Jessica Lange dons a go-go dress and sings a ‘60s hit in the most shocking American Horror Story sequence yet, joining awesome-and-unusual song-and-dance routines on Mad Men, House, and more.
The current season of American Horror Story has featured Nazis, aliens, a mental asylum, a homicidal Santa, a nun who wears red lingerie, a serial killer by the name of Bloody Face, and Adam Levine. The latest episode of Ryan Murphy’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink scare series may have staged its most shocking element yet: a fully choreographed mod production number led by Jessica Lange.
It’s just the latest example of a TV series surprising viewers with utterly random tunes. From the zeitgeist-seizing “Zou Bisou Bisou” to a chorus of corpses singing Willy Wonka, here’s a look back at the often brilliant, usually bizarre, and always unexpected musical numbers from non-musical TV series.
“The Name Game”—American Horror Story
American Horror Story fans have come to expect the unexpected, but nothing could prepare them for this Glee twist. Things went from bloody to Broadway when Jessica Lange’s formerly dastardly nun Sister Jude—her brain all buzzed from electroshock therapy—hallucinated herself a go-go dress, some backup dancers, and a joyous, technicolor song-and-dance to Shirley Bassey’s ‘60s earworm “The Name Game.” The random absurdity of it all deserved a standing ovation.
“Zou Bisou Bisou”—Mad Men
The water cooler overflowed with people buzzing over the long-awaited Mad Men season premiere last March, and three words were on the tips of everyone’s tongues: Zou bisou bisou. In the episode, Don Draper’s new, younger wife Megan (played by breakout Jessica Paré) surprises him with a beguiling, borderline burlesque performance of the ‘60s yéyé song “Zou Bisou Bisou,” leaving her new husband, the party attendants, and viewers’ jaws dropped … not to mention incredibly titillated and forever doomed to have the song stuck in their heads.
“The Candy Man”—Fringe
A chorus of corpses singing the deceptively eerie Willy Wonka song “The Candy Man” is the thing nightmares of made of. But then again, Fringe’s jigsaw puzzle of sci-fi, horror, mythology, and thriller themes is essentially one prolonged nightmare—albeit a fascinating, entertaining one—serialized as a TV series.
“Midnight Train to Georgia”—30 Rock
The episode ends with Jack McBayer’s Kenneth, shamed by his coffee addiction, deciding to go back home to Georgia. Then—with no dream sequence, hallucination, psychotic breakdown, or any other cue that this isn’t reality—Tracy Morgan turns to the camera and starts crooning Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia.” His bodyguards, Grizz and Dotcom, join in as the Pips. Jane Krakowski’s Jenna steals a solo, Alec Baldwin and Edie Falco duet on a verse, and Tina Fey brings it home with passionate “I’ve got to go!” riffs. The whole endeavor could not be more out of nowhere, but is so pleasant that, as Kenneth so aptly says in the episode, “It’s like my heart is trying to hug my brain.”
“Hit Me With a Hot Note”—Eli Stone
In Eli Stone, Jonny Lee Miller played a lawyer who has a brain aneurysm and begins to see things. One such thing is Katie Holmes slinking around in all-black and doing her best Fosse while crooning “Hit Me With a Hot Note.” Get to a doctor, Eli. Stat.
“Hopelessly Devoted to You”—Pushing Daisies
To be fair, you don’t cast Broadway supernova Kristin Chenoweth in a TV series and not have her belt her pint-size heart out. So while there was no real precedent, rhyme, or reason for Chenoweth to perform a musical number on the pie-shop-mystery-romance-fairy-tale series Pushing Daisies, as heartbroken, love-scorned Olive Snook, her achingly melancholy rendition of Grease’s “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was devastating enough to have fans insatiably craving songs in every episode.
It’s Cirque du Soleil meets Clockwork Orange meets Judy Garland meets … House? In a dream sequence from Season 7 of the Fox medical drama, Hugh Laurie’s curmudgeonly Dr. House—apropos to his character—performs one of the bleakest renditions of “Get Happy” that’s been put on screen. Fans of So You Think You Can Dance will nod an emphatic “a-ha!” when they learn that the number, with its circus imagery, dancing surgical monks, and herky-jerky choreography was staged by Mia Michaels.
“Got a Lot of Living to Do”—Six Feet Under
“I was thinking,” Michael C. Hall’s David Fisher tells his mother after she catches him daydreaming while vacuuming. “Isn’t a person allowed to think?” The daydream: David, flanked by bare-chested backup dancers, is singing and dancing his heart out to a cabaret version of “Got a Lot of Living to Do” from Bye Bye Birdie. If that’s what “thinking” is, David, feel free to do it anytime.
“Going Through the Motions”—Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Once More, With Feeling” episode all but revolutionized the idea of the modern TV musical—as in it was an hour of characters spontaneously erupting into song on TV and wasn’t cheesy, but groundbreaking and interesting and good. The standout of the episode has to be the opener, “Going Through the Motions,” as it so aggressively leaps off the edge and embraces the epic strangeness of it all, having Sarah Michelle Gellar belt sweetly as she matter-of-factly stakes line-dancing zombies and vampires.
“Luck Be a Lady”—Chicago Hope
Before Grey’s Anatomy had its surgeons put down their scalpels in order to flash jazz hands in a musical episode, Chicago Hope daringly staged “Chicago Hope: The Musical!” The episode employs the tried and true conceit: a character has an aneurysm and begins hallucinating his life as a musical. The cringe-inducing showstopper is Adam Arkin leading the company in the Guys and Dolls standard “Luck Be a Lady” as the prep for surgery.
“Vegetable Song”—Rescue Me
During its tenure on FX, Rescue Me was an explosive, gritty, testosterone-packed meditation on the harrowing lives of New York firefighters. It was a jarring change of pace, then, when a 2009 episode staged a daffy fantasy sequence in which Steven Pasquale channels Busby Berkeley for a musical ode to vegetables (at the time he was post-operative and comatose). “How lovely to be a vegetable,” he croons, quite impressively. “So settled, so still, so serene / Completely vegetative, cumcumbive, or potative, non-communicative, and green …” Bonkers. And brilliant.
Bursting into song was almost standard on Moonlighting, with Cybil Shepherd performing “Blue Moon” and “I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out!” in dream sequences. But the highlight musical moment from the series is from the classic “Atomic Shakespeare” episode, which opens with a kid watching Moonlighting on TV before his mother tells him to turn the “trash” off and read his homework, The Taming of the Shrew. The boy then imagines the Moonlighting cast as the Shakespearean characters, including Bruce Willis as Petruchio, who anachronistically sings The Rascals’ “Good Lovin’” during the plays big wedding scene. It’s far too much wrap one’s head around, but Bruce Willis as a rock star? Have mercy.
“Everything Comes Down to Poo”—Scrubs
Scrubs stages a musical episode filled with original songs and of course one of those songs is going to be duet between J.D. and Turk about poo poo.