Once More, With Feeling: the 7 musical TV episodes we'll never forget
Ahead of the 2019 Emmys, we look back at television's best musical moments
While Transparent aired its musical episode this past weekend to mixed reviews (it was called a "musical movie epilogue" by the Hollywood Reporter), one-off TV episodes that go the way of song and dance are generally quite polarizing. Either you're invested in how these characters might burst into song at any time, or you're counting down the minutes until the next episode shows up so that the plot can move along at its usual, scripted rate.
But when a show successfully pulls off a musical episode, it is unforgettable. And with the 2019 Emmy Awards coming up this weekend, we looked back at our favourite musical episodes over the years, spanning Gilligan's Island to Community and more.
'The Producer,' Gilligan's Island
A famed but not-very-likeable Hollywood producer has crash-landed on the island, and the castaways put on scenes from Shakespeare's Hamlet to impress him — and ensure their rescue when people come looking for him. For added pizzazz, they adapt Shakespeare's words and set them to music from Bizet's Carmen and Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann. The producer is so enamoured of this new version of the play that, when his rescuers eventually come, he leaves the others behind in order to steal their ideas for his next production of Hamlet.
A staple of mid-1960s TV, and beloved in subsequent decades through reruns, Gilligan's Island never received critical acclaim. But in 1997, "The Producer" was named one of the 100 greatest TV episodes of all time by TV Guide.
— Robert Rowat
'Once More With Feeling,' Buffy the Vampire Slayer
"Is this hell?" Buffy asks when she's resurrected at the beginning of Season 6, a.k.a. the most depressing Buffy the Vampire Slayer season to ever air. It's not until the musical episode, "Once More With Feeling," that we find out why she's so confused (and depressed), and her almost casual reveal at the end is a hard dose of Buffy reality after an incredibly fun 50 minutes.
Series creator Joss Whedon wrote the entire episode, including the music, and it is a masterclass in combining song, dance and plot development to create something that feels authentic to the show while not sliding into camp or clichés. "Once More With Feeling" breaks open most underlying tensions we've seen brewing with Buffy, Giles and Dawn while subtly setting up what will come with Anya and Xander (RIP that engagement), so it never feels like all the fun musical asides are taking us away from the inertia of the penultimate season. With performances from all of the cast members, "Once More With Feeling" is both heartbreaking and delightful at once — and very singable.
— Holly Gordon
'Bowie,' Flight of the Conchords
Yes, we admit that including Flight of the Conchords is a bit of a cheat but we can't help but shout out one of the best musical TV series in the past decade. What started off as a comedy act, Flight of the Conchords soon transformed into an HBO show that followed the fictional lives of Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. And while it only lasted two seasons, the show allowed the duo to build a fantastical world around their songs that its most devoted fans can still recite and reenact today with absolute glee.
One of the show's best moments was "Bowie," an episode where David Bowie (played by Clement) appears in McKenzie's dream, which spins into a "Space Oddity"-style music video for the track, "Bowie's in Space." Clement and McKenzie nail their Bowie parody, which kicks off with a series of questions for Bowie like, "Is it cold out in space, Bowie?" and, "Do they smoke grass out in space, Bowie?" It's clear that the two idolize the work of Bowie and the song is a loving tribute that tips its hat to the star's genius. When Bowie died in 2016, Clement wrote a beautiful post about the songwriter, revealing the story behind the song and the episode, and how they asked Bowie to play the part of himself on the show but he declined. "We don't know for sure if he ever heard our song," he said. "Someone we know who knew something he knew told us that it was on his MP3 player. Hey, that's far out."
— Melody Lau
'Regional Holiday Music,' Community
Abed always had a way of bringing people together in Community, and "Regional Holiday Music" begins with his dismay that the group is leaving for the holidays. So when everyone is invited by the glee club instructor to perform at the Christmas pageant, Abed makes it his mission to rally his friends, despite their disdain for the club. One by one, each member is recruited through a song, ranging from "Baby Boomer Santa" for Pierce, to the sexy "Teach Me How to Understand Christmas," as performed by Annie. While Donald Glover is better known today by his hip-hop alias Childish Gambino, in 2011 he was known as Troy from Community — and of the six songs performed in this episode, my absolute favourite is Troy and Abed's rap, "Christmas Infiltration."
— Natasha Ramoutar
'Brown Betty,' Fringe
In the fourth-last episode of Season 2, Fringe took a sharp left turn that had quasi-protagonist Walter (John Noble) smoking marijuana and entertaining Olivia's (Anna Torv) niece with this noir detective story-within-a-story that repurposed Fringe's characters — with plenty of parallels to their original characters, of course. It's more of an episode with occasional songs versus a full-blown musical — Joshua Jackson, who played Peter, reportedly refused to sing for it — with a confusing combination of mid-1900s costuming alongside cellphones and laptops and a high-tech lab. Reception for "Brown Betty" was mixed as, nearing the end of Season 2, it barely inched the plot along at a time when people wanted answers to all of Fringe's questions. That said, it did give us the below scene where Olivia sings her feelings to Peter via Stevie Wonder's "For Once in my Life," plus we got some real insight into Walter's thinking (and musical taste). For a show that played a lot with multiple realities, this musical made a lot of sense. — HG
'The Nightman Cometh,' It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Musical theatre has rarely gone as wrong as it did in this standout episode of the long-running series, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Written by Charlie (Charlie Day), The Nightman Cometh is a hot mess of a show that was secretly devised as an elaborate proposal for the Waitress whom he invites. Enlisting the help of his friends, Mac (Rob McElhenney), Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Dee (Caitlin Olson) and Frank (Danny DeVito), the musical is full of unintentionally hilarious songs in which a grown princess sings about "making love" to a young boy (Dee later rushes the stage to clarify she has never had sex with a child) and the words "boy's soul" constantly get misconstrued as "boy's hole." "This isn't a comedy, nobody's supposed to be laughing!" Charlie stresses backstage. As expected, the proposal wasn't successful but, in real life, this episode of the series has become such a hit that the cast went on to perform a real production of The Nightman Cometh in six U.S. cities.
— Melody Lau
'The Bitter Suite,' Xena
It took relocating to the musical land of Illusia to finally give us this musical episode from Xena: Warrior Princess, but it was well worth the plot device. Going into the 12th episode of Season 3, Xena and Gabrielle are grieving the deaths of their son and daughter, respectively, while blaming each other for what's happened. In her grief-stricken state, Xena tries to kill Gabrielle and they both fall into the depths of the underwater land of Illusia, where everyone sings instead of speaks. They wake up separately (and naked?) and go through their own journeys in this Alice in Wonderland-esque world where all the costumes are based on tarot cards. Nominated for two Emmys, The Bitter Suite is, at its core, about the friendship between Xena and Gabrielle, and about how honesty saves them both. But if that doesn't sell you, the below version of the episode with commentary by Lucy Lawless (Xena) and Renee O'Connor (Gabrielle) should. — HG