Katie’s presentation got me thinking about what makes musical episodes of television series successful. After all, they’re really off-format and, as Katie pointed out, they often give off the appearance that the show is running out of creative steam. What, then, would make a musical episode of a series either appealing to an audience or appealing in a critical sense? From my powerful and scientifically accurate method of looking at which musical episodes I like best (and which ones are held in highest critical acclaim), I think the single most important factor I can point to is whether or not the musical aspects of the episode are justified within the framework of the show.
For example, the two most successful musical episodes I can think of (Buffy’s “Once More With Feeling” and Scrubs’ “My Musical”) both explain why the characters are singing. In “Once More With Feeling,” a demon forces all of the residents of Sunnydale to sing their feelings, which explains not only the musical aspects of the episode but the emotional monologues that dominate it (something else Katie pointed out in her presentation). In “My Musical,” a patient at Sacred Heart is suffering from a delusion that everyone around her is singing, forcing the series to play with perspective (something it had done in the past) but maintaining narrative cohesion.
That seems to feed into a narrowing definition of what constitutes realism in narrative television. Why does “Once More With Feeling” seem more realistic than something like the Ally McBeal musical episode, even though there are demons and magical creatures in the Buffy episode and the Ally McBeal episode could plausible happen in the real world? It seems like “realism” in narrative television is based on the rules of a world the series establishes. If the rules of Buffy allow for the existence of demons, then the presence of demons does not surprise or irritate the viewer. Where the rules of, say, High School Musical allow for lots of characters breaking out into song in a facsimile of the “real world,” Ally McBeal does not make room for such occurrences in its world.
“Realism” explains our reactions to different sorts of episodes, I think. Why do viewers give so much more leeway to ludicrous situations in 24 than similar occurrences and plot contrivances in Homeland? Coming to Homeland with the expectation that the series takes place in our world, or one much closer to it, prevents a suspension of disbelief on the level of Buffy or even something like 24.