Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

TV Musicals

I started this post months ago, then put it on hold for a while, but with the premiere of Shmigadoon‘s second season, I figured I should wrap this up and get it posted. I started it last year, after it was finally confirmed that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist wasn’t going to get a third season, and then I took a second pass at it over Christmas break, after I watched Spirited on Apple TV. When Zoey’s got the ax, I was reminded of the many other attempts to create a TV series in the form of a musical over the past some years. Usually they end up unsuccessful and sometimes cringy. As I’ve previously mentioned, I have a fondness for musicals, so I’ve watched many of the shows below with varying degrees of enjoyment and disappointment.

Schmigadoon returns to Apple TV for Season 2.

For decades, musical performances on TV were the domain of the variety shows like those hosted Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett, or Red Skelton, though singers or bands performing within the story did turn up as an occasional stunt on TV sitcoms. Usually that was because some network exec decided that the latest bubblegum pop star should appear on the show as a ratings-grabbing gimmick, or the star of said show wanted to show off their singing talent in order to score a record deal. The few exceptions were shows that had music baked into the premise, like The Monkees, The Partridge Family, Fame, The Heights, or, more recently, Glee and Smash.

But every once in a while, a show would do an episode where the regular cast members would sing, usually in character and for reasons explained by the plot. For example, Potsie on Happy Days seemed to always find some reason to break into song, usually because his band was rehearsing for the school dance. The producers of Laverne & Shirley added an annual “Schotz Brewery Talent Show” episode to accommodate all the cast members who wanted to show off, as well as all the friends and hangers-on who wanted to be on the show. Then there was those two episodes of ER where Rosemary Clooney played a dementia patient who roamed the hospital singing hits from the Great American Songbook. Later, shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Scrubs came up with clever ways to do full-blown musical episodes. The Simpsons have shown quite a flair for incorporating song into the show, producing some of the best musical numbers ever seen on TV.

The music in these various shows was usually diagetic; in other words, the music was really in the scene and the characters could hear it. It was almost never a performance in the classic musical style, where a character breaks into song and the other characters don’t notice, even when they’re dancing in the production number. When the song wasn’t an actual performance within a naturalistic scene, TV musical numbers were usually presented as a fantasy sequence taking place inside a character’s mind. That still seems to be the way most TV shows handle musical numbers; apparently the producers think the audience won’t get it or won’t accept the conceit. The failure of Cop Rock might validate that concern. (Yes, there really was a musical cop show. The ’80s were weird, man.)

But every once in a while it seems Hollywood rediscovers the musical, recognizes its potential for entertainment, and tries to make it work on TV; over the past few years, a number of TV musical series have appeared. I thought I’d run down the list of 21st century TV musicals for a little compare-and-contrast, since they are all so different from one another.

Flight of the Conchords (2007-08) This series, which ran for two seasons on HBO, follows the efforts of “New Zealand’s fourth-most-popular comedy-folk duo” to establish themselves as a band in the US. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement play comedic versions of themselves, and each episode includes one or more of their songs, generally parodies of other artists such as the Pet Shop Boys or David Bowie, which are worked into the plot. It’s not technically a musical, more accurately a show with music; the musical numbers are generally presented as music videos intercut with the storyline.

Eli Stone (2008-09) Lawyer Eli (Jonny Lee Miller) has a brain aneurysm that causes him to have fantastic hallucinations, frequently in the form of full-blown musical numbers starring his co-workers; these visions might actually be prophetic messages from the universe. In any case, the visions push him to take on more altruistic cases and advocate for the underdogs. The series was canceled before all the episodes of the second season could air (they were shown on TV about a year later, and appear on the Season 2 disc), and most of the mysteries of the series were left unrevealed.

Smash (2012-13) This musical-drama follows the production of a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, with American Idol runner-up Katherine McPhee and Broadway veteran Megan Hilty competing for the lead role, while producer Eileen (Anjelica Houston) tries to wrest control of the show from writers Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing), and Julia tries to work through family difficulties with husband Frank (Brian d’Arcy James). Amazingly, 11 years after its unceremonious cancellation by NBC, Smash has been reworked into a stage version, scheduled for its Broadway debut in 2024.

Galavant (2015-16) One of the first genuine musicals on TV, (if we ignore Cop Rock, which we probably should) with characters singing to express character or advance the plot. This one is a medieval fantasy with knights and ladies-in-waiting, created by Dan Fogelman (This is Us), with songs by Alan Menken. It managed to get two seasons, and it’s up on Hulu.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-19) Rachel Bloom’s series has the distinction of being one of the lowest-rated shows to get renewed every year for four seasons. That’s because while it never broke out of the bottom of the ratings chart, it garnered consistently high praise from critics and collected a small but loyal fanbase. What started off as a cringe-comedy musical farce surprisingly turned into a thoughtful show about mental illness, trauma, dysfunctional relationships, and personal growth. Bloom, who first gained fame as the writer/performer of the viral hit “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” in 2009, stars as a successful New York lawyer who, after bumping into her junior high summer-camp boyfriend, decides to chuck her career and move to his home town of West Covina, California, though she insists that’s not why she moved there. Awkward interactions follow with an increasingly oddball supporting cast, while the jokes about the “crazy” girl get increasingly more real, and she finds herself having to accept and deal with the very real consequences of her “crazy” decisions. The songs remain brilliant throughout. (A personal aside: As a one-time resident of West Covina — WCHS Class of 1976, Go Spartans — I can assure you that everything the show says about the city is absolutely true; it’s where strip-malls go to die.)

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (2020-21) I was really hoping this show would get another season, but I’ve been told that it was the music rights budget that killed it. Unlike Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Galavant, which featured all-original songs, Zoey’s was a “jukebox musical,” in which familiar popular songs are incorporated into the storyline. Jane Levy plays Zoey, a coder in Silicon Valley who suffers a bizarre accident involving an MRI machine and an iPod, which results in thousands of songs getting downloaded into her brain, after which she learns that she can experience other people’s emotions and inner thoughts through visions of them performing spontaneous song-and-dance numbers that nobody else can see or hear. Naturally, this tips her off about everything from her best friend’s crush on her to her terminally-ill father’s final wishes.

Central Park (2020-) Set in Central Park and animated in the same art style as Bob’s Burgers (which has also produced more than a few clever musical interludes), Central Park focuses on the family of park manager Owen Tillerman (Leslie Odom, Jr.). His wife Paige Hunter (Kathryn Hahn) is a reporter for one of New York’s less notable newspapers; their children Cole (Tituss Burgess) and Molly (Kristen Bell in season 1, Emmy Raver-Lampman in season 2 and beyond) are weird, and the park busker (Josh Gad) serves as narrator. The family has to stop the machinations of real estate developer Bitsy Brandenham (Stanley Tucci) and her assistant Helen (Daveed Diggs) as they scheme to replace Central Park with condos. It’s all completely absurd. You can catch it on Apple TV+.

Schmigadoon! (2021) Equal parts satire and homage, Schmigadoon! is a six-episode limited series in which Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key play a couple on the verge of a breakup who accidentally wander into a magical town that’s caught in a perpetual musical; they quickly learn that they can’t leave until they discover true love. It’s very funny, but it’s a lot funnier if you have a solid grounding in classic musicals. It draws heavily on The Music Man, with sly references to Oklahoma!, Finian’s Rainbow, The Sound of Music, Carousel, and of course, Brigadoon, among others. Season Two moves the action away from the classic mid-century musical genre to the more eclectic musicals of the 1960s, ’70s, and beyond, with satirical references to Jesus Christ Superstar, Chicago, Sweeney Todd, Hair, Dreamgirls, and more. The supporting cast from season one – including Dove Cameron, Alan Cumming, Arianna De Bose, Kristen Chenowith, Aaron Tveit, Martin Short –  return as all new characters, with Titus Burgess joining as the Narrator. It’s on Apple TV+.

Spirited (2022) This was a one-off, not a series, a holiday special expanding off the classic Dickens Christmas Carol, moving the action to the present day and giving a lot more attention to the “ghosts of Christmas” and the system in which they work. This year’s target for redemption is Ryan Reynolds as a scummy media consultant who has gotten rich by looking for and exploiting the worst in people, with Will Farrell as the Ghost of Christmas Present. I was surprised by how good it was, and by the fact that Ryan Reynolds is surprisingly good in the musical genre. I really want to see him as Harold Hill in The Music Man, Mordred in Camelot, and most especially as Billy Flynn in Chicago.

Did I miss any?


  1. Greg Burgas

    Well, I mean, Phineas and Ferb has a song in every episode, and they’re brilliant!

    Lucifer had a lot of music; Tom Ellis is a good singer and he owned a nightclub, so he could sing if he wanted to! They did one musical episode that was part of the overall plot and not a fantasy or one-off – characters referenced it in later episodes. I don’t think it counts like you mean because the show itself wasn’t a “musical,” but it was an interesting episode.

    Galavant was awesome. Bummed that it didn’t last.

  2. jccalhoun

    While not a musical series, Xena did two musical episodes before Buffy. I’m not bitter that Xena gets overlooked in favor of some inferior show or anything…

  3. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

    NuGreg sucks – Nathaniel Forever!!!

    Seriously, though – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is legitimately one of the greatest shows ever made.

    Adam Schlesinger was such a loss.

  4. Loved Galavant. Loved Zooey. Rocketed through all of Schmigadoon! in a day.

    Tried but did not get very far into Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. If you’re going to do a musical TV series, I require a high song-to-episode ratio. Two songs per episode ain’t gonna cut it!

    There’s a new one on Hulu called Up Here, with Mae Whitman, Carlos Valdes from the Flash, Katie Finneran (from my dearly departed Wonderfalls), and John Hodgman. But I really didn’t take to the first episode.

    1. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

      CXG had 3 songs in plenty of episodes!

      1×3 is where it really starts picking up steam, after the first couple were heavy on cringe humor.

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