20 TV shows with musical-themed episodes

Check out some of your favourite TV series with surprisingly musical interludes!

Lea Michele in Glee
Lea Michele in Glee

We may not be able to watch musicals live on stage right now, but there's no shortage of these joyful collections of songs in our lives. Available to stream free online, for a small fee to rent, or even all over social media, you can find performers breaking into song to your heart's content. But what about in unexpected shows, places of drama or comedy where you'd never expect to find a musical interlude?

We're not talking about TV series like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Glee or Smash, where the idea of a musical is woven intrinsically into the DNA of the show. Below we list a series of TV shows from other genres that have embraced the musical episode formula, with some very mixed results.

Father Ted (1996)

The cast of Father Ted
The cast of Father Ted
© Ray McLean/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

We start the list by cheating slightly. While not a full musical, this season two episode of the sitcom about two Irish priests sees them compose a song for Ireland's entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. And it's music comedy at its most British and best – unashamedly silly and totally original.

Xena: Warrior Princess (1998)

A premise perfectly suited to a musical episode is that of ancient Greece, where the idea of storytelling, theatre and music were given form. And in this episode, the dynamic duo are forced to enter a land of illusion and mysticism – in order to make it through, they must mend their fractured bond of friendship. Could this plotline be any more like a musical song cycle? Nominated for two Emmy Awards, including one for the song "The Love of Your Love", it was obviously a highly successful marriage of song, humour and drama.

Ally McBeal (2000)

Calista Flockhart as Ally McBeal
Calista Flockhart as Ally McBeal
© yellowblade67/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

For such a plot-heavy, drama-based show, the decision to end a whole season with a musical episode was a brave one. And in Ally McBeal it worked! Not only does "The Musical, Almost" end on a cliffhanger and keep the narrative intrigue, it gave the show the licence to be more creatively bold and integrate comedy into its central framework.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2001)

The cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
© Anna/Flickr (CC0 1.0 Universal)

The Buffy musical episode is the quintessential example of how to do it right. Even though it was full of wobbly vocals, questionable dance moves and sultry, sullen looks, "Once More With Feeling" was a triumph and in many ways, the best episode of the entire TV series. And how did it set up the premise? With a dancing demon of course! But unlike many other musical episodes, which take a break from the usual plotlines, this monster brought skeletons out of the closet that forever shaped the rest of the show's narrative. And the songs – "Going Through the Motions", "Under Your Spell", "Walk Through the Fire", "Something To Sing About" and more – each stand alone as iconic tracks.

Oz (2002)

The cast of Oz
The cast of Oz

A series about a state correctional facility isn't naturally geared up to run a musical episode, but Oz manages to shoehorn one in with a variety show. The episode's bright, uplifting humour jars against the usual dark and sinister tones that the rest of the series invokes, but in some ways that works in its favour – both light relief in an otherwise intense and powerful show, and a chance for the main characters to express another side to themselves. Plus, with musical theatre legend Rita Moreno in its main cast, the show already had all the talent it needed to pull this off.

That '70s Show (2002)

Another show where the musical aspect is inserted in the form of a performance. In this case, we're in a high school, the students are preparing for a concert and the songs are performed in each character's respective daydreams – the perfect setting for fantastical sets and crazy outfits! Of course, this being a sitcom, everyone ends having learned an important lesson and the audience gets the feel-good show they've been craving.

Scrubs (2007)

Zach Braff in Scrubs
Zach Braff in Scrubs
© heipei/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

How do you make a musical episode in a medical drama? With a mysterious illness of course! This Sacred Heart patient had a neurological condition that made it seem as though everyone was singing, birthing such classic songs as "Guy Love", "Welcome to Sacred Heart" and "What's Going to Happen?".

Pushing Daisies (2007)

Lee Pace and Anna Friel in Pushing Daisies
Lee Pace and Anna Friel in Pushing Daisies
© Elven*Nicky/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Not quite a full-on musical episode, but this weird and utterly wonderful TV series does have an instance where Kristin Chenoweth sings Grease, so how can we ignore it from our list?! Not only that, but it comes in the very second episode of the entire show, showing that this programme was unafraid of going into whatever creative direction it felt was needed to best serve the story. If only it ran for longer than two seasons.

30 Rock (2008)

Jack McBrayer
Jack McBrayer from 30 Rock

Another slight cheat here, but we're forgiving it because it features musical theatre writer Tina Fey, musical theatre performer Jane Krakowski and a cameo by the legendary Gladys Knight. What was the song? "Midnight Train to Georgia" of course! And the sitcom itself is wacky enough to have a spontaneous song perfectly in keeping with the tone of the show, seeing as it peeks behind the curtain of a fictional live sketch comedy show.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2008)

In a totally wacky TV show about a group of Irish friends who run a bar in Philadelphia, this episode was the icing on the cake – a rock opera musical based on a made-up song, "The Nightman Cometh". And in its own unique way, the season finale sort of works. The episode itself is rather unpredictable and the songs completely absurd. But it takes some real genius to write tunes that on the surface appear simple and obvious, and The Nightman Cometh was so successful that the whole thing was adapted into a musical which toured the USA in 2009.

Fringe (2010)

How better to make a musical than to have a character smoke marijuana and narrate the story from his drug-addled perspective? Genius work from this 1940s sci-fi noir crime drama, which takes a small diversion from the narrative for this particular episode, even though it remains in the spirit of the series. And its name? "Brown Betty." Perfect.

How I Met Your Mother (2010)

Neil Patrick Harris from How I Met Your Mother
Neil Patrick Harris from How I Met Your Mother
© Marina Stroganova/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This well-known comedy already has Broadway star Neil Patrick Harris in its lead cast, so surely a musical episode was destined to be a runaway success? And "Girls vs Suits" is an absolute triumph. Strictly speaking this isn't a full musical but rather has one climactic song to mark the series' 100th episode. Of course it's a no-brainer to give the lead to Harris' character Barney, and the comedic tune delivers on all fronts. It was even nominated for an Emmy!

The Office (2010)

The cast of The Office
The cast of The Office

We're talking about the American version of the hit show here, not the unforgettable David Brent dancing version. And in the Steve Carell show, we have an homage to Sweeney Todd in one episode where Andy (Ed Helms) is practicing for his local am-dram theatre group. So, rather than musical numbers moving the narrative forward, the musical production itself was a plot point and source of much drama. Plus, who doesn't love a Sondheim done as a comedy, especially when it's produced this well!

Community (2011)

A deliberate play on the TV series Glee, this episode splits apart and examines the very concept of a musical episode in a show that is built on parody and commentary. Each of the characters – members of a community college in the fictional town of Greendale – slowly becomes corrupted and one by one bursts into song. It's even called "Regional Holiday Music", a send-up to the holiday reprieve episodes from more stereotypical TV show plotlines. Very meta, very clever.

Grey's Anatomy (2011)

Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Katherine Hiegl in Grey's Anatomy
Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Katherine Hiegl in Grey's Anatomy
© kmgsquidoo/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Musical episodes don't always have to be light-hearted and frivolous, as this medical drama can attest to. "Song Beneath the Song" is set around a car crash and the doctors trying desperately to save the victim's life. But how can this be translated into a musical? Through the eyes of the victim, whose spectral form watches the medical staff sing songs featured in previous Grey's Anatomy episodes as they battle to bring her back from the brink. A mix of serious and uplifting, this gut-wrenching story makes for a really cathartic watch.

Psych (2013)

In many ways, this is the perfect show for a musical episode. The whole premise – a crime consultant convincing everyone that he has psychic abilities – is so wonderfullly absurd that the idea of characters spontaneously bursting into song is almost expected. The thing that goes against the double-billed "Psych: The Musical", is that it removes itself too far from the rest of the season's narrative. But there is a crime, as well as the usual witty repartee that has come to be expected for this series. There's even a guest role for Anthony Rapp to add some musical theatre credence.

The Flash/ Supergirl (2017)

Darren Criss in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway
Darren Criss in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway

© Joan Marcus

This musical episode is also a crossover between the two shows, with the latter entering the world of the former to form a "Duet". And with the two leads – Grant Gustin and Melissa Benoist – coming from the Glee training ground, you can bet that they're experts in musical TV. Not only that, but the villain for this episode is played by none other than Darren Criss, one of William McKinley High School's most revered alumni. And if all that wasn't enough, the episode features Jesse L Martin and Jeremy Jordan, both Broadway royalty. Done and done.

Once Upon A Time (2017)

This series in many ways is perfectly designed for a musical episode, because it already inhabits a place of fantasy and fairytale. Even Disney princesses like Elsa, Ariel, Snow White, Cinderella and Belle occupy the Once Upon A Time world. So, putting the musical episode at the centre of an original character's storyline was a unique and clever move. Plus, seeing Emma Swan burst into song – as she prepares to marry her true love right before the ultimate battle against evil – is a pretty epic season finale.

Riverdale (2018)

Sophie Isaacs, Jodie Steele and T'Shan Williams in Heathers, the inspiration for Riverdale's season three musical episode
Sophie Isaacs, Jodie Steele and T'Shan Williams in Heathers, the inspiration for Riverdale's season three musical episode
© Stephen Wright

This teen drama had the air date of its third musical episode delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Each of its previous musical episodes centred around one show in particular, with season two focussing on Carrie and season three taking its inspiration from Heathers. And as for season four? Well, when it airs, it will centre on Hedwig and the Angry Inch. We can't wait!

Katy Keene (2020)

We end with a spin-off series – Katy Keene takes place five years after Riverdale and charts the trials of four aspiring artists in New York. One character, Jorge/ Ginger Lopez, is looking to be a Broadway performer while another, Josie McCoy, is trying to make it as a singer-songwriter. But one episode of this first season is more closely linked to musicals than the others, it being called Kiss of the Spider Woman after the Kander and Ebb musical. Let's see what else this series has in store!