'American Soul,' 'Zoey's' & More TV That Showcases Music

Music Series Get Down American Soul Zoeys
Netflix; Nathan Bolster/BET; Sergei Bachlakov/NBC

For so many of us, music serves as the soundtrack to our lives, grounding some of our most vivid memories and emotional experiences.

The same is often true for the characters and personalities in our favorite television series. A great show soundtrack can help viewers navigate the character’s story arc through both the highs and the lows of their experience and everyday life. 

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11 Hit Original Songs From Non-Musical TV Shows (VIDEO)

'Succession' is just the latest series to launch an earworm. We keep these tunes from 'Schitt's Creek,' '30 Rock' and 'Lost' in rotation.

Some shows even take this to the next level, directly integrating music into their narrative structure as a central part of the story itself. Musical comedies and dramas use songs to bring a character’s inner thoughts to the surface, while other programming can showcase real world tunes to explore the artists behind the music or as a commentary on the state of popular culture. In both cases, the viewing experience is taken to new heights by the exciting element of song. 

So to enliven your viewing this summer, check out these television shows that prominently feature music as a central part of their vibrant narratives, from Empire to Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist to Unsung.

American Soul
Nathan Bolster/BET

American Soul

Don Cornelius’ brainchild and megahit Soul Train revolutionized the music industry and representations of Black people and artists on our television screens. Its history gets a worthy homage in BET’s American Soul, a musical drama that tells the story of Cornelius and the creation of his wildly successful television program in the early 1970s

The series ventures in and out of Cornelius’ (Sinqua Walls) perspective, fleshing out a world of artists, business associates and real life events that shed new light on all that it took for Soul Train to make it to air and into the homes of millions of people and families worldwide. It also visits some of the iconic stars who made notable appearances on Soul Train and in Cornelius’ life in the show’s early years, including Gladys Knight (Kelly Rowland), Diana Ross (Michelle Williams), Tina Turner (Gabrielle Dennis), and Little Richard (Wayne Brady). 

Available on BET.com

Zoey
Sergei Bachlakov/NBC

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

NBC’s musical dramedy has one of the more unique stories on TV in recent years. It follows titular character Zoey (Jane Levy), a programmer in San Francisco who can hear the innermost thoughts of those around her in the form of classic and contemporary popular music standards. 

From Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” to classics like “Help!” by the Beatles, this young series lives up to its name, curating an eclectic playlist of songs to reimagine the traditional telekinesis storyline. A plus for this show is the vocal stylings of the epic Alex Newell, bringing the usual flare to his role as Mo.

Available on Hulu 

Hip Hop Evolution still
Netflix

Hip-Hop Evolution

Hosted by Canadian recording artist Shad, this music docuseries sheds a new and comprehensive light on the rich history of hip-hop, undoing misconceptions about the genre and celebrating some of its forgotten innovators. 

The exciting journey begins with hip hop’s roots in the 1970s as a countercultural movement born out of the South Bronx. The series then moves through the Golden Age of rap in the 1980s and ’90s, and finally to the new waves of rap stylings and productions that exploded out of the South in the 2000s. Along the way, we get to enjoy the classic music, wicked rhymes and the wise insights of hip hop luminaries like Grandmaster Flash, Cube, Eminem, and Missy Elliott. 

Available on Netflix 

Glee
Fox/Getty Images

Glee

Few contemporary series of any genre have as much cultural ubiquity or staying power as Ryan Murphy’s now iconic Glee. It follows the group of talented misfits that make up the New Directions glee club at the fictional William McKinley High School. With its campy vibes and jukebox format, Glee has influenced a generation of young theater and music “gleeks” and launched the careers of many young entertainers in today’s pop cultural landscape. 

The show was an innovator of the musical comedy framework for television shows, integrating a slew of solo and glee club-wide covers of pop music’s most prominent hits. Many of its covers even went on to achieve pop success in the mainstream, with its cast netting more than 200 Billboard Hot 100 entries, breaking a record for most entries in the chart’s history that has only been surpassed by rap superstar Drake. 

Available on Netflix

Unsung
TV One

Unsung

Unsung has been a staple and flagship show on TV One since it premiered in 2008 and continues to engage avid music fans to this day. The anthology dedicates each episode to exploring the story of R&B, soul and hip hop stars of days past, all of whom had once prominent careers in the industry that came to an abrupt end due to life’s often messy circumstances. 

The show’s title refers to the artists’ status as “unsung” heroes of the industry, whose immense contributions to music remain unrecognized since their legacies have not endured as once expected. Episodes about luminaries like Rick James, Teena Marie, Phyllis Hyman and Shannon allow us to revisit some of our favorite classic grooves that still hold up today.

Available on TV One

The Get Down Brothers
Netflix

The Get Down

This visual masterpiece from the eccentric mind of Baz Luhrmann was canceled well before its time but luckily still exists in the streaming universe for our viewing pleasure. It tells the fictional Bronx tale of Ezekiel Figuero, or “Zeke” (Justice Smith) and his closest friends, who form a group, “The Get Down Brothers,” with the hopes of becoming prominent rap music stars in the late 1970s. 

Through Zeke’s eyes, we see the slow rise of hip hop culture in his surrounding environment, as well as the sharp rise and fall of disco in the popular music landscape of the time. Anchored by the highly choreographed and exaggerated cinematography usually brought to Luhrmann’s feature films, The Get Down is a spectacle that visually speaks to the energetic environment of its setting in the late-1970s New York City music scene. 

Available on Netflix

Luscious and Cookie in Empire
Chuck Hodes/FOX

Empire

Lee Daniels’ Empire was a major hit for Fox, building on its earlier successes in the musical series genre with programming like Glee. The riveting drama follows Luscious Lyon (Terrence Howard), founder and president of Empire Records, as the patriarch of an extended musical family with a messy past and dirtied hands from their criminal enterprises. 

Given its setting in the cutthroat music industry, it prominently features original songs produced by real world mogul Timbaland and showcases the talents of some of the series regulars and a host of artists on Empire’s fictional roster. The show is also bolstered by a powerhouse performance from Taraji P. Henson as Cookie, Luscious’ scorned ex-wife who is released from prison in the pilot and returns to Empire to get what is hers. 

Available on Hulu