Why Did ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Buffy’s Musical Episodes Work, but ‘Grey’s Anatomy’s Didn’t?

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Musical episodes can either be a hit or a miss, and episodes like
    Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    ‘s “Once More With Feeling” and
    Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
    ‘ “Subspace Rhapsody” remain the gold standard.
  • Grey’s Anatomy
    ‘s “Song Beneath the Song” flopped due to its lack of self-awareness, disconnected musical numbers, and unnecessary covers.
  • Buffy
    and
    Strange New Worlds
    succeed by incorporating original songs, acknowledging the strangeness of a musical episode, and balancing dark subject matter with humor.


Musical episodes are always a bit of a risk — they can either go down in television history or flop so badly that they remain the butt of the joke for decades to come. Of the greats is Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “Once More With Feeling,” a well-executed and perfectly plotted episode that has set the bar for musical episodes in the two decades since. Star Trek: Strange New Worldstook direct inspiration from Buffy with their effort, “Subspace Rhapsody,” which received praise after it debuted.


But for every Buffy, Star Trek, or Scrubs is a show that succeeded quite a bit less in its meandering over to the musical genre. The most notorious of these is Grey’s Anatomy‘s “Song Beneath the Song,” which tried to capitalize on the cast’s incredible singing talent with a musical episode in Season 7 that flopped terribly and has remained one of the most divisive of the show’s run. When it comes to singing and dancing, what separates the successes from the absolute failures? It seems there are quite a few factors. Whether it be self-awareness, plot development, the inclusion of original songs, or comedy, Grey’s seems to be lacking across every mark of what makes a musical episode great.


Grey’s Anatomy

A drama centered on the personal and professional lives of five surgical interns and their supervisors.

Release Date
March 27, 2005

Main Genre
Drama

Seasons
20


For a Musical Episode, Writers Need to Lean Into the Format

When resident doctor and fan favorite Callie Torres (Sara Ramírez) finds herself fighting for her life in the first few seconds of “Song Beneath the Song,” a cryptic voiceover explains that “when the human brain is traumatized, well, that’s when [the brain] gets even more mysterious.” That is the only clarification viewers get as to why, for the rest of the episode, all the main characters keep bursting into song. It is a singular sentence that we’re not meant to question and one that we obviously do. With such a thin thread tying the purpose of a musical episode, it feels nearly impossible to hop on board with the premise. As far as ridiculous plots in medical TV shows go, it has to be one of the wildest.


In Buffy and Strange New Worlds, as a contrast, the characters’ singing is introduced with a cleverly written ‘Why Am I Singing’ number. (Technically, in Buffy, it is the second song, which Sarah Michelle Gellar‘s Buffy begins by asking the others, “Uh, so, did anybody, last night… burst into song?”) The shows immediately acknowledge the strangeness of a musical episode — the characters think it’s strange too! This self-awareness is key, a necessary step to get the audience to suspend their realities and buy into one with background music, perfect harmonies, and well-rehearsed dance numbers. Both shows also set up their characters’ musical compulsions as the problem the episode serves to solve. In Buffy, the singing and dancing come from a musical demon (Hinton Battle) who has arrived in Sunnydale — and he’ll make you dance until you spontaneously combust.


In Strange New Worlds, the Enterprise has been tethered to a quantum probability field that places the crew in a parallel universe where everyone communicates through song — each crew member sings about their deepest emotions, which risks an enormous security threat. Both episodes hold their musicality as central to the plot — without the singing, nothing would make sense. In Grey’s, on the other hand, the musical numbers don’t feel necessary at all — in fact, the episode would have been (much!) better without them. Rather than interacting with the storylines, the songs on Grey’s merely sit atop them, leading to a jarring and disconnected feeling every time the music starts playing.

In ‘Buffy’ and ‘Strange New Worlds,’ Original Songs Make All The Difference


This detachment, which is one of the largest reasons why “Song Beneath the Song” doesn’t work, could also be caused by the specific song choices each show made. Both Buffy and Strange New Worldscreated their own original songs, while Grey’s used only covers. Notably, Strange New Worlds brought on Kay Hanley and Tom Polce, the latter of whom composed for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the most incredible musical dramedy television show of all time, and the production value reflects it. This difference between them is hugely important. Because each song was written specifically for the characters and what they are going through at the current moment, every number moves the plot forward. They are always relevant, and, in turn, always purposeful.

In Grey’s, the musical episode consists of only covers, many of which are identifiable with the show itself. The result is song choices that are either completely disconnected or tied to the plot by the loosest string. In a prime example, the surgical team working on Callie sings “How To Save A Life” while trying to save her life. It is almost laughably on the nose when it comes to the title, but significantly less so when listening to the actual lyrics of the song. Over and over, the word that keeps coming to mind is “unnecessary.”


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Balancing the Darkness Is Key in a Musical Episode

Sara Ramírez as Dr. Callie Torres singing in the Grey's Anatomy musical episode
Image via ABC

All three of these episodes handle dark subject matter, which may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking, hey, let’s make a musical. Buffy is reeling after dying, reaching heaven, and being tugged back to reality – her friends thought they brought her back from hell, but they were wrong. On Grey’s, which is known for killing off its main characters, Callie is fighting for her life as well as the one of her unborn child. Most devastated by her injuries are Mark (Eric Dane), the father of said child, and Arizona (Jessica Capshaw), who had asked Callie to marry her mere seconds before a truck ran into them. Strange New Worlds is the least devastating of the three but still includes its fair share of lonely, introspective numbers.


Crucially, both Buffy and Strange New Worlds balance out their darkness with plenty of humor and lighthearted, musical moments. The shows maintain their quippy humor throughout the episodes, and include quite a few memorable, upbeat numbers as well — the latter’s Klingon boy band number is sure to be remembered for years to come. While Grey’s tries to add in one good campy number (“Walking on Sunshine,” the only time our characters smile), the rest of the episode is so gut-wrenching that their joy feels entirely out of place. If you choose to embrace a musical element, you have to embrace the lighter parts of it as well.


Grey’s Anatomy does make for good TV. It can make us laugh and cry, weaving tragedy and comedy together in a truly magical way — it’s why the show won over America in the first place. But, as can be expected for a show that has been around for nearly twenty years, Grey’s has also had its fair share of flops. “Song Beneath the Song” is one of the greatest of these flops, especially when comparing it to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, the old and potentially new gold standards of musical episodes. There are many reasons why the episode didn’t work and plenty of reasons why the other ones did. But to end on a positive, we’ll add one more. Though their subject matter is different, the thesis of both Buffy and Strange New Worlds is the same: regardless of what challenges the team is facing, they can defeat them if they work together. And really, what’s more fitting of a musical than that?

Grey’s Anatomy is available to stream on Hulu in the U.S.

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