Will 'Nashville' take the television musical into new country?
Wendell Pierce in Treme
The cast of Nashville.
The history of television is littered with disastrous attempts to replicate the success of musicals in theatre and film, but ‘Nashville’ hits all the right notes, writes PATRICK FREYNE
In a briefing room filled with hard-as-nails cops, a police sergeant outlines the crimes of the day – assaults, burglaries, flashers – as his underlings bicker and banter. He finishes his speech with a familiar sign-off: “Let’s be careful out there.” But he sings the words, and soon, he’s atonally crooning about a litany of criminal cases to a country rock tune and a clunky synth-heavy backing track. The moustachioed actor looks vaguely embarrassed. Mid-song, he flips around his desk to reveal organ keys and he vamps a jazztastic solo. “Sorry, I’m so sorry,” his wizened brow seems to say.
Cop Rock was produced in 1990 by Steve Bochco, creator of the ground-breaking Hill Street Blues, in what could be described as a reckless fit of reputational self-immolation. It’s one of the most misguided television programme ever made, possibly second only to the sitcom about Hitler, Heil Honey, I’m Home!, made for British satellite channel Galaxy but cancelled after the first episode was broadcast in 1990. An otherwise po-faced police procedural in which soft-headed criminals and hard-boiled cops regularly broke into song, Cop Rock was cancelled after just 11 episodes.
Bochco was ultimately found guilty of crimes against television (the jury possibly sang He’s Guilty, a horrendous gospel number that appeared in the pilot episode of Cop Rock), and his programme regularly turns up in worst programme ever lists.
Musicals didn’t quite take took off as a medium on the small screen. While theatre and film have often gravitated towards all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas, there isn’t really a strong musical tradition in television drama. And yet, in recent years, this repressed form has been bubbling through.
It started with well-established programmes producing musical episodes. Usually these one-offs feature internally consistent rationales for going so dramatically off-piste. One of the earliest and best examples is Once More, with Feeling, a special episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which the characters sang their inner thoughts thanks to a nefarious spellcasting demon. When Turk and JD in the sitcom Scrubs started crooning the bromantic duet Guy Love to each other, it was an auditory hallucination caused by a character’s brain tumour (brain injuries can indeed result in musical side-effects, as readers of Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia will be aware).
A musical episode of Fringe emerged from the skewed perspective of Walter Bishop (John Noble), who had in that episode indulged in a strain of marijuana called Brown Betty. And there were others.
South Park has always been awash with musical pastiches. Oz saw its murderers and rapists perform song and dance numbers to punctuate an episode in season five. Meanwhile, Grey’s Anatomy, practically a musical anyway with its ponderous approach to soundtracking every character’s inner torment, produced a musical episode in 2011.
More recently, however, whole series such as Glee, Smash and Treme have been built on musical pillars. It was only a matter of time. Drama producers must have spent the past decade looking enviously at the cross-platform money-making synergies of reality talent shows. The lucrative possibilities of telemusicals were first demonstrated by Ryan Murphy’s Glee, the happy, clappy tale of a high-school glee club.