What To Do About a Problem Like the Musical Episode?


Musical episodes (of non-musical TV) are God’s gift to television. They are silly, incredibly fun to watch, and there is nothing better than having your favourite characters serenade you with their beautiful singing voices. 

Hours upon hours of choreographing, song writing and voice training all boil down into 40 minutes of TV and, when done correctly, it actually makes sense for the characters to burst into song (it might even leave you wondering why the hell they haven’t done so before!). It pushes the plot forward, and character development doesn’t fall by the wayside in the process – and, most importantly, it isn’t just a cop-out dream sequence. But meshing the two together without it just becoming a boring filler episode is a recipe that’s difficult to get right. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s ‘Once More With Feeling’ epitomises how to do a musical episode well. A demon comes to Sunnydale and forces the characters to express their deepest darkest fears through song and dance. It makes sense. Kind of. I mean, it’s less ridiculous than the episode where the school nurse and swim team coach dope the swim team with USSR fish DNA in order to make them better swimmers, but it’s not exactly a modern classic. 

The episode allows the characters to say things they have not been able to before, with Xander and Anya talking about their anxieties regarding their impending married lives and Spike confessing his love for Buffy in the knowledge that she is just using him. What this episode does well is that all of the characters are self-aware about how ridiculous it is that they have suddenly started singing their problems. 

In the song ‘I’ve Got A Theory,’ each of the characters propose what they think might have happened to cause them to break out in song. Not all of the actors are triple threats that can sing, dance, and act, and Joss Whedon has used this to his advantage. Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy) hated every second of filming this episode, but when she finally confesses to her friends that they had pulled her out of heaven at the beginning of the season, and that her life has been a living hell in comparison, the singing is raw, realistic, and ultimately heart breaking. Amber Benson (Tara), Willow’s girlfriend, is able to show off a different side of her character’s personality through her powerful singing voice to prove that there’s much more to her than her usually shy and reserved demure. 

Her song, ‘Under Your Spell,’ is so romantic, with Tara expressing her love for Willow by saying that she has given her the confidence to come our of her shell. The song culminates in one of the filthiest euphemisms aired on television in the nineties – ‘I break with every swell/Lost in ecstasy/Spread beneath my willow tree.’ Steamy. The songs are the kind that stick with you, and you will want them on your revision playlist.

Fringe’s ‘Brown Betty’ doesn’t have the kind of songs that you will get stuck in your head and want to listen to over and over again (or maybe I’m just a tad obsessed with Buffy) but this episode is just as well done. This episode was risky as hell – as part of Fox Rocks, a week of music-themed programming, episode 19 (out of 22) was made into a musical. 

At this point in the season, putting in an episode that does not do much to forward the plot could be disastrous, but actually it adds to the emotional build-up of the show and makes the final episodes even more climatic. 

Walter Bishop starts the episode by smoking his own marijuana hybrid he has affectionately nicknamed ‘Brown Betty’. After Olivia drops off her niece, Ella, Walter decides to tell a story about a badass, tough-talking 1940s detective, who’s trying to solve a case about a man with a glass heart. 

The ‘bad guy’ of the piece is Walter himself, a man who creates wonderful things by stealing the dreams of children and replacing them with nightmares. Again, the characters are very self-aware, as the episode flashes back to Walter himself singing (badly) and Ella complaining about the story-telling. 
What really makes the episode moving is the direct parallels with reality. Walter has done bad things in the past – his experiments on children, Olivia included, were devastating to their mental health in the long run. 

Walter made two parallel universes collide in his attempt to save his son, and the ramifications of that have completely changed his life and ruined his relationship with his son. Even when Walter has the chance to basically write his own fanfiction – he has always wanted his son to fall in love with Olivia, and that’s exactly what happens in his story – he cannot give himself a happy ending. 

He honestly believes there is no hope for him, that he deserves this punishment. But of course, Ella, a beacon of hope, says that that’s a load of bollocks (not in as many words, she’s like 12, but she may as well have done) and rewrites his ending. In true Fringe fashion, the show manages to break my heart even when the episode is filled with song and dance.

If any show could do a musical episode well, it would be Community. This show is so meta I’m not even sure meta accurately describes it. As someone who watched Glee religiously for the first two seasons, this episode nails every damn trope and cliché with scary levels of accuracy. The creepy glee coach convinces each of the gang individually to join the glee club for the Christmas show by appealing to their weaknesses, after the previous glee group of Greendale have a group emotional breakdown. The cult-like fashion of the group after being convinced is creepy, and by the end of the episode I’m still not sure what regionals actually are. It is a fun festive episode that perfectly fits in with the rest of the episodes of the season.