Archive for six feet under

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.

Live of O’Brien

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, TV channels, TV Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2013 by Tom Steward

Yesterday afternoon G and I went to Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank to be in the audience for the recording of Conan, the eponymous late night TBS talk show of Conan O’Brien. It’s an experience that goes far beyond the reaches of the hour that the recording takes place. Show time is 4.30pm yet the audience have to check in at the studio parking lot by 2.30pm at the latest and as early in the day as possible to get the best seats. Once checked in, you’re free to leave the parking lot as long as you return by 3.00pm. Not knowing this, and having checked in at the recommended time of 1.30-2pm, G and I had no time to do anything but aimlessly wander the vicinity of Warner Boulevard where the nearest attraction is Forest Lawn Cemetery, an area that is quite literally dead. Lest this start to sound like a yelp reviewer with a severe case of white people problems, I want to stress I completely understand keeping audience members half in the dark about check-in arrangements to ensure they arrive early and G found it entirely preferable to the Star Wars-premiere conditions of Conan’s New York show.

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When we returned from the land of the dead (actually we found a café with big salads so it was more Seinfeld than Six Feet Under), we were taken through a metal detector into a waiting area lined with black metal benches which had the atmosphere of a prison mixer. Actually the prison analogy remained apt as we were branded with a ‘WB’, which I believe stands for ‘Warner Bitches’, and processed through a street crossing deep with standing sewage water in a tribute to the epilogue of The Shawshank Redemption. The show even had a narc in the waiting area. One of the writers was strolling up and down the benches in search of people to turn the camera on in the ‘Craigslist Ads’ segment of the programme in which fake ads are juxtaposed with shots of the audience members who would likely post them. Lifers like me can tell the difference between a TV writer and TV viewer, although in layman’s terms this is also known as cleanliness. And he had a cup.

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At 3 the audience were lined up in groups and taken slowly in multiple stages through the Warner Brothers lots in scenes reminiscent of Day of The Triffids. While it was undoubtedly exciting to be where many of Hollywood’s finest movies (Angels with Dirty Faces, The Big Sleep) had been filmed, I have to say that all the Looney Tunes cartoons I’ve seen have been terribly misleading about what goes on here. Not once did I see Daffy Duck’s head being erased by an irate Chuck Jones! We arrived at a heavily air conditioned studio set, which TV expert G told me was for the lights and not as I suspected to prevent Conan’s skin from setting alight, and were seated with my urine-inflated bladder acting as an internal cushion. G and I were amazed at how small the set seemed and kept expecting a puppet version of the show to follow. The cameras magnify the set out of all proportion and it has an utterly different geography from the one we create in our heads when watching. G was especially thrown by how the guests’ walk from the stage curtain to the couch was literally a couple of steps.

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There followed multiple warm-up acts, starting with a fireman who demonstrated that the post-911 hero status of firefighters has significantly outlived that of cops (probably the lack of racial murders in the fire service). An MC discovered an audience full of drunks, meth manufacturers and slutty teens before Jimmy Vivino and The Basic Cable Band-who unlike most late-night house bands seldom feature in the programme-entertained with a lively, dad-at-wedding dancing funk and rock n roll double bill. There is an ‘Applause’ sign but it’s not the exploitative imposition that it is stereotyped as, its presence moving the show along and not forcing any reaction that isn’t already there. Not being a fan of bad sitcoms, teenage skaters and post-punk poachers the line-up didn’t do much for me. But the original segments were a TV bloggers’ dream. An irreverent ‘info’ button for programmes on a cable remote (Seinfeld: ‘You’ve seen this one’) and a clip from a new TV pilot starring alleged trumpet pumper La Bamba as a CIA assassin with limited knowledge of assembling weaponry.

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I realised that my knowledge of late-night talk shows tapings comes entirely from The Larry Sanders Show though having been there for real I can see why the prospect of a sitcom set there was so attractive. The musically-accompanied interludes between segments which are synced with ad breaks feature curious-looking interactions between guests, crew and talent not to mention the near-farcical stage invasions, all of which possesses intrinsic comic appeal. During the last of these interludes, G turns to me and asks ‘Is it nearly over?’ and I realise that as she’s always asleep by this point of the show and had never watched this far. After a bonus feature, a self-reflexive ‘end of the show song’ from the musically-gifted Conan, we were soon shuffled out into the lot, as I resisted the urge to crash through the parking barriers in homage to the final few minutes of Blazing Saddles.

 

 

 

 

Tarantino on TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2012 by Tom Steward

Like a racist American businessman announcing self-deportation after Obama’s re-election or an old-school British entertainer forewarning a one-man emigration movement in wake of a 1990s Labour landslide, Quentin Tarantino has threatened to quit cinema. In a roundtable interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the director discussed his desire to retire because of the industry conversion to digital cameras and projection. But what debased metaphor could possibly capture the dire straits that the film industry now finds itself in? ‘I mean, it’s television in public’, said QT, as if there was nothing less dignified. To add insult to injury, Tarantino may have to lower himself to actually working in television. ‘If I’m gonna do television in public, I’d rather just write one of my big scripts as a miniseries for HBO’, he said, declaring his intention to slum it with such mediocre fare as The Wire, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.

I quit says QT!

I’ll admit I expected more than bald TV-bashing from Tarantino, a director who has never been embarrassed to borrow influences from TV-see his adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode ‘Man from the South’ for the portmanteau film Four Rooms or his use of a refrain from the Ironside theme tune as a leitmotif in Kill Bill. Besides, he always seemed entirely comfortable with the prospect of directing for television. Let’s not forget that Tarantino directed a formative episode of lauded medical series ER called ‘Motherhood’ which not only saw his signature style and imagery seamlessly interweave with the fabric of 90s TV drama but also pioneered many of the show’s representational strategies, not least its handling of gore and casual violence. Tarantino also managed to direct an episode of CSI in which you actually cared about the characters and somehow managed to artfully deploy the series’ egregious audio-visual excesses.

A QT word in your ear!

Using TV to flagellate cinema runs contrary to what I think of as Tarantino’s egalitarian approach to popular culture. The usual snobbery you find from film directors about the aesthetically inferior nature and lack of artistic worth of television always seemed alien to QT, who appeared to recognise that it was at the heart of the popular, commercial Western imagery he was so fond of reappropriating, like a modern-day Lichtenstein. This makes his belligerent reluctance to making ‘a miniseries for HBO’ harder to swallow, especially as an announcement such as this deserves to be accompanied with enthusiasm and pride. Tarantino even admitted that this change of medium could solve a number of problems with producing his work as cinema. Speaking of the extended running and production time of HBO’s series, he said ‘I don’t have the time pressure I’m usually under, and I get to actually use all the script’.

Tarantino hangovers some nurses!

I’m sympathetic to Tarantino’s rage against the digital takeover of cinema and, as someone who finds that the signal beamed on to his television works far better than the digital projector at his local picturehouse, empathise with his feeling that television provides a better platform for a director than a medium that is now ‘film’ in name only. But he should take comfort in knowing that veteran film directors can use TV networks like HBO to reach artistic heights that their later-period movies continually fail to achieve. Mike Nichols hasn’t been able to make an above-average romantic comedy in decades and yet his HBO miniseries Angels in America was a transcendent delight. Scorsese hasn’t done a gangster movie in the last 20 years that could compete with Boardwalk Empire. Even an indie-hack like Gus van Sant looks like Ken Loach when surrounded by the hard-hitting political drama of Starz’s Boss.

CSI’s in Grave Danger of giving a damn!

Not to sound too much like a tele-fundamentalist but quite frankly Tarantino’s work has gotten too big for cinema. Since the two-part Kill Bill franchise, QT’s films have tended towards the epic and become distinguishable by their languor. This has protracted his cinematic vision and also compacted it at times, as in cases of cut-downs such as Death Proof. Like his beloved generational family martial arts TV sagas that spawned Kill Bill, television’s massive and never-ending texts and perma-fashion for serial storytelling can accommodate Tarantino’s expansive scale and indulgent timekeeping without a hint of bloat. A smaller screen it might be but it’s also a lot more elastic than the 3-hour radius of the silver one. At a purely PR level, Tarantino’s announcement might not have invoked the desired shock and dismay. For a director not exactly at his creative peak, the prospect of a TV afterlife looks positively heavenly.

 

 

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