The holidays are upon us, music fans, and with them have come midseason finales. In TV terms, that can mean winter wonderlands and old-timey sweetness… or death, despair, and, apparently, pageant princesses. Traditional carols have figured into the last two weeks of “show tunes,” as have pop confections, indie trifles, and love songs — an appropriately eclectic mix to wind down the year. We’ll see you back on the Music Mix in 2012. Until then, check out our final TV Jukebox picks of the year. (Warning for those still catching up on DVR: SPOILERS follow!)
AMERICAN HORROR STORY (FX)
The song: Harry Simeone Chorale, “The Little Drummer Boy”
The episode: “Afterbirth” (112)
The hook: From the devilish throwback to the Patience & Prudence song in the pilot to the spine-tingling choice of “Georgie’s Theme” at the end, this was a musically superb episode. The standout moment, however, was a redemptive scene when the Harmon family — cooing over their new baby and finally united after all this turmoil — gathered with Moira to trim the Christmas tree (Ben chopped it down himself!). The placid choral arrangement mirrored their long-awaited serenity. At the same time, this Christmas classic was gloriously subverted, in tried-and-true Horror-style. For the Harmons, this moment was quite literally a rebirth. In this strange universe, Ben could be truly happy only in death, and only once the family’s lives had ended could they actually begin.
BOARDWALK EMPIRE (HBO)
The song: Billy Murray, “Over There”
The episode: “To the Lost” (212)
The hook: On the season 2 finale of Boardwalk Empire, Jimmy’s war in Europe and his war in Atlantic City converged, and “Over There” was the musical anchor that tied it all together. After betraying Nucky several weeks back, Jimmy’s days were numbered, and he was well aware. A pall of inevitability hung over Jimmy throughout the episode, and his attempts to return to his mentor’s good graces seemed more like making amends than trying to re-establish his position in the organization. It all came to a head one rainy night, when Jimmy was entertaining his friend Richard Harrow in his home, recalling the lyrics of a song he used to sing back in the trenches. Nucky called, and Jimmy uncharacteristically told go-to guy Harrow to stay behind. Flash forward to Nucky holding a gun to Jimmy’s head as his former protégé talked Nucky through the ugliness of murder. For Jimmy, it was just confirmation of what he already knew: “I died in the trench.” Moments later, Jimmy was shot in the head (twice) as visions of the battlefield flashed before his eyes. When the end credits rolled, with Murray’s song playing, once jaunty, now foreboding: “So prepare, say a prayer. Send the word, send the word to beware. We’ll be over, we’re coming over, and we won’t come back ’til it’s over, over there.”
Watch it! The episode is only available to HBO Go subscribers, but you can hear Murray’s original on YouTube. Make sure to read our interviews with showrunner Terence Winter and Jimmy himself (actor Michael Pitt), then chime in with your own reaction.
A GIFTED MAN (CBS)
The song: Coldplay, “Paradise”
The episode: “In Case of Abnormal Rhythm” (109)
The hook: Coldplay’s angsty tune underscored a heart-wrenching moment between a dying woman and her new husband on the medical drama’s fall finale. Julia, who’d contracted rabies, was rushed into an ambulance with her boyfriend and Dr. Michael Holt. The couple were married at the last minute, just before Julia flatlined. The song’s wistful lyrics (“When she was just a girl, she expected the world, but it flew away from her reach”) express Julia’s wasted potential and Michael’s anguish (“Life goes on, it gets so heavy. The wheel breaks the butterfly, every tear a waterfall”). Indeed, sometimes “Paradise” means you have to leave behind what’s here on Earth.
Watch it! The wheel crushes the butterfly at 34:42 on A Gifted Man‘s video page.
NEXT: CSI: Miami takes on toddlers in tiaras, The X Factor crowns a winner, and more
THE X FACTOR (Fox)
The song: “At Last,” made famous by Etta James
The episode: “Season Finale Part 1” (125)
The hook: Though X Factor U.K. champion Leona Lewis’s tear-jerking performance of her single “Run” on last night’s finale was a highlight, weren’t we really at the X Factor party for the contestants? Melanie Amaro ultimately took home the title — in no small part thanks to Wednesday’s rendition of “Listen” — but it was Josh Krajcik, whose doo-wop-meets-John-Mayer take on Etta James’s 1960 lovers’ anthem brought the artistry to a weird and somewhat unsatisfying two-night season finale. Turning out what Simon Cowell called “the $5 million song,” 30-year-old Krajcik stripped down the typically orchestra-rich song but didn’t take away any of its power. Though Krajcik has proven to be a real teddy bear, his power-growl was a nice change of pace for a song we’ve long associated with James’s satiny timbre. As Cowell pointed out, “it was all about you” — this performance showed us exactly what got Krajcik to the final 2.
HAWAII FIVE-O (CBS)
The song: Bright Eyes, “First Day of My Life”
The episode: “Alaheo Pau’ole (Gone Forever)” (212)
The hook: Conor Oberst’s sweet ditty about life truly beginning when you meet the right person was a lovely companion for Chin Ho and Malia’s wedding. After a particularly tumultuous episode, the beach-y, dulcet vibe of the song signaled a shift to a peaceful communion between these former fiancées who recently reconnected. It was a moment when nothing else mattered (“I think I was blind before I met you”). The words, “Now I don’t know where I am, I don’t know where I’ve been, but I know where I want to go” had particular resonance, playing just as Chin slid the ring on Malia’s finger. By making their love official, they were coming home — to each other. (Even gun-loaded ex-con Kamekona had to dab away tears!)
The song: “Let It Snow,” made famous by Frank Sinatra
The episode: “Extraordinary Merry Christmas” (309)
The hook: As we have learned over the past three seasons of Glee, Chris Colfer + Judy Garland = Magic, and Kurt + Blaine = Christmas Magic. This year, amid a deliciously detailed homage to 1963’s The Judy Garland Christmas Show, the *wink wink* “best friends and holiday roommates” brought the yuletide cheer with their take on Frank Sinatra’s crooning hit. Every campy flick of the leg, saucy shake of the hip, and sparkle of the eye made the heart swell during this variety show-style, adorably them rendition of a Christmas classic. There was merriment galore and even a velvet three-piece suit! With music like this, there will be no coal in these Lima boys’ stockings!
CSI: MIAMI (CBS)
The song: China Anne McClain, “Calling All the Monsters”
The episode: “Crowned” (1011)
The hook: Following pop gewgaws “Whiplash,” from Selena Gomez and the Scene, and Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” McClain’s spooky, Lady Gaga Lite concept thumper was a pitch-perfect accompaniment to a Toddlers & Tiaras-style beauty pageant. The 13-year-old Disney starlet’s song bumped as a pretty young thing bounced down the runway with her crinolines and hair extensions. The only question was this, were the “Monsters” to which McClain refers the sugar-tweaking, flipper-resisting kids (with names like Melrose, natch)… their coddling, win-at-all-costs mothers (“Beauty is pain, baby!”)… or something much more sinister? Moments later, when a stage mother was found murdered — her eye gouged out with a crown! — it was even odds on all of them. “Calling All the Monsters,” indeed.
Watch it! The preening, posing, and pouting begins at the top of the episode on CSI: Miami‘s official site.