The Musical Episode

How Do Lesbian Characters Fare?

The musical episode. Oh the bane of most TV devotees’ existence, it can create an hour block of crap within a series that is otherwise golden. It mocks, it self-ridicules, it is garish and obnoxious and thinks it’s funny, but really is giving a shite vaudevillian replica of the show you have been following with a religious-like fervor.

Yes, we wonder why show creators and writers allow these episodes to slip in. Perhaps it’s studio pressure, like the holiday specials and the odd Halloween eps that blend supernatural into shows that never had it prior. It’s a fluke in the world of the show caused by ratings or some need to reach out to an audience that secretly wants its characters to randomly burst out into awkward song regardless of said actor’s singing ability.
Well writer/creator Shonda Rhimes, you have taken this horrific trend and turned it on its head. Yes, Grey’s Anatomy trumped it all with a musical episode that was not only mind-blowing, but probably deserves a number of awards.

But before we get into the awesomeness of Rhimes’ creation, Song Within A Song, let’s first take a look at the history of lesbians in musical episodes. Sounds kind of like a small niche, but there’s actually some pretty impressive history here. Rewind to the 90’s when the main lesbian presence on television was split between Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the Willow and Tara coupling and Xena: Warrior Princess and their subtext between Xena and her Amazon pal Gabrielle.

The latter certainly disappointed with their musical episode, having the general Xena goofiness amped up to an almost incomprehensible level. It seems as though Rogers & Hammerstein and Gershwin merged to create a bastard child of a musical that belted useless lyrics and awful music to attempt to heal an almost season-long rift between the two leads. Even worse was the heavily layered subtext that once again just hinted at the two being a couple whilst they mauled thinly veiled love songs to one another. Still, it was a big moments for Xenites, who couldn’t cope with the rift and furthermore needed some indication of a coupling between the leads (however minor) to actually continue watching the show. At least they were able to express their love via awkward song. Ah, the 90s, when that was still some of the penultimate lesbian interaction on television…

Buffy’s musical episode, Once More With Feeling pushed the envelope a bit further, as creator Joss Whedon tended to offer the concrete to Xena’s abstract. The episode, which was nominated for an Emmy, is to this day hailed by feminist and lesbian critics who can’t seem to find enough to say about the song Under Your Spell in which Willow and Tara get a moment of barely censored sensuality on-screen. Known as the first network show to give us a long-term lesbian relationship with main characters, Buffy used its musical format to really force us out of the middle ages and into a world where girl-on-girl action meant a bit more than soft porn and sweeps week. Furthermore, while there were moments of the goofy in the Buffy musical episode, there were also very serious, dramatic ones. Making it somewhat palatable, but to a die-hard fan like me, it still felt like a diversion from the sentiment of the show. Still, one can’t help but hum some of the songs, and the final piece Where Do We Go From Here? is a pretty good standalone song.

So where did Grey’s Anatomy go from these examples? Well over the mountain and beyond, for sure. For starters, the show has been consistently pushing boundaries for lesbian leads on networks. The Callie/Arizona (Calzona) relationship has become a larger and larger focus of the show, shifting beyond the basic coming out story of Callie into a new world where their relationship problems, tribulations and hiccups are equivalent to those of McDreamy and Grey. In fact, Calzona and their triangle pregnancy with friend Mark Sloane have been the focus of the show for several episodes. This kind of attention, the lack of sidelining, and Rhimes’ choice to not have Callie run back to Mark but return to the woman she loved are not only non-existent in the world of network tv, but aside from The L Word and Queer as Folk, brand new to television as a whole.

I can’t sing the praises of Grey’s Anatomy enough, but I never expected to enjoy hearing the cast belting out tunes. Having watched from the beginning, I was always struck by the quality of the music as a whole. The show has ‘found’ numerous musicians and appropriated songs from some of indie’s best bands and soloists be it Snow Patrol, Tegan and Sara, or Anna Nalick. The blending of music in the show is greatly effective for heightening tension, building drama, and generally reducing viewers to tears.

In Season Two during the episode As We Know It, Anna Nalick’s soon to be made famous tune Breathe(2AM) crooned to us as a child is born, a life is saved, and a bomb is removed and accidentally detonates, killing a man and earning the show an Emmy nomination. The show uses song titles for episode titles. Music is literally woven into the fabric of the show. Perhaps the best-equipped series to have a musical episode (other than the obvious GLEE!) is Grey’s Anatomy.

The previous episode ended with Arizona asking Callie to marry her, and then they wreck. The Song Beneath the Song begins with the carnage of a wreck, Callie looking down at herself, humming the opening music for the show which hasn’t been used as an opener for several seasons.
What struck me at this moment had very little to do with me as a reviewer, but me as the survivor of a car wreck. Rhimes captures the fear, the shock and pain and the absolute horror of something that has not only destroyed you physically, but also traumatized your brain. Seeing Callie on the hood of a car making much the same noise I made as I crawled out of the wreckage of a VW Bug, I had one question: How in the hell does Shonda Rhimes do it?

The woman captures it all, manages to get that mess of emotion and experience all in the episode, and does it while having our characters sing to us. Blending Chasing Cars with the bustle of intake and triage, showing the ER action naturally, we follow her into this rabbit hole and there is no trouble accepting the musical nature. In this episode Rhimes blends the magical reality of brain trauma with the chaotic choreography of trauma procedure and pulls it off.

Breathe (2AM) returns and we get to see grief, but we also get to see a definite love between Arizona and Callie. How often have lesbian characters been stripped of emotion and pushed to the back when one lies dying? How often are they killing her off just so the survivor can end up with a male lead? Well, the cop out isn’t here.

While the show does touch on other characters’ relationships and shift focus from the love between Calzona, it never drops the meaning, returning to what’s between them, having them sing a love song between them (Jesus Jackson’s Running on Sunshine), having Callie discover she does want to marry Arizona, have Arizona realize she’s practically married already to Callie. I won’t give you a blow-by-blow but I will say independently, this episode is incredibly strong, and in the context of the show it made me cry like someone just shot my cat.

I will say that the strength is that the show doesn’t allow the music to take over. These aren’t music videos, because there are moments of reality tapping in, be it commands for pharmaceuticals or the act of slamming a hand against a bedrail, there are tiny moments that keep us viewers grounded, and these combine with the highly dramatic to skate that dangerous line between melodrama and truly fantastic art.

The episode’s ending allows for Sara Ramirez to belt out Brandy Carlile’s The Story for which the actress deserves a standing ovation. She has an incredible voice and truly delivers as she performs with diva-worthy skill. It only adds icing to the cake when she comes to just in time to give Arizona a ‘yes’ to her proposal.

The crafting of a musical episode has to be done so well to not come off as juvenile or ridiculous. Generally it’s a giant failure and when I heard that Grey’s Anatomy was giving the musical episode a shot I gagged at the concept. I figured it would be a tacky wedding or birth or something awkward and irritating that interrupted my Grey’s fix. However Rhimes did what she does best, which is put together a beautiful, compelling, and breathtaking experience from the blending of music and media.

I could probably write a ten-pager on the merits of this piece of television, but it really takes seeing it to get the full experience. You can’t hear a song through words, so see it for yourself. Get moved by the music of Grey’s Anatomy.