One way to shake things up on a television show, either for a ratings boost or if the story has stalled out a bit, is to have the main cast burst into song – maybe even with some dancing involved. The “Musical Episode” is a recognized trope in television and has been used many times over the years to varying degrees of success.
However, there are many ways to break the musical episode down into further categories. Since the popularity of Glee, there have been many shows that include music or musical numbers in every episode, like ABC’s Nashville, Fox’s Empire, The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and NBC’s Smash. Other shows have had their cast sing popular songs of the time or decades past, including That ’70s Show in “That ’70s Musical”, Fringe in “Brown Betty”, and Oz in “Variety”. But, for the sake of narrowing it down, all the episodes on this list were one-off musical episodes in a non-musical series that composed an original soundtrack specifically for the event.
Here are the 12 Best Musical Episodes of TV Shows.
12. Daria – “Daria!”
Though MTV’s animated comedy about a monotoned teenager named Daria isn’t the first platform that comes to mind in terms of musical episodes, the season 3 premiere, “Daria!” did just that. The episode employs all the major characters of Lawndale singing as they prepare for a major incoming storm, with Daria breaking the fourth wall at the end to comment on the strangeness of the day and hoping for “another weird morning.”
“Daria!” was written by Glenn Eichler and Peter Elwell, and includes a number of original songs such as “Morning in the ‘Burbs” and “If the Town Blows Away.” The bright hopeful musical episode component of the episode is offset by the show’s quirky humor (and Daria’s essential monotone), creating a fun entry that’s still true to the series.
11. The Simpsons – “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala-D’oh!-cious”
Throughout the course of it’s (still ongoing) run, The Simpsons has featured a number of musical episodes, or musical aspects to certain episodes. But, the best musical episode is season 8’s “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala-D’oh!-cious,” which also features a parody character of Mary Poppins named Shary Bobbins. However, when the Simpsons aren’t won over by Shary’s optimistic and hard-working point of view, she is forced to admit the family has had the opposite effect on her.
Written by Al Jean and Mike Reiss and directed by Chuck Sheetz, Alf Clausen received an Emmy Award-nomination for the episode’s “Outstanding Music Direction.” Certainly, “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala-D’oh!-cious” was able to capitalize on what The Simpsons does well – pop culture parodies done through a lens of levity – and the end result was a well-produced musical episode.
10. Northern Exposure – “Old Tree”
The early ’90s drama, Northern Exposure began as a fish-out-of-water story with a New York City doctor moving to the small town of Cicely, Alaska, but later seasons focused more on the quirkiness of the characters and events of small-town life. In the season 4 finale, “Old Tree” one of Cicely’s residents, Shelly (Cynthia Geary), wakes up to realize she can’t talk – but she can sing.
“Old Tree” isn’t a musical episode in the strictest sense, with no grand-scale musical numbers or emotional ballads included within the episode. But Shelly’s quirk of singing while waitressing – and it causing problems with fellow Cicely residents that found it irritating – helped to highlight the show’s enjoyable characters and depiction of life in a small town.
9. South Park – “Elementary School Musical”
The characters of South Park aren’t afraid of taking on the musical genre, since the animated cartoon series’ feature film debut, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, included a whole soundtrack full of musical numbers. However, the series’ perhaps most well-known musical episode is “Elementary School Musical,” South Park’s season 12 parody of High School Musical. The episode follows Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny as they realize the High School Musical fad has overtaken their school and though they vow not to succumb to it, they eventually give in by the end of the episode only to see the trend’s popularity has passed.
As with many of South Park’s other parodies, “Elementary School Musical” managed to tap into an aspect of pop culture while also offering larger commentary on popular culture as a whole. Though its musical numbers weren’t as well-received as those in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, the episode was a high point of the show’s twelfth season.
8. Xena: Warrior Princess – “The Bitter Suite”
Throughout the show’s six season run, Xena: Warrior Princess featured two musical episodes, season 3’s “The Bitter Suite” and season 5’s “Lyre, Lyre, Hearts on Fire.” However, “The Bitter Suite” is the more critically acclaimed of the two, having received two Emmy Award nominations. The episode follows Xena (Lucy Lawless) and her traveling companion Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor), who stumble into the land of Illusia, where they are forced to confront the problem that created a rift in their friendship in the previous episode.
“The Bitter Suite” was written by Chris Manheim and Steven L. Sears, while series composer Joseph LoDuca crafted the nine-song soundtrack that included the Emmy-nominated tracks “The Love of Your Love” and “Hearts Are Hurting.” In addition to the well-crafted musical component, “The Bitter Suite” also included the series’ trademark mix of humor and drama that regularly entertained fans of Xena: Warrior Princess.
7. Psych – “Psych The Musical”
The season 7 finale of Psych was a special episode as it took up an entire two-hour block and acted as the series’ musical episode. “Psych The Musical” sees Shawn (James Roday) and Gus (Dulé Hill) attempting to track down the criminally insane playwright Zachary Zander (guest star Anthony Rapp). The episode is split into two acts and includes a total of 16 musical numbers, including the opening of “Santa Barbara Skies.”
“Psych The Muscial,” written and directed by series creator Steve Franks, received mixed reviews from critics – especially since the events of the episode take place earlier in the season’s continuity, prompting errors throughout. However, the musical special is generally as well-received by fans as the series as a whole.
6. Community – “Regional Holiday Music”
The Christmas-themed episode of Community’s third season also doubles as a parody of Fox’s musical series Glee, as the study group is asked to join Greendale Community College’s glee club. In addition to continuing the season 3 storylines of the characters, the episode also acted as a followup to the season 2 episode, “Paradigms of Human Memory,” which previously mentioned the school’s glee club.
Written by Steve Basilone and Annie Mebane, “Regional Holiday Music” received mostly favorable reviews thanks to the episode marrying Community’s trademark high-concept humor and the show’s more grounded character beats, with the help of fan-favorites Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi). Though the songs themselves, including “Teach Me How to Understand Christmas” and “Happy Birthday Jesus,” weren’t necessarily the highlight of the episode, they do help to bring this musical episode together.
5. Batman: The Brave and the Bold – “Mayhem of the Music Meister!”
The 25th episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold’s first season introduces the villainous Music Meister (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) who uses his abilities to control people through song in an attempt take over the world. Music Meister overpowers Black Canary, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Black Manta, Gorilla Grodd, and Clock King, using them to hijack a UN satellite and broadcast his voice to the world.
Written by Batman: The Brave and the Bold series scribe Michael Jelenic, the episode received a standing ovation when it was screened at Comic-Con International 2009 in San Diego. Additionally, the episode earned an Emmy Award nomination and the 8-song “Mayhem of the Music Meister!” soundtrack was released to favorable reviews.
4. Scrubs – “My Musical”
The season 6 episode of Scrubs introduced song and dance to “My Musical” through the mysterious condition of a patient (guest star Stephanie D’Abruzzo) who sees everyone around her as breaking out into musical numbers. The episode deals with many characters needing to make choices in their lives, and finding they miss what once was when they start on their new paths, a storyline that gave “My Musical” an emotional heart underneath the musical numbers.
Penned by Scrubs series writer Debra Fordham, she also helped composed the episode’s music along with the show’s composer Jan Stevens, Paul Perry of The Blanks, Tony Award-winning orchestrator Doug Besterman, and Avenue Q writing duo Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez. “My Musical” received five Emmy nominations and the episode’s 11-song soundtrack was released on iTunes as well as other digital music sites.
3. Futurama “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings”
Before Futurama was brought back for a fifth season on Comedy Central, the show concluded its fourth – and, at the time, final – season with the musical episode “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings.” The episode follows Fry (Billy West), who makes a deal with Robot Devil (guest star Dan Castellaneta) in order to become a skilled musician and win the heart of Leela (Katey Sagal). A rock opera written by Fry based on Leela’s life is a throughline of episode and provides a means of introducing music to the episode.
Penned by series writer Ken Keeler, “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” has become one of the best episodes of Futurama’s original run and was voted by fans as the second best episode of the series in Comedy Central’s Futurama Fanarama marathon in 2013. Additionally, the episode’s song “I Want My Hands Back” received nominations at the 2004 Emmy and Annie Awards.
2. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia “The Nightman Cometh”
The gang on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is no stranger to wacky – and often crudely humorous – hijinks. In the season 4 finale, “The Nightman Cometh,” Charlie (Charlie Day) recruits his friends to play various rolls in a rock opera based on his previously written song, “The Nightman.” The musical follows Coffee Shop Princess played by Dee (Deandra Reynolds), Dayman played by Dennis (Glenn Howerton), Nightman played by Mac (Rob McElhenney), and the troll played by Frank (Danny DeVito).
Written by Day, Howerton, and McElhenney, the episode combines surprisingly catchy songs, including “The Troll Toll” and “The Dayman,” with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s trademark humor. But, “The Nightman Cometh” finds its success especially with inclusion of the show’s emotional core. Certainly, a rock opera may be one of the gang’s more out-there schemes, but it does showcase each character at their best and most hilarious.
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Once More, with Feeling”
The season 5 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer saw the (second) death of the series titular hero, only for her friends to bring her back to life in the premiere of season 6. In “Once More, with Feeling”, the seventh episode of the season, a demon called Sweet (Hinton Battle) causes the residents of Sunnydale to sing and dance their feelings – bringing many secrets to light, including the fact that Buffy resents her friends for pulling her out of heaven.
Buffy creator Joss Whedon wrote and directed “Once More, with Feeling”, which has become regarded as one of the best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer alongside “Hush” and “The Body”. The episode works because it blends original music sung by the cast members – with Anthony Stewart Head and Amber Benson especially shining as Rupert Giles and Tara Maclay – in a reasonably justified setting that furthers the storyline and character development. The popularity of the episode grew to the point that public screenings and sing-alongs of “Once More, with Feeling” were held around the United States.
Did we miss your favorite musical episode of a television series? Let us know in the comments!