy for them to turn into a disaster, as it did on 7th Heaven and House. They can be too silly, jarring, or just plain bad — not all actors can sing, after all.

Here are some do’s and don’ts for TV shows considering doing a musical episode:

DO: Make the music a central point of the plot

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Once More With Feeling” and The Flash’s “Duet,” the episode’s villain forced the heroes to sing and dance. In Buffy, the demon Sweet instigates the music to reveal secrets, doubts, fears, and dark desires. In The Flash, it was the Music Meister orchestrating a shared hallucination between Barry and Supergirl; if they wanted to get out, they had to play/sing along.

Michelle Trachtenberg as Dawn Sommers and Hinton Battle as Sweet in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. (Credit: The WB)

DON’T: Make a musical just for the sake of making a musical

“Red Socks,” 7th Heaven’s musical episode, isn’t just a terrible musical installment — it’s a terrible episode overall. There’s absolutely no reason for the Camdens to break into song. Sorry, but “it’s Valentine’s Day and love is making them do it” does not cut it. House’s “Bombshells” wasn’t that much of a train wreck, but the musical numbers just weren’t necessary to the plot. Why not just play the scenes straight?

Stephen Collins as the Rev. Eric Camden and Catherine Hicks as Annie Camden in 7th Heaven. (Credit: The WB)

DO: Include original songs

Original songs feel more integral to the story because they can incorporate specific details and characters’ personalities. The Scrubs episode “My Musical” featured 10 original songs, like “Guy Love,” which riffed on the bromance between J.D. and Turk.The Xena: Warrior Princess episode “The Bitter Suite” featured original songs (including two that received Emmy nominations) that delved into the rift between Xena and Gabrielle over their children — and helped heal their broken friendship.

Donald Faison as Dr. Christopher Turk and Zach Braff as Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian in Scrubs. (Credit: NBC)

DON’T: Turn it into karaoke

On the flip side, a musical episode filled with covers lacks urgency and relevance. The numbers on Grey’s Anatomy’s “Song Beneath the Song” were performed well, particularly by Sara Ramirez, whose character, Callie, has hallucinations after a brain injury received in a car accident. But the songs were key tunes from the show’s history, like Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars,” and because we’d heard them before, they didn’t have the same emotional impact.

Sara Ramirez as Dr. Callie Torres in Grey’s Anatomy. (Credit: ABC)

DO: Be tongue-in-cheek and campy

The best musical episodes don’t take themselves too seriously. Community’s “Regional Holiday Music” is a straight-up parody of Glee. Barry and Kara both roll their eyes and resist singing in The Flash, and part of the fun is the whole “I can’t believe we’re stuck in a musical, ugh!” vibe. Campiness is also what makes musical series like Glee and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend work, so one-off episodes should definitely lean in.

Joel McHale as Jeff Winger in Community. (Photo: Jordin Althaus/NBC)

DON’T: Make doctors or inmates sing

One reason the Grey’s Anatomy musical episode wasn’t a complete success was the weirdness of watching the doctors belt out tunes while performing risky surgeries. Same thing with House and Chicago Hope’s “Brain Salad Surgery.” Scrubs worked only because the show is a comedy and wacky high jinks were the norm. But most of the time, doctors should not sing. It’s why the short-lived musical series Cop Rock was so short-lived. Also on the no-sing list? Inmates. Oz was a very gritty prison drama, so watching the characters bust out into song just felt wrong.

Lee Tergesen as Tobias Beecher and J.K. Simmons as Vern Schillinger in Oz. (HBO)

DO: Let a little go a long way

Any TV show itching to do a musical episode can take a lesson from How I Met Your Mother’s “Girls vs. Suits” and The Magicians’ “Lesser Evils,” which featured only one musical number each. In the former, Barney imagined himself singing the titular tune while dancing on the streets of New York, while the latter had Margo cast a spell on their friends to perform a rousing rendition of “One Day More” from Les Misérables.

Neil Patrick Harris as Barney in How I Met Your Mother. (Credit: CBS)

DON’T: Force actors to sing unless they can really sing

The Flash‘s musical episode worked so well because the cast is filled with top-notch singers, like Grant Gustin, Melissa Benoist, Jesse L. Martin, and Victor Garber. Guest stars Darren Criss and Jeremy Jordan added even more musical theater cred. Nonsingers Candice Patton and Danielle Panabaker did not have to perform. That’s another reason why the 7th Heaven musical was so bad — that was not a cast made up of singers.

Victor Garber as Martin Stein, Jesse L. Martin as Joe West, Grant Gustin as Barry Allen, and Melissa Benoist as Kara in The Flash. (Credit: Katie Yu/The CW)

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