‘Star Trek Strange New Worlds’ to ‘Buffy’

Ever since Xena: Warrior Princess dipped its toe into the musical genre in 1998, it seems that the musical episode has become something of a rite of passage for any long-running series. Ranging from the uproariously funny to, well, the CW, for every hit musical episode there’s a real dud. (Riverdale’s four attempts at a musical episode, I’m looking at you.)

This year, however, we’ve finally been graced with a musical Star Trek episode: Strange New Worlds’ “Subspace Rhapsody.” And what’s the best way to mark this occasion? By picking the most enduring musical episodes and having them duke it out (at least inside my mind) to find out which is the best of the best.

The criteria are simple. First, to be regarded as a musical episode, the musical portion needs to take up at least half an episode’s runtime—so no musical interludes. Second, the series we considered couldn’t already be known as musical series, like Glee, Schmigadoon!, or Smash. Episodes will be listed worst to best. And lastly, all episodes will be judged by how well they hold up against objectively the best musical, Legally Blonde: The Musical. I won’t be taking any questions on that.

With the rules out of the way, here is the definitive list of the best musical episodes on TV.

8. The Simpsons

“All Singing, All Dancing” (Season 9, Episode 11)

I’m cheating right off the bat to shoehorn The Simpsons onto the list. After decades of musical numbers, it would be unfair to not see it placed somewhere. One of The Simpsons’ clip-shows, “All Singing, All Dancing” draws on the best songs up to Season 9, as Homer (Dan Castellaneta) rails against Paint Your Wagon for not being the violent western he expected. When he expresses a dislike for musicals, Marge (Julie Kavner) reminds him that he loves singing.

What follows is a series of musical clips—interrupted by Snake (Hank Azaria) repeatedly breaking into the Simpsons’ home— that includes an enviable greatest hits of The Simpsons music. From “The Monorail Song” to “See My Vest” and “Baby on Board.” It’s a reminder that we’ve never had it quite as good as in the golden years of The Simpsons.

7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“Once More With Feeling” (Season 6, Episode 7)

It would be fair to argue this episode should be rank higher. This is a soundtrack that peaked at Number 49 on the Billboard 200, after all. With the musical stylings of Anthony Head (star of the criminally underrated Repo: The Genetic Opera) and anchored by Sarah Michelle Gellar expertly balancing singing and portraying Buffy’s continuing grief after her resurrection, “Once More With Feeling” is a quintessential TV musical episode and a smart way to explore the complicated emotions floating around Buffy’s sixth season.

Unfortunately, with hindsight, those songs that we all loved in 2001 don’t quite stack up as well two decades later. Similarly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer will forever be tainted by the allegations that surfaced against Joss Whedon in recent years. This episode, in particular, has his fingerprints all over it—Whedon directed the episode and composed the songs and lyrics. As a result, it’s become increasingly difficult to call “Once More With Feeling” the best musical episode, despite the surprisingly strong musical theater stylings of the cast, but it deserves its due as likely the most enduring.

6. Lucifer

“Bloody Celestial Karaoke Jam” (Season 5, Episode 10)

For a series that spent four-and-a-half seasons using Tom Ellis’ musical talents while portraying a singing, piano-playing Devil, it sure took a long time (and a jump to Netflix) for Lucifer to get a musical episode. “Bloody Celestial Karaoke Jam” is an episode curiously true to the show’s lore, given that the catalyst for the gang singing ’80s and ’90s hits is mischief from a visiting God (Dennis Haysbert).

Plenty of shows have had a stab at a jukebox musical (and I am begging Ryan Murphy to stop it), but Lucifer does it best—if only because the entire cast is both fully committed to the bit and entirely aware how ridiculous an episode it makes. The whole thing is anchored, like the rest of the show, by Ellis’ charisma, as well as a playlist, including “Another One Bites the Dust” (sung over a dead body) and Debbie Gibson guesting on “Every Breath You Take.” It’s nostalgic, cheesy, and a factory for second-hand embarrassment—everything a TV musical episode should be.

5. Futurama

“The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” (Season 4, Episode 18)

There’s something about animation that always elevates musical episodes in a way their live-action counterparts struggle to do. Through the “holophonor,” an instrument that projects a hologram of the subject of the music, “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” is no different. When a lack of musical talent makes it hard to impress Lela (Katey Sagal), Fry (Billy West) makes a deal with the Robot Devil (Dan Castellaneta) for musical excellence—a deal that backfires on the Devil, as he and Fry swap hands.

This Futurama episode pushes my completely arbitrary criteria to the limit, with the actual musical in this episode lasting, maybe, seven minutes. But once Fry’s operetta begins it becomes clear that this is exactly the kind of musical one would expect from a Matt Groening production, with sharp lyrics, talented singing, and a heartfelt underlying message—all wrapped in a bitesize sci-fi opera, which is interrupted by the Devil’s attempts to regain his digits. The show must go on as, after a series of hand swapping, Lela asks Fry to continue the musical even after his talent is gone and I’m not crying, you are.

4. Xena: Warrior Princess

“The Bitter Suite” (Season 3, Episode 12)

Some maintain that new is always better, but in the case of TV musicals, few surpass the episode that may have popularized the concept. Two Emmy nominations attest to just how beloved an episode “The Bitter Suite” is in an already beloved show. Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges, but that’s part of its charm. The rest of the charm is drawn from how surprisingly excellent everyone is at singing—except Renee O’Connor and Hudson Leick, they were dubbed so we’ll never know. But Lucy Lawless, Kevin Smith, Ted Raimi, and Willa O’Neill all do their own singing and sound fantastic.

The bright colors, sometimes flimsy sets, and some truly diabolical CGI mean “The Bitter Suite” is wrapped in a kind of surrealism on which musicals thrive. All of which makes this one of the best episodes across both Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (Kevin Sorbo would never). Look out for baby Karl Urban, too!

3. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

“Subspace Rhapsody” (Season 2, Episode 9)

Let’s get one thing straight, the songs in “Subspace Rhapsody” aren’t great. They melt into each other almost as soon as the second number, “Connect to Your Truth,” starts. Though, that there’s an album’s worth of original music is impressive (10 songs from Kay Hanley and Tom Polce, of Letters to Cleo fame). The main reason this is on this list is that, after more than 50 years, Star Trek finally has a musical episode. While the music may be middling, the episode is steeped in everything that makes Star Trek (and Strange New Worlds) so great: a random space doohickey makes everyone sing and, while singing, the crew have to stop it. That’s it.

Is it goofy? Yes. Does it take characters way out of their typical personalities? You bet. Does Captain Dad (Anson Mount) sing? He gives big Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! energy, but he sure does.

Is any of that bad? Not in the slightest. I cannot stress how “Subspace Rhapsody,” despite meh songs, is one of the best episodes of Star Trek we’ve ever had.

2. Scrubs

“My Musical” (Season 6, Episode 8)

This episode starts with a woman (played by Stephanie D’Abruzzo) collapsing, which causes her to hear all conversations as playful songs. It ends with her having a life-threatening brain aneurysm surgically removed. If that’s not the perfect epitomisation of Scrubs’ balance between comedy and drama, I don’t know what is.

If the set-up is perfect, the actual music in “My Musical” is even better, parodying everything from Les Miserables to Disney musicals like Beauty and the Beast. Like the best musicals, however, the fun comes with a strong emotional core. In this case, that’s a relatable story of doctors dismissing patients and labeling real, life-threatening conditions as psychosomatic. You know, with a song about poo thrown into the mix.

1. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

“The Nightman Cometh” (Season 4, Episode 13*)

Like “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings,” the musical of “The Nightman Cometh” doesn’t appear until the second act. The first half is made up of a surprisingly sincere Charlie (Charlie Day) trying to put on a musical with his friends, ostensibly just because he wants to. The gang, in turn, try to ruin it by making it about themselves and persistently questioning why anyone would write a musical without an angle. Naturally, because this is It’s Always Sunny…, there is an angle: it’s all a ploy to get The Waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) to marry him.

What’s so great about “The Nightman Cometh,” and what fires it to the top of this list, is that it is at once a sendup of and a loving homage to the TV musical episode; an ungodly mix of cynicism, satire, and showbiz that manages to be both peak It’s Always Sunny… and the pinnacle of TV musical episodes. Though, while it even spawned a live version of the episode for a while, it’s not as good as Legally Blonde: The Musical. Nothing is. But “The Nightman Cometh” is the best TV musical episode.

*This episode is often listed as Episode 12 on streaming as Episode 3, “America’s Next Top Paddy’s Billboard Model” was pulled.

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