Musicals on Television – An Experiment in Narrative Form

Musicals on Television.

I am sure those three words conjure up a variety of emotions for many people. Many probably think this is a relatively recent trend. This is not the case; back when television was starting, they would mostly air theater productions to maintain interest.

As time when on, some television shows actually began dedicating certain episodes to musicals. Then some shows devoted all of their run to the format. Right now, one of the  most popular shows is a (sort of) musical. This means that the whole concept deserves a re-examination. When does it work? When does it not work? Hopefully all will be revealed.

Oh, and special thanks to the Musicals on Television website for some of the info on these shows. If you are truly interested in television musicals, you should definitely give the site a look.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer-Once More With Feeling-This is probably the yardstick by which all TV musicals should be measured. The episode does as much as it possibly can to incorporate the music into the continuity of the show, the songs and all catchy and help advance the plot (plus the characters acknowledge that there is music- as you will see, this is not always the case and the results when that doesn’t happen are quite awkward) and reveal what is happening in the character’s mind.

The plot: Buffy died, but got better (well, was resurrected…it’s that kind of show) and is now deeply depressed about having been pulled out of heaven but cannot let her friends know. Anyway, one night, she bursts into song. It turns out everyone is, and the reason is a demon named Sweet (Tony Award winning actor Hinton Battle). The problem is that it all builds up too much emotion and eventually leads to spontaneous combustion. He also kidnaps Buffy’s sister Dawn (Michelle Tratchenberg) and threatens to take her to hell unless Buffy stops him.

Yes, it is a convoluted mess at times and, considering it is supposed to tie into a larger community, it is difficult to follow unless you know exactly what is going on. But still, it stands well enough by itself (and has become popular for exactly that reason). Besides, when the overall effect is as clever as this, it is possible to overlook a few things. For one, that whole spontaneous combustion aspect is flat out ridiculous. Much better would have been to focus on the secrets that were coming out into the open. Also, some of the songs do go on a tad long (Xander and Anya’s) and some of the actors are simply not great performers. But at least they had the courtesy to have fun with the material rather than treat it as a chore. Also, the camera work and choreography is the best of all the episodes I will be looking at. Besides, when the music actually makes sense for the characters and the story – well, that is what a musical should always be.

Scrubs-My Musical-This was another one that is actually pretty strong. As with the Buffy episode, the characters are cognizant that they are in a musical and explain why (the episode revolves around a woman taken to the hospital who hears music). In addition, the producers hired a Broadway veteran (Stephanie D’Abruzzo from Avenue Q). The music itself is well written – it goes through a whole variety of styles that I am sure Broadway fans will be delighted. But, for whatever reason, the episode does not work as well.

The plot is far simpler…because it does not stand up by itself. J.D. (Zach Braff) is living with Elliot (Sarah Chalke), who wants her own place. Carla (Judy Reyes) feels pressured to leave work but does not want to, and…well basically a whole lot of plot threads that were not going to get resolved here. Anyway, a patient comes in who hears nothing but music (for neurological reasons), but the doctors can’t figure out what the reason is. It turns out the reason could be life threatening, so the doctors now have to rush to save her.

For one, the songs do not go as deep into the character’s psyche (with a few exceptions) as music should. Most of the songs are light fluff that do nothing to advance the plot. Of course, there are some exceptions. The “Act One Finale” does a fairly good job with it, but do not tell me that “Everything Comes Down to Poo” (clip below) is useful to the plot in any way. Plus, some of the transitions from musical moments to none musical moments are a tad awkward. If all the numbers happen inside one woman’s head, then why are some of the crowds present for the choreography still present after the song is over? At the very least the episode fits into the continuity of the overall show. Overall, a fine example of the format that transcends the gimmick, but not quite as good as it could have been.

Xenia, Warrior Princess-The Bitter Suite-What is the show Xena, Warrior Princess like? Basically, take Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness and replace the character Ash with an attractive lesbian. Also, instead of having the tongue firmly planted into the cheek, make the tongue waggle around desperately trying to find it.

Which is the ultimate problem with the show. At times, it was on the level of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr in terms of fun. At other times it was downright bad, because people had forgotten to tell everyone it was all a joke.

Anyway, the episode opens with a discussion of Xena’s dead son Solan (I am probably misspelling that, but it sure sounded like that was his name to me). Xena blames her friend Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor) who is usually Xena’s best friend (I say usually, because sometimes they decide to just give in to their passion and…never mind). Xena attempts to kidnap Gabrielle, but that goes wrong and both end up in the land of Illusia. That is all the plot that I can describe, really. After this, both characters go on an enormous existential journey (most of which is set to music, because “illusion is music” as some of the lyrics go) in which they realize the impact their hatred may have on each other.

This is probably the most surreal episode here and thus has some of the most interesting moments. Frankly, all musicals are surreal. This episode is the only one that embraces that aspect. The episode goes from one set piece to the next at break neck speed; one moment it’s an Alice in Wonderland motif, the next it’s something that resembles the opening of Julie Taymor’s Titus. Even the characters relation to the song is well handled – for about ten minutes, neither of the leads sing (or even speak much) preferring instead to look confused at the host of insanity occurring around them. I realized what a relief this actually was. In most cases, the regular characters just seemed to accept their new reality. Plus, the whole idea that it was all in their heads (or was it…seriously, you will have to make up your own mind about that) was a nice touch that was repeated with that Scrubs episode up there. By far, this is the most divisive episode I will review. I ultimately enjoyed it, though.

Daria-Daria!Daria was one of the best animated television shows of the 1990s, and may have been one of the best overall. The show was witty, intelligent, and a fine example of teen angst and Generation X’s (or at least MTV Generation) slacker mentality at its best.

At its worst, it was this.

This is exactly what NOT to do for a television musical. The songs are boring, lifeless, and poorly written, none of the voice actors can sing them, and the plot does not require the music. Basically, there is a hurricane approaching the town. The school is evacuated, but Daria and Jane (the two leads) hang out on the roof during the announcement and are trapped there as the storm bares down.

See how I could describe the plot without mentioning the music? That is part of the problem. The other part is that none of the voice actors can really sing. Daria is known for her monotone voice. It is fun when the usual trenchant insight is called for. In this case, some singing was necessary. But she pretty much just continues to speak in a rhyming fashion as though she is Courtney Love reading a Dr. Seuss book. But what kills it is, ultimately, just how unnecessary the music is to the proceedings.

Cop Rock-I am not going to be able to give this one a fair chance. Why? Because I cannot find an episode of it anywhere. I shouldn’t be surprised. This is considered one of the television’s biggest flops of all time, and upon seeing the clip I did find, you will see why. If this was the norm for the show, it is easy to see why it failed as a musical (which it absolutely had to succeed at in order to gain an audience). The song is awful; the choreography is terrible, and the acting is so over the top as to border on a high school production. Plus, the song does not help advance whatever story there is. Nothing about the character’s mind is revealed (except that she apparently really wants sex) and the actor with her is completely stoic throughout. He watches this madness but never tries to interject with his own song or even with dialogue. This is just an overview (it was all I could find) but…well, I think the clip speaks for itself. Not only is this a poor example of a television musical, it is a very poor example of television. But lack of ambition was not a problem; this show had ambition in spades. It you are going to fail, you might as well fail big.

Viva Laughlin-Pilot-Here it is – probably the worst musical ever to appear on television. It pretty much has the same problems as Cop Rock (the lack of reasons for singing, poor delivery, and very little information revealed in the songs). But the problem is that the songs were not even written specifically for the television show. Incredibly, the actors don’t even really sing by themselves. The sing OVER the songs, as though they are listening to them on the radio while driving to work. The result is truly inexplicable.

Amazingly, the show was a remake of the British series “Blackpool,” which I have not seen. It is about a man named Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen) who dreams of opening a casino on the Laughlin Strip. In the pilot episode, hey discusses the plans with his wife Natalie (Madchen Amick from…Twin Peaks) while glamorously giving his children expensive cars (despite being unable to afford it). One of his investors threatens to quit (actual line: “There is no need to get offensive on me!”). There is a need to find a new investor, so they appeal to Nicky Fontana (special guest star Hugh Jackman….you read that right) to help. Fontana is expecting Holden to fail so he can buy the casino for himself. It turns out his personal assistant, Marcus (D.B. Woodside from 24 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer….how on earth did the producers manage to rope such a good cast?) is helping Fontana lure away investors from Holden’s proposed casino.  Holden tries to seduce the investor’s wife, Bunny (Tara Reid…sorry, wrong Bunny. I mean Melanie Griffith.) to get the investor to change his mind. It doesn’t matter; the investor winds up murdered and Holden is a prime suspect. Plus there is a subplot of Holden stopping a college professor from dating his daughter and…OK, I give up. Needless to say, I did not watch the second episode. I could barely finish the first one.

The problem is not even with the music that’s a problem. At times, it is barely noticeable; it just feels like a cover on the soundtrack. Well, it starts out that way before going off the deep end…OK, that is a large reason this concept fails. But the material is a colossal failure on all other levels. It’s poorly written (the dialogue is some of the worst I have heard), there is no life in the sets (this is supposed to be Las Vegas but feels like a Las Vegas themed resort) and the characters are poorly defined (Ripley was probably just written as “sleazy suburban dad” and the actor just ran with it). It is not merely the worst television musical. It is one of the worst TV shows of all time.

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