The sound of music not always a winning tune


Consider the sad story that is known as "Buffyoke." Last week, 20th Century Fox Television was forced to shut down midnight screenings at movie theaters nationwide of a 2001 episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" that had become a cult sing-along sensation akin to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

The trouble was that the "Buffyoke" phenomenon had grown to the point where admission was charged for screenings, violating the terms of the "nontheatrical distribution" license under which the events were made possible. That left Fox with no choice but to revoke the license for the screenings until a legal alternative could be determined, which angered the "Buffyoke" fan base and even series creator Joss Whedon, who publicly criticized the studio.

It's never a good thing when fans are disappointed, but it's worth reckoning for a moment the source of this wellspring of pop nostalgia. The TV episode in question, "Once More, With Feeling," is a musical in which the cast performed original songs. Six years later, "Feeling" still has the power to compel people to show up at movie theaters -- how often do you go to those things these days? -- some wearing costumes as if it were Halloween.

Do you think viewers of the new CBS series "Viva Laughlin," which has characters who break into song every episode, will show up at theaters years from now for a similar re-appreciation? If its premiere ratings from Thursday are any indication, not likely. "Viva" has been the recipient of bad buzz ever since CBS announced it in the spring, and the mostly negative reviews TV critics gave its first episode did nothing to help.

Between "Buffyoke" and "Viva," the previous week really illustrated the promise and peril of the TV musical. Done right, as was the case with "Buffyoke," it's a potent generator of brand affinity. Handled wrong -- sorry, "Viva" -- the TV musical is a clumsy attempt at conveying a sense of unconventional flair.

The question is, how do you get the TV musical right?

It's not hard to see why TV would be tempted to dabble in the format given that the film industry has cashed in on it again and again, most recently with the likes of "Chicago" and "Hairspray." Disney Channel has certainly cracked the code, too. Its white-hot "High School Musical" franchise only grew stronger the second time around, and a third is on the way.

That said, "HSM" is a different animal than "Viva" or "Buffyoke" because it is neither a musical series nor a nonmusical series that indulged in a one-off sing-athon.

The Brits might have some wisdom to share on this subject. "Viva" is a remake of an acclaimed BBC limited series titled "Viva Blackpool." Another BBC miniseries from 1986, "The Singing Detective," is regarded as a classic exercise in serialized musical.

But it seems that American audiences are more accepting of the form as a one-time departure from a well-established series than as a fresh concept that hangs its hat on the genre. Think of "Ally McBeal," for instance, which won viewers over with its quirky style before earning the freedom to introduce musical interludes accompanied by house pianist Vonda Shephard.

The musical episode is something of a perquisite a cast has to earn after churning out enough episodes to reach syndication. By then, a cast has won enough good will to do just about anything and is probably bored enough having inhabited the same characters for at least five years that belting out their lines is a welcome change of pace. "Scrubs," "The Drew Carey Show" and "That '70s Show" offer such examples.

"Viva" probably will never get the chance to become what "Buffy" did, but at least give CBS credit just for having the cojones to even take a stab at the genre. There might be no more memorable a flop in the medium's history than Steven Bochco's 1990 series effort "Cop Rock," the television equivalent of "Ishtar." It takes a bold network to think it can top singing cops.