Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and the Complicated History of Musical TV Shows

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photos by FOX, CW and Getty Images

If you’re not already watching the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (which you absolutely should be), you probably know that it snagged a Golden Globe for star (and co-creator) Rachel Bloom earlier this month. You also may know it’s a musical, and have some trepidation around that fact. After all, the track record of live-action musical sitcoms is … mixed, to say the least.

To be clear, I don’t mean sitcoms that have had musical episodes, although that is, somewhat inexplicably, a ridiculously common phenomenon for shows looking to boost ratings. I mean sitcoms where a key component of each episode is musical numbers, used to propel the action forward. Now, I’m a huge musical-theater enthusiast, but even I’m willing to admit that some of the attempts to create a popular musical TV show have been — what’s a nice way to say disaster?

Now that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has perfected the art of the musical sitcom, the Empire soundtrack sold more copies than Madonna’s new album, and Hamilton mania is sweeping the world, it will be interesting to see if this translates to more musical shows being green-lit moving forward. In the meantime, let’s take a trip through musical-sitcom history*, shall we?

*Note: I’m only covering live-action musical shows aimed at teens and adults, because once we get into cartoons, we start to talk about kids’ shows as well, and then we start to get into the definition of the sitcom, and then it’s just turtles all the way down.

Once Upon a Tune (1950)
Let’s start at the very beginning (yes, I know, a very good place to start), with this short-lived half-hour musical show, where every episode spoofed issues of the day through fairy tales and contemporary Broadway tunes.

So was it any good? No clue. According to Wikipedia, Once Upon a Tune exists only as preserved film reels in New York’s Paley Center. But we have it to thank for giving us Bea Arthur:

The Monkees (1966–1968)
You know how TV networks like precisely re-creating popular phenomena instead of trying to set their own trends? Back at the height of Beatlemania, some smart execs at NBC created The Monkees, a show that followed the adventures of a zany, Beatles-like band who were created entirely for TV. Even so, in 1967, Monkees albums outsold the Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ albums combined. Take that, Big Time Rush.

So was it any good? I find The Monkees totally charming, although I am sure your opinion will totally depend on how many of The Beatles’ movies your parents showed you growing up.

The Partridge Family (1970–1974)
Speaking of fake TV bands based on real bands, ABC’s family band was inspired by the slightly-less-popular-than-the-Beatles Cowsills, and not, as I’d previously thought, on Dr. Fünke’s 100% Natural Good Time Family Band Solution. The music from the show was written by super-successful Wrecking Crew (yes, that Wrecking Crew), which is probably why many of its songs remain among the most popular to come out of the '70s. Also popular was the show’s troubled young heartthrob, David Cassidy. In 2004, a pilot was filmed for a reboot called The New Partridge Family, which starred a young Emma Stone, but it never went to series.

So was it any good? Mileage may vary. I am sure the nostalgia factor is a big part of the enjoyment for a lot of people, but as someone who didn’t grow up with it, I find it pretty schmaltzy.

A Year at the Top (1977)
Apparently there was a point in American TV history when Paul Shaffer starred in a sitcom adaptation of Faust, as part of a musical duo who makes a pact with the devil in exchange for fame. It ran on CBS for five episodes and featured some pretty upsetting mustaches. You now know exactly as much about it as I do.

So was it any good? Probably not, but if it exists anywhere, I’d watch the absolute crap out of it.

Fame (19821983)
After the wild success of the movie Fame, NBC ordered a series by the same name, also about the gritty coming of age of a group of performing-arts-high-school students. The show was a commercial flop but a critical success, and one of its songs, “I Still Believe in Me,” was nominated for an Emmy despite being obscenely boring. In syndication, some of the hour-long episodes were stripped of plotlines and musical numbers in order to get down to sitcom length.

So was it any good? I think so, but I also love Degrassi, leg warmers, and '80s musicals, so make of that what you will.

Cop Rock (1990)
The bad-TV aficionados among you were probably excited for this list to hurry up and get to Cop Rock, the — I’m not kidding — musical police procedural that ran on ABC for a whopping 11 episodes. Much of the music, including the theme song, “Under the Gun,” was written by Randy Newman. If you’re not already, I highly suggest going down a long Cop Rock YouTube rabbit hole and reading Nathan Rabin’s genius assessment of the show, since the flop was never legally released for home audiences.

So was it any good? I said “legally” released for home audiences. A few years back, a friend of mine obtained a bootleg copy, and oh boy, did we watch it. Is it good? It’s a show that sets real crimes to real terrible acting and music. How was a miscalculation this deeply, deeply wrong brought to air? I guess it was the '90s. It was a simpler time.

Tenacious D (19972000)
You probably know the music of legendary comedy metal duo/Jack Black fame rocket Tenacious D, but you might not know that they were HBO’s preFlight of the Conchords test subjects as to whether or not a low-budget musical series about a weirdo two-man novelty band could find an audience. The answer was “sort of,” and the D’s cult following remained pretty culty. HBO actually wanted to do more episodes, but the guys decided to make The Pick of Destiny instead. Each episode of Tenacious D includes two or three of the band’s songs, except for “The Greatest Song in the World,” which featured only, you guessed it, “Tribute.”

So was it any good? It’s great! It’s the D! What’s not to love? If you’re familiar with Tenacious D’s discography, you might know all of the material already, but it’s all on YouTube and very much worth a watch.

Miami 7/S Club 7 in Miami (1999) L.A. 7/S Club 7 in L.A. (2000)
The late '90s/early 2000s were a strange/awful/terrifying time in music. What other explanation can there be for the popularity of co-ed English pop conglomerate S Club 7 and their subsequent TV shows, which you’ll remember as S Club 7 in Miami or Los Angeles, depending on which side of the pond you grew up. Both shows were about a group of seven peppy teens trying to make it in big, sunny cities, and each episode ended with the performance of a ready-for-radio single.

So was it any good? Do you like Spice World? Okay, do you like Spice World, but even worse?

Blackpool (20042005)/Viva Laughlin (2007)
You probably didn’t know you needed to see David “the Best Doctor” Tennant dancing to the Smiths until just now, but you’re very welcome. In 2004, a campy BBC mini-series about a murder in Blackpool, an English resort town, which features its characters singing along to various pop hits as part of each episode, somehow made it to air, and did well enough that CBS ordered an American remake called Viva Laughlin. Viva Laughlin starred Hugh Jackman and, unlike its predecessor, was such a spectacular train wreck that it was pulled after two episodes.

So was it any good? Blackpool is balls-to-the-wall ridiculous, but also a lot of fun. What a super weird concept to kind of, sort of work. As for Viva Laughlin, I’ve never seen it, but it sounds like a disaster.

Flight of the Conchords (20072009)
In 2007, HBO introduced New Zealand imports Jemaine Clement and future Academy Award winner Bret McKenzie to a mainstream audience (and they, in turn, introduced us to the likes of Kristen Schaal, Rhys Darby, and Aziz Ansari) with a show about a musical comedy duo from New Zealand trying to make it in New York City. Though Flight of the Conchords lost a little bit of steam when they burned through their tried-and-true material and had to start writing new songs, it lasted two seasons and featured such classic hits as “Hiphopopatamus vs. Rhymenocerous” and “Albi the Racist Dragon.”

So was it any good? If you’re a Vulture reader, I’m pretty sure you’re a Flight of the Conchords fans.  

Glee (2009–2015)
Oh, Glee. You beautiful, baffling bastard. Glee can probably take the credit for all the musical shows that came after it. In its first one or two seasons, Glee was a fun, sometimes edgy, often sweet show about a school glee club led by a Spanish teacher who tended to forget his actual job was supposed to be teaching Spanish. In the four seasons that followed, it went absolutely batshit, in ways that were varying levels of fun.

So was it any good? Ummmm … listen. It wasn’t bad, per se. But boy, did it push the limits of patience and taste.

Smash (2012)
Dueling divas, jealous lovers, poisoning by peanuts, a musical about Marilyn Monroe: Smash had something for everyone (well, not everyone; its ratings were pretty dismal, and it became a critical failure after its well-received pilot). Smash ran for two seasons, building a small but devoted fanbase of people whose favorite movie growing up was Camp.

So was it any good? Despite my deep love of Camp, musicals, and everyone involved in Smash, I think it was a nightmare.

Nashville (2012–present)
Now in its fourth season, Nashville might not technically qualify for this list, since it’s not a sitcom and all of the music in it is in the context of its main characters singing/performing/recording their in-world hit songs. But it’s such a runaway success that it feels too huge to omit. Nashville starts as the story of the rivalry between Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) and Rayna Jaymes (Queen Connie Britton), but it quickly turns into the story of messy drama in the country-music world.

So is it any good? Now in its fourth season, Nashville is as dishy and fun as ever.

Garfunkel and Oates (2014–2015)
If you haven’t heard of Garfunkel and Oates, or of their tragically short-lived IFC TV show, Garfunkel and Oates, please stop reading this and go watch everything they’ve ever done. It would be easy to call them the female Flight of the Conchords, but their show (which is, in terms of plot, kind of similar to Flight of the Conchords) had a whole lot more bite, as it takes on sex, politics, feminism, and more through blunt, peppy guitar-pop songs.

So is it any good? Yes. And why the show didn’t find its audience, I’ll never know.

Galavant (2014–present)
Originally picked up as a mid-season fill-in for Once Upon a Time, Galavant is one of those shows I can’t even begin to imagine the pitch meeting for ("So it’s a musical fairy-tale sitcom with no major stars—" "Stop right there, I love it!"). But look, more musical numbers written by Alan Menken could never be a bad thing. Galavant follows a knight named Galavant as he seeks revenge on the evil king who stole the love of his life away. On the way, he’s helped by guest stars like John Stamos and Ricky Gervais, and I assume there’s a lot of horse-related humor.

So is it any good? Apparently! Despite initially tepid reactions all around, ABC renewed Galavant for a second season.

Empire (2015–present)
Do you like juicy drama and intrigue? Ridiculously catchy music? Genius performances? Great costumes? TARAJI P. HENSON? It’s no wonder Empire, which features original radio-ready music in almost every episode, is one of the only shows on TV that’s had a steadily increasing viewership.

So is it any good? It’s not good. It’s great.