It’s perfect that the Transparent finale (premiering on Amazon on September 27th) is a full-length musical. Both structurally audacious and given to flights of whimsy, the show has savored the emotional power of song since Judith Light put one hand in her pocket on that cruise ship.
Along with that iconic moment, the finale solidifies the show’s place in the lineage of non-musical series that sneak musical numbers into their runs. That’s a different matter than the song and dance you get on shows like Empire, Craxy Ex-Girlfriend and Glee, as those are inherently musical shows. When a non-musical show subverts our expectations by delivering a showstopping number, it can renew our investment in the story.
Here are the six basic types of surprise musical moments on TV, along with key examples of each. Note that some moments can belong to more than one category, and that in true musical spirit, all the category titles have exclamation points.
On a non-musical show, it’s always important to justify why people are suddenly singing. Often, a character has an affliction that affects his or her concept of reality, and the audience gets to view the world through that distorted Broadway lens.
Greatest Hit: A jaunty demon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer possesses everyone in Sunnydale and forces them to sing out their feelings.
Classic Tracks: A patient with a brain tumor believes everyone on Scrubs is making a musical in front of her. A car wreck makes Callie hallucinate musical numbers on Grey’s Anatomy (more on this episode below).
Sometimes characters sing because they’re daydreaming or fantasizing. Who wouldn’t want to join them in their fabulous imaginations?
Greatest Hit: Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) imagines a retro-fabulous performance of “The Name Game” on American Horror Story: Coven.
Classic Tracks: Claire (Lauren Ambrose) rewrites “You Light Up My Life” to be about how much she hates her job on Six Feet Under. Kevin (Justin Theroux) dreams (or does he?!?) that he has to sing “Homeward Bound” at a purgatorial hotel’s karaoke night in order to return to the world of the living on the series finale of The Leftovers.
If you’ve got a Tony-winning musical theater star on your show, then you damned well better make up an excuse for them to sing. That’s just science.
Greatest Hit: Sara Ramirez, who won a Tony for Monty Python’s Spamalot, rips all of our hearts out with her cover of Brandi Carlile’s “The Story” on the above-mentioned episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
Classic Tracks: Billy Porter and Patti LuPone turn up at the AIDS cabaret on Pose to remind us why they’re legends. Bebe Neuwirth and Patina Miller flex their chops at a fundraising dinner on Madam Secretary. Jane Krakowski brings tender life to “Rural Juror” in the very last scene of 30 Rock.
While we might be waiting for Tony winners to belt out a power ballad, it can be a thrill to realize that actors less known for their singing also have pipes.
Greatest Hit: Gaten Matarazzo makes us Google his musical theater credits when he duets with Gabriella Pizzolo on “The Neverending Story” in the season three finale of Stranger Things.
Classic Tracks: Annie Golden’s character stops being mute on Orange is the New Black just long enough to croon at the Litchfield Christmas pageant. David Duchovny gets funky with “Shaft” on The X-Files.
Many, many TV characters are in bands, and sometimes, that creates the perfect excuse for a musical interlude.
Greatest Hit: Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) makes Angela think he loves her when he sings “Red” at a Frozen Embryos rehearsal on My So-Called Life.
Animated shows can break the rules as much they want, so why shouldn’t the cartoons get to sing once in a while?
Greatest Hit: Apu lies about his happiness through song when he performs “Who Needs the Kwik-E-Mart?” on The Simpsons. (Honestly, there are countless good examples from this show, but this one is a personal favorite.)
Mark Blankenship is a critic and reporter who has contributed to The New York Times, Variety, and many others. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.
TOPICS: Transparent, Amazon, 30 Rock, American Horror Story: Coven, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Family Guy, G.I. Joe, Grey's Anatomy, Just the Ten of Us, The Leftovers, Madam Secretary, My So-Called Life, Orange Is the New Black, Pose, Scrubs, The Simpsons, Six Feet Under, Stranger Things, The X-Files, Annie Golden, Bebe Neuwirth, Billy Porter, David Duchovny, Gabriella Pizzolo, Gaten Matarazzo, Jane Krakowski, Jared Leto, Jessica Lange, Justin Theroux, Lauren Ambrose, Patti LuPone, Sara Ramirez, Music and TV, TV Musicals