What’s the Key to a Winning Musical Series?

Smash; Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist; Star

Networks have attempted every kind of musical series over the years — from Broadway-based dramas with their own original songs to comedies with fan favorite covers incorporated into the storylines. But not every version sticks.

So what seems to be the the winning combination? There’s no clear answer, but we can certainly learn from recent TV history, with shows like NBC’s beloved newbie Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and the network’s short-lived high school drama Rise, Fox’s long-running Fox teen series Glee and its music industry-focused primetime soaps Star and Empire, and the lovably wacky CW comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Of the titles mentioned, only two have surpassed five seasons — and both series aired from Fox. Glee and Empire each ran for six seasons, with Glee focusing its drama on a high school glee club and Empire centering on the fictional Lyon family and their highly successful record label.

When Rise premiered in 2018, it seemed like NBC was making a play for its own Glee (with a touch of Friday Night Lights). But their more dramatic take, featuring a high school drama club preparing for their performance of Spring Awakening with the help of Josh Radnor’s Lou Mazzuchelli and Rosie Perez’s Tracey Wolfe, didn’t quite work. Rise was cancelled after 10 episodes, barely a blip compared to Glee‘s 121.

Glee cast

Glee (Credit: Michael Yarish / © Fox / courtesy Everett Collection)

Then there’s Fox’s Empire companion Star, which on paper, should have worked (it had the built-in audience!). That series ran for three seasons before it was axed by the network. Perhaps it was too similar in tone to its predecessor, but Star‘s cancellation did garner some major fan backlash after the cancellation, so it did gain some traction.

One thing Empire and Star had in common was the weekly release of catchy original songs, unlike the cover-heavy Glee. But then again, original songs don’t always capture an audience…

Case in point: NBC’s Smash, starring Katherine McPhee and Megan Hilty, aired just two seasons from 2012-2013. Highlighting the behind-the-scenes drama of a team putting together a major Broadway musical about Marylin Monroe, the show couldn’t pull the ratings it needed to stay on air. And yet, after years off-air, it remains a cult favorite, particularly among the Broadway-loving crowd.

Meanwhile, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which ran on The CW for four seasons, ended of its own accord. It offered fans a more limited story in comparison to Glee and Empire, and likely helped the show avoid storyline fatigue (which has resulted in more than a few shows overstaying their welcome). Starring Rachel Bloom and featuring hundreds of original songs (shout out to the late Adam Schlesinger, who served as executive music producer) , Crazy Ex viewers a fully-realized story in 62 episodes.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (Credit: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)

The show to watch now is NBC’s buzzy and freshly-renewed Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, which remained on the bubble for weeks following its first season finale. Its quirky storyline about a young woman who gains the ability to hear peoples’ inner-thoughts via musical performances (all covers of pop hits) isn’t going to appeal to all, but it’s hard not being endeared by its heart.

Season 2 will be crucial in determining Zoey‘s success in the long-run, but perhaps its use of familiar music will help it in the same way it did for Glee? Only time will tell.

Also worth keeping an eye out for? Little Voice, a fresh offering from Apple TV+ executive produced by J.J. Abrams and Sara Bareilles. Grammy winner Bareilles most recently penned the music to the Broadway hit Waitress, and the streamer is hoping she can replicate that magic with this unique New York-based series. The new show also gives Star fans something to look forward to as former cast member Brittany O’Grady takes the lead as Bess.

When it comes to these series, it’s important to note that while audiences are crucial to a show’s success, a lot also has a lot to do with timing. For a show like Star, it may have benefited from airing when Empire was on hiatus. And in a time when studios are considering their next move amid the coronavirus pandemic, it makes sense why they’d renew Zoey‘s when the set was likely still intact when things shut down in March 2020. Cost, viewership, and catchy tunes are all key, but if networks knew the winning combo, every musical series would find success like Glee and Empire.

Little Voice Season 1

Little Voice (Credit: Apple TV+)

Stay tuned to see how Zoey’s and Little Voice do in the long-run, until then let us know what your favorite musical series has been over the years in the comments below.