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The Music Box

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Dreams, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2015 by Tom Steward

Getting the music right is one of the biggest challenges in television. Sound itself is already incredibly important to the medium, having – unlike cinema – been built in to the experience of watching television from the get-go and, thanks to a broadcasting pre-history in radio, figuring just as if not more strongly than the image. What’s more, over the years we’ve relied more and more on theme music to arouse and sustain our interest in series, especially as they advance in years. With the title sequence becoming a developed art form in itself in the past decade or so, theme music becomes ever more important to what we make of individual shows. Attributing more creative license and worth to titling does, however, increase the capacity for error, and while the shows themselves can grow out of their teething troubles, misfiring opening credits will more than likely be there forever, as they are rarely overhauled, even in the most loathed cases. In this sense, HBO have produced both the best and worst TV music of all time.

God only knows why they picked that song!

God only knows why they picked that song!

There’s no question that HBO revolutionised title sequences in original programming like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and helped to cultivate the evocative, expressive and complex opening credits we have today on other networks, such as the ones introducing AMC’s Mad Men and Showtime’s Homeland. But by inflating the status of the form, the network has also permitted some of the more indulgent and self-congratulatory examples of theme music, namely the excessively long and needlessly rocky fret-wanking that begins Boardwalk Empire. Normalising the elaborate title sequence has actually harmed the use of music in many shows. The Mormon marriage drama Big Love begins with a dreamlike title sequence employing the fantastic celestial imagery characteristic of the Church of Latter-Day Saints set to ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys. Both song and sequence are wonderful, but the images, and the polygamous culture behind it, corrupt the sincerity of what is perhaps the most elegantly direct statement of love in the history of pop music, retro-fitting it with unbecoming connotations not implied by the song.

Though I have yet to encounter anyone who has a problem with it, the theme music to Veep really annoys me. For such a sophisticated satire to perform such a perfunctory send-up of the sounds of televised US politics – like one of those Casio-keyboard comics of the last decade – is unacceptable to me, particularly given the Altmanesque sound editing in the rest of the episode. So brilliant is the sitcom in every other aspect that it shouldn’t matter, but that’s the curse of bad music in a good TV show. It’s unlikely to change or go away any time soon. You’re going to have to accept it as a penalty for every viewing. While shows can supplement their titles, it is unusual for them to be abandoned altogether regardless of their success, partly because of the greater and greater expense associated with devising them and also because it is the spearhead of the show’s branding and can no more easily be changed than its entire marketing campaign. It’s clear why pilots tend not to bother!

A lot of what music you hear depends on where and how you watch a TV show. If you saw medical drama House outside the States, you wouldn’t have had the pleasure of hearing Massive Attack’s ambient masterpiece ‘Teardrop’ over the opening credits but rather the tail-end music of each episode transferred to the top. It’s an international rights issue, not an aesthetic choice, but the power and beauty of that title sequence lies largely unsung without it. If you were watching an internet version of NBC’s Parenthood you wouldn’t always get the irreplaceable, class-setting theme song of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ but a preview of the hipster warbling that haunts the annals of the incidental soundtrack. Without this introduction, it seems a show deficient in history or culture beyond a few ephemeral local musicians on the present scene. What is even sadder than the deprivation is that you are unaware of the loss until educated otherwise. It’s an audio version of how TV – by its own machinery – prevents viewers from witnessing the true text.

May you stay forever Dylan!

May you stay forever Dylan!

The more that title sequences become indispensable to the shows they herald, the more that theme music is going to matter. Unlike the ever-evolving series that follow on, theme music needs to be pinned down immediately or worn as a stain until the show ends. Or we tire of listening.

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TV Blinded Me With Science

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Reviews, TV advertising, TV channels, TV Culture, TV History, TV in a Word with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2013 by Tom Steward

As if you needed me to tell you, the finale of Breaking Bad was aired on Sunday night. The build-up to this television event was swathed in publicity and hype and the show has been swaddled in blanket praise for some time now. Cyberspace is awash with bloggers and reviewers telling you what they thought about the finale, and I don’t really have anything to add, except to say that if the best shows have the most unremarkable endings then Breaking Bad is in contention for greatness. It seems everyone-including the show’s creator-is at a loss to explain why Breaking Bad has been so successful, especially as later seasons attempted to alienate viewers with their unremitting darkness. Another recent television event might help us understand.

Ricky Tomlinson in Controversial Last-Minute Casting Change For ‘Breaking Bad’ Finale.

Last week, eponymous host of 90s’ educational children’s TV show Bill Nye The Science Guy (for British readers think a hipster nerd Johnny Ball) survived the first elimination of ABC’s ballroom competition Dancing with the Stars despite a performance roundly panned by the judges, although if they’d changed the style of dance to ‘David Byrne’ it would have been tens all around. Nye was rescued by the popular vote after his Nutty Professor-themed dance to 80s cult movie soundtrack classic ‘Weird Science’ went viral. Despite an injury-enforced exit from the show this week, Nye’s routines remain this season’s hottest properties. The common denominator in these two unlikely successes is science. Is it pure coincidence or serendipitous discovery and are American TV viewers blinded by science?

Bill Nye channelling David Byrne.

It seems bizarre that in a country where the mere mention of healthcare can cause the government to shut down, science is such a popular commodity. Yet again and again American TV shows flashing their scientific credentials like phosphorus in a Bunsen burner are more likely to succeed. For years, House, a medical show about diagnostic research, beat out the competition from doctoperas like Grey’s Anatomy. Regardless of genre, shows slanted towards the scientific are bound to come out on top. CSI, the most popular cop show on TV, is about forensic scientists and recently there’s been a string of TV hits based around specialists consulting on criminal investigations such as Lie to Me and Perception, the latter beginning each week with a neuroscience lecture.

Perception, a class in TV!

It’s true that the conversations you’ll see about Breaking Bad in the press and social media probably won’t mention the show’s scientific content, except perhaps as a joke (‘kids now want to take up chemistry’ etc.) but it can’t simply be ignored either. Chemistry, physics and biology feature most typically as a way for the characters to get out of a corner, so Walt’s knowledge of the dissolving qualities of various acids helps him dispose of a body and a home-made car battery prevents Walt and Jesse dying in the desert. In this sense, science figures in much the same way it did in MacGyver, where the protagonist’s knowledge of physical sciences was a resource for removing jeopardy when only everyday items were at hand.

Breaking MacGyver.

But science in Breaking Bad is not simply a MacGuffin (or ‘Macgyvfin’) but the trigger for the entire programme. In the Pilot episode, Walt reminds us that his cooking of an unusually high-purity meth product, his route into the international drug trade, is just ‘basic chemistry’. It’s his culture’s treatment of scientists that puts him in the dilemma where meth-cooking is a viable option in the first place. While the more business-savvy of his former research colleagues soar to unlimited wealth, the true scientific genius is forced to take a severely underpaid and unfulfilling high school chemistry teaching job which can’t make up the numbers once he needs costly medical treatments. In turn, each character’s fate becomes tied to how much they know about science.

The Science of Good Television

Following a week in which the talk about American TV was centred on two scientists, Walter White and Bill Nye, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that there’s some sort of cultural fascination with science at play here. I’m not naïve enough to think that the viewing public is interested in using TV to get a scientific education but they’re certainly fond of watching scientists and having the paraphernalia of science on their screens. Maybe Americans are dying to have educated experts telling them what’s going on, something conspicuously lacking in TV news and reality, or maybe there’s something attractive and compelling about TV scientists that makes people want to follow and support them, regardless of their failures and flaws.

 

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