Thursday, March 31, 2011

Song Beneath the Song: A Meditation on Television's Musical Episodes

I know I “broke up” with Shonda Rhimes and “Grey’s Anatomy” way back in the first month of MTVP’s existence, but I will *gasp* be watching “Grey’s” this week. That’s because tonight is what they’re dubbing “The Music Event.” In other words, it’s a musical episode, featuring the amazing vocal talents of Tony-winner Sara Ramierez and other selected cast members. The singing is apparently worked into the plot due to “Callie’s mental state” as Ramirez has put it in interviews, which I much prefer as opposed to random breaking out in song. The episode will feature songs from the first three seasons of the show, which is pretty much why I’m watching (that and because I can’t pass up a chance to hear Sara Ramirez sing). During those early seasons of the show, I was obsessed with the music. If you look on my iPod right now, you will see an over 2.5 hour long “Grey’s” playlist, with all songs in the order they appeared on the show. In honor of tonight’s big event, I’m going to explore some other past musical episodes. There’s the classic musical episode always associated with the genre, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” “Once More With Feeling.” I’ll also be looking at two musical episodes (which were not quite as music-heavy) from last season, “Fringe’s” “Brown Betty” and “How I Met Your Mother’s” “Girls vs. Suits.”

“Once More With Feeling” was Joss Whedon’s first attempt at writing a musical, and while I find his later offering, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” (check out the super-awesome book that just came out this week!) to be more polished, there are plenty of things to like about “OMWF” as well. There’s a wonderful variety of music, from pop to rock to songs that sound like Broadway standards. I love Xander and Anya’s duet “I’ll Never Tell” because it’s cute and retro, and I love that Anya keeps making meta jokes about how the song is retro throughout the episode. “Walk Through the Fire” was the theme song that kept me sane while taking the bar exam. The greatest vocal talent in the episode is displayed by Anthony Stewart Head as Giles and Amber Benson as Tara, but I love that the rest of the cast really dove into the challenge and gave it a valiant effort, too. I also appreciated that there was a reason that fit with the logic of the show and the plot of the episode for the singing and dancing to be happening. There’s a demon who uses singing and dancing as a weapon, of course! Most importantly, the whole episode is infused with the trademark Whedon wit.

The only way to describe “Brown Betty” in one word is beautiful. When I first saw this episode of “Fringe,” I wasn’t feeling that well, and I didn’t really like it. When I rewatched it in a better mind set, however, I was blown away. The music isn’t as central in “Brown Betty” as it is in “Once More With Feeling,” but what we did get was memorable. I especially enjoyed Lance Reddick’s surprisingly wonderful night club jazz interlude and Anna Torv’s heartbreaking rendition of “For Once in My Life.” Jasika Nicole’s solo also stood out. The music wasn’t quite as organically as part of the plot in this one, but there was still an attempt made to justify the singing. There was no strange phenomenon causing people to spontaneously burst into song. Instead, Walter was telling a story to Olivia’s niece, Ella, and trying to process his feelings about Peter running off after finding out he was kidnapped from the Other Side as a child. I think what I love most about this episode (other than the fact that the great chemistry between Peter and Olivia is fully on display) is the noir vibe. Walter remembers his mother loved musicals and noir detective stories, so that’s what he creates for Ella.

“Girls vs. Suits” barely qualifies as a “musical episode” as it really only has one big song-and-dance number near the end of the episode, but it was marketed as a musical episode, so I’m including it here. How could I pass up a chance to gush about Neil Patrick Harris, after all? The plotting of this episode was fairly lacking (Barney’s dating a really hot chick who claims she doesn’t like guys who wear suits), but I really enjoyed the big production of “Nothing Suits Me Like a Suit” at the end. Neil Patrick Harris got to go into full-on song and dance man mode, which is always fun. The rest of the cast got in on the fun too, each singing a few lines where they challenge Barney about what could possibly make him give up his precious suits. I love the end of the number the most, where it goes complete Busby Berkeley-style. Bringing this blog post full circle, it really reminds me of a moment in “Once More With Feeling” where a bit character played by frequent Whedon-verse writer David Fury sings with joy (and lots of dancing back-up) that the drycleaners “got the mustard out” of his clothes.

So will the “Grey’s” Music Event (the actual title is “Song Beneath the Song,” itself an homage to a wonderful song from the show’s musical heyday that is on my playlist) be worthy of standing among these other musical episodes, or will it be a self-congratulatory waste of an hour? When I first heard the concept (we’re going to do a musical episode using songs that our show made famous!), I thought it would probably end up being the latter. After seeing some sneak previews and watching some interviews with Sara Ramierez, however, I have hope. It sounds like the cast really poured a lot of effort into this one, and an hour with a lot of Sara Ramirez singing can’t possibly be all bad. Given that the music of the first three seasons of “Grey’s” is so great to begin with, I’m actually looking forward to this one.

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