Twenty years ago this weekend, Buffy the Vampire Slayer delivered one of its most distinctive episodes with the musical “Once More With Feeling.” In the years since Buffy creator and showrunner Joss Whedon has risen to unanticipated heights with his work in the MCU. Then, almost as quickly, he fell hard amongst revelations regarding his treatment of actors and use of feminism to mask several fairly unfeminist activities.
Nonetheless, the popularity of the episode endures. The album was just released on vinyl by Mondo two years ago. Six years before that, it was certified silver, reasonably impressive for a TV series that was only the 124th most-watched show in prime time, averaging just 4.3 million, a pittance in a pre-streaming landscape. Additionally, fans, local theatre groups, schools, and festivals have mounted their own productions in the years since.
The most important thing about “Feeling” is this, though: it’s pretty friggin’ excellent. It is the rare musical episode that tells a complete story within its running time AND advances the ongoing themes and plotlines of the show. The songs are strong and actually sung by the actors. When actors lack the pipes—this writer can relate—the show still finds a way to incorporate them, even if it means Alyson Hannigan lampshading her lack of vocals. Perfection doesn’t exist, but this is probably as close as a musical episode gets.
The 10 Best Musical Episodes Ranked
In honor of this impressive cultural icon, also us to share with you 10 other great musical episodes of television shows.
And to make sure you don’t feel motivated to write us angry missives, here are a few ground rules. First, this is 10 Great Musical Episodes. It is not ALL the great musical episodes.
Second, these are musical episodes of shows that are otherwise not musicals. That means no Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, no Smash, no Glee. They’re shows with fine episodes—well, some of them have good episodes—but if a show’s whole point is being a musical doing it well should be the norm.
Third, we aren’t talking shows with just one song. That time they sang Midnight Train to Georgia on 30 Rock, and other shows that did something similar, therefore are not eligible.
Now that the most fun part of any article—the rules—is past us let’s loosen up our pipes and dive in.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold: “Mayhem of the Music Meister!”
While Batman: The Animated Series absolutely remains the gold standard for Batman cartoons—and we’re open to arguments that it’s simply the best superhero cartoon period—this later, lighter animated version of the Caped Crusader proved a hoot of a series.
In the episode in question, The Music Meister (Neil Patrick Harris) comes to town and seizes control of the populace through his powers of musical mind control. Hero and villain fall before his hypnotic powers, allowing him to sic them on the Dark Knight. We also learn along the way of Black Canary’s unrequited feelings for Batman and both Music Meister and Green Arrow’s longing for Canary.
Batman never gets as potent a moment as he managed singing “Am I Blue?” in Justice League Unlimited, but everyone else brings it, especially veteran song and dance man Harris.
Community: “Regional Holiday Music”
Community never met a genre mashup it wouldn’t try, but even by their standards, “Regional” is a big swing. Combining the musical episode—obviously parodying Glee—the Holiday episode, and a riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it tells the tale of the study group catching a sort of shared madness.
Once “infected,” they can’t stop bursting into song. Worse, they feel just as dedicated as Cory Radison (Taran Killam) to the mission of helping the Greendale acapella group stage the greatest possible Christmas pageant. As they pursue it with a mindless zeal, the not truly integrated Abed catches on that Cory isn’t actually interested in making Christmas a wonderful time. The pageant becomes a climactic fight for the identity of the rest of the group’s minds.
Featuring an excellent Claymation sequence and the show’s mix of the heartfelt and cynical, this is a year-round delight that plays even better in December.
The Flash: “Duet”
While this two-episode crossover started in Supergirl, the music doesn’t kick in until this episode of The Flash.
After the Music Meister (him again, this time played by Darren Criss) puts Supergirl into a coma, Martian Manhunter attempts to recruit other heroes to save her. Before they can put a plan into action, however, Meister gets to Flash as well.
While Meister feeds on their powers to do his crimes, the duo must play the part of nightclub singers. While Meister promises them if they “stick to the script, they’ll eventually reawaken, things go wrong in both the real and musical worlds.
J’onn’s team of heroes stops Meister’s crime spree, which also pulls him out of overseeing the musical dimension. Kara and Barry, both powerless, get shot and are hovering near death. Are they doomed?! Of course not, but saving them leads to more singing as both heroes finally decide to take risks with their respective loves.
Like the best episodes of the CW’s superhero shows, it’s over the top silly fun.
Fringe: “Brown Betty”
In a choice that can only be called “questionable,” Oliva leaves her niece with Walter for babysitting. Walter, already literally high on his supply, seeks to keep the niece busy a la The Princess Bride by unspooling a ripping yarn for her.
This being Fringe and the storyteller being Walter, the tale is in the strange science noir vein instead of a gentle fairy tale. The story also reveals Walter’s persistent guilt about his past actions. The climax features the character based on him admitting his wrongdoing to the character based on Peter, his son, rejecting the request for forgiveness.
Olivia’s niece disputes that ending, insisting that it isn’t the way the story should end. Instead, she suggests an alternative where Walter’s character pledges to change, and Peter believes him. As a result, everyone lives happily ever after. While Walter would have a lot farther to go to be fully redeemed on the series, this seeming one-off episode gave us reason to hope for that possibility for the first time.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: “The Nightman Cometh”
The only one that features the creation of a musical as an elaborate setup for a marriage proposal, this entry from Sunny certainly stands out from its peers. And that’s before you consider everything else that makes Sunny the show it is.
For reasons he refuses to tell the Gang, Charlie has written and is planning on staging a musical. While his friends are all skeptical of both the work and its purpose, none of them can bear the ego blow of seeing Charlie mount the production with other people.
Charlie’s limitations in reading and writing interfere with his message even after he brings in someone to transcribe his thoughts. It won’t stop sounding more like an ode to child exploitation, a situation made worse by Frank’s refusal to sing “a boy’s soul” instead of repeatedly using the soundalike “a boy’s hole.” That huffing paint fumes inspired Dayman’s signature song only further muddies the plot.
In the end, adlibs, egos, and Charlie’s cluelessness bring about a disaster of a show. In true Sunny fashion, though, it is a hilariously offensive disaster you can’t stop watching.
Interestingly, “The Nightman Cometh” has been independently mounted as stage production similar to “Once More With Feeling,” albeit with a lot less earnestness.
Ally McBeal: “The Musical, Almost”
The series, shall we say “uneven,” tone proves to be a tremendous asset to this episode. Honestly, the cast spending 44 minutes randomly breaking into song was significantly less reality destroying than the proto-meme dancing baby or the creation of the term “waddle fetish.”
Ally’s attempt to introduce her boyfriend to her parents and John’s birthday set the stage for the musical. There is no further attempt to justify the musical beyond that, but, as noted above, it was Ally McBeal. The show existed half in fantasy from jump street.
If you liked McBeal, an admittedly acquired taste, this one likely would delight you. If you don’t, feel free to fast-forward the dialogue and only get the music. The cast featured Jane Krakowski, Lisa Nicole Carson, and Vonda Shepherd, professional singers and/or musical actors. On top of that, it brought in Randy Newman as Ally’s dad. As a result, you have one of the best casts to spend an entire episode belting it out.
When the show’s usual narrator Harold Perrineau wasn’t available due to other shooting commitments with the Matrix films, the team behind Oz had to get creative. To replace how his voice guided the show, the cast instead would mark scene transitions by singing.
It ends up being as wild and out of place as you’d expect in the ultra-violent harsh word of Oswald Maximum Security Prison. Somehow, though, it ends up working out. Its success owes much to the show refusing to change its tone. It is just as much a descent into hell as every episode Oz was, the musical numbers serving to underline how silly and useless hope and happiness is in a place like this.
Psych: “Psych: The Musical”
Messy and chaotic, “Psych: The Musical” mirrors the struggle to complete the episode. In the end, it arrived a season late and an hour longer than a standard Psych installment and featured 14 new songs. It probably shouldn’t exist, but it’s simply too much fun to be upset about in true Psych fashion.
Continuing the saga of the show’s only real scary villain Mr. Yang (Ally Sheedy), the double-sized episode finds Shawn and Gus trying to use her, Hannibal Lector-style, to find an apparently murderous playwright, Z (Anthony Rapp), who recently escaped a locked mental health facility. However, when Shawn suspects Z has nothing to do with the killings, things get complicated and dangerous for everyone, even Mr. Yang.
The voice of Rent teaming up with the Tap Dance Kid Dule Hill and James Roday Rodriguez’s better than average pipes yields satisfying results even if, as mentioned, the episode often feels discombobulated.
Scrubs: “My Musical”
A patient (Stephanie D’Abruzzo, who musical fans will likely know as the voice of Katie Monster and Lucy the Slut from Avenue Q) has developed a physical disorder that gives her auditory hallucinations of everyone communicating in song. It may seem like a thin justification, but like most of the medicine in Scrubs, it comes from a documented condition involving an aneurysm.
In addition to D’Abruzzo, the show brought in a murderer’s row of songwriters. While not intentional—the show tapped all parties separately—the episode marked a reunion for D’Abruzzo with the songwriting duo from Avenue Q, Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez. For non-musical heads, you probably know Lopez’s work in the context of his collaboration with his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the little-seen animated features Frozen and Frozen II.
As usual for Scrubs, the episode swings between earnest and outlandish, ending on a note of the bittersweet.
The Simpsons: “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious”
As the animated series has been running for approximately the entirety of recorded history, The Simpsons have played around with songs and musical episodes on several occasions. This, however, is the best of the lot.
She’s losing her hair rapidly and the other Simpsons show no signs of improving their behavior any time soon. Bringing in assistance is the only hope she has of reducing her stress. But, in Marge fashion, she resists this conclusion. Ultimately, however, Doctor Hibbert insists, so Marge gives in.
Soon enough, the Simpsons welcome the legally distinct from Mary Poppins, Shary Bobbins (voiced by Maggie Roswell). While she’s just as magical as that other umbrella-wielding nanny, the Simpsons are no Banks. It doesn’t take long before the Springfield family grinds down Bobbins, leaving her openly day drinking and weeping.
Finally, Marge recognizes that while she must stick with her husband and kids, she can’t ask anyone else to suffer alongside her. So she does the humane thing and releases Bobbins from her contract. The last gag spells doom for Bobbins, but the show implies that perhaps even that beats being a domestic helper for the Simpsons.
Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.