Thursday, September 21, 2006

Stop the music!!

Open letter to drama showrunners:


It seems every one hour show ends now with the obligatory montage bouncing from one main character to the other, each alone, each in a different location, and each soul searching and oozing angst. Rain slicked streets and mood lighting a must. And over this is some dreary song by some new artist that the showrunner discovered on KaZaa or satellite radio, plaintively wailing some life advice that is designed to touch us all with its perception and depth. Tom Waits wannabes even though they’re too young to know who Tom Waits is.

It’s great for the writer of the episode – three fewer pages he has to write but the device is starting to get real cliché. Plus, the songs tend to be AWFUL.

The one in the premiere of SMITH was so grating that I actually envied the crew member that died.

I notice that HOUSE now does this every week. We get it. His leg smarts. He’s a tortured soul. Sleep with Cameron. Play Jackie Wilson.

I seem to recall this trend beginning with David E. Kelley shows (although I might be wrong). Poor Alley is alone and beautiful for another night. And the Biscuit is in the twentieth year of his puberty. But at least Kelley mixed it up sometimes with hits from the 70’s. Nowadays, if an artist gets more than five hits a month on his MySpace site he’s too familiar.

PRISON BREAK took the conceit to a whole new level last year when the music they played was the HOUSE theme.

I blame Nora Ephron. (I blame her for a lot of things. Cringeworthy movies, killing BEWITCHED, global warming). Nora goes to the soundtrack card every chance she gets. Who needs to DIRECT when a gooey Celine Dion-Clive Griffin tune can just convey the mood?

Drama showrunners, please retire this device. Host amateur nights at the Troubadour if you want to discover the next Bjork, but for your shows don’t end each episode with every character on suicide watch.

Oh, and while I’m ranting, to showrunners, producers, and directors everywhere – NEVER play “Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong EVER AGAIN. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

I'm writing the episode for House when they call in House's younger, smarter brother, the tortured physciatrist, Lorenzo, to prevent House from playing Bethoven's 'Ode To Joy ' at the end of an episode.

Raised in House's shadow (before it began leaning), the House Parents always loved House more than Lorenzo, even after Lorenzo scored a record 1800 on his SATs - after having another 200 points ripped off the top for afirmitave action appropriations. Lorenzo mistakenly marked that little box, thinking it was for a dollar donation for starving kids - somewhere.

Was marking that little box a mistake - or symptomthat??????? Or maybe a lie! House's team of crack, but inexpeirenced twenty-somethings run their own tests. But, Lorenzo refuses to co-operate until someone explains why this hospital has no lab techs. Another symptom? Another lie?

Or maybe I don't yet know. (I should register this with the guild before I figure that out.)

Anonymous said...

Yes! Yes! Yes!
I clicked onto your blog just now to escape from the horrible music-montage at the halfway point in tonight's season premiere of ER. They didn't even wait until the end. And coming right after Gray's Anatomy premiere and it's music montage. Aaargh!
My mute button will wear out!

Jenius said...

From what I can tell, they're getting a lot of them from Morning Becomes Eclectic on KCRW. I had the misfortune of tuning in to Jericho to give it a chance...yup, same shit, different time slot. Gettin so I don't even have to listen to the radio any more. Before too long, half of teevee will be American Grafitti remixed.

I may have to start watching more reality TV.

HA! I crack myself up sometimes.

Anonymous said...

A more meaningful piece of criticism here might have been that the song that I assume set off your rant, Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek," has been licensed to so MANY dramas that it's lost whatever impact it may have once had.

The same song has also been used on The OC, Smith's premiere and an episode during last season's So You Think You Can Dance -- not that that counts as a drama. But I remember it from the end of the as-yet-unaired pilot for The Black Donnelleys, too.

Sure, the musical montage can be completely overplayed and underwritten and a total cop-out. But there's a reason for soundtracking, and it's that music -- whether it's new or old, lyrical or orchestral -- can add or expand the emotion in a scene. I'm not sure why that's such an inherently evil idea in your eyes (or should I say, to your ears).

Also, pulling the age card might work better if you spelled Tom Waits' name right.

By Ken Levine said...


I love music. And music used correctly and deftly can elevate a scene tremendously. I'm not suggesting eliminating music. I'm just saying this montage of contemplative characters is getting very cliche. I cynically also wonder if part of the reason for this device is to produce a soundtrack album to net the studio more coin.

Thanks for the catch on Tom Waits.

Anonymous said...

Stop with the reference of the "House" theme & Prison Break use.

The theme to House isn't an original song. It's Massive Attack's "Teardrop" sans vocals, which, btw, has been licensed out a ton, mostly to movies, like Snatch. And possibly CSI. All before the creation of House.

And if you want to blame someone, blame Moby for starting the licensing whoring fest.

By Ken Levine said...

I know the HOUSE theme is "Teardrop". I know it's fair game to use. What's utterly absurd is that no one on PRISON BREAK realized they were using another show's theme from the same network and that no one at that network (Fox) flagged it.

I mention it again because it was used in just such a character-to-character isolated moment montage.

Good Dog said...

Using Hide and Seek, and Teardrop? Oh, good grief.

They should immediately go back to Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah.

GatesMcFaddenIsATotalBabe said...

I agree that it can be overdone, sure. And it's a crutch, sure. I loved "Hide and Seek," personally, when I found it on the Imogen Heap album. And if it's been overliscenced, well, that's too bad. But that is not what made that montage at the end of "Smith" bad. What made that montage bad was the fact that "Smith" itself sucked pretty hard.

A previous commenter ripped on the use of Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah (at least, I think he was ripping on it. Sarcasm in a two line post is hard to find). And that's fair--it's probably been overliscenced, too, and it surely grates on some people's musical taste. But that doesn't stop the end of The West Wing episode "Posse Comitatus" from being one of the most powerful televisual moments I've ever seen. And part of the reason it works is that tWW was such a strongly written show (at that point).

A musical montage will only emphasize a lack within the writing (if there is one). It's not prima facie bad. And, Ken, I'm not accusing you of saying it is, but I wanted to put that defense out there, 'cause sometimes it really does work. And sometimes it even works when using current music (about every third "Grey's" pre-45th-minute-commerical-break montage).

Mary Stella said...

My favorite use of music by David Kelley came in Picket Fences when, on at least two shows, he incorporated songs by Tom Lehrer. One one episode, the math teacher with the brain tumor sang New Math. (You can't take three from two, two is less than three so you look at the four in the ten's place.) On another episode, I think it was Fivush belting Who's Next.

Tenspeed & Brownshoe said...

That's why the best show on television, 24, doesn't do the musical montage.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we can get rid K.D. Lang's version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah (which I know I'm spelling wrong) as part of the dramatic where did my life go wrong why am I at this strip club by myself, why did so and so have to die montage, too. Great song, great version, just to have it rolling over the last scenes of the O.C. tends to, well, suck. Then again, maybe the problem is that I'm watching the season finale of the O.C.

Anonymous said...

I think the trend of overly-sappy musical montage started when everyone and their dog felt the urge to use "Lightning Crashes" back in the mid-90's.

The most formulaic use of the sappy montage is Cold Case. Of course, Cold Case is the most amazingly formulaic show in history, so that's no surprise. But every show ends with a music montage based on a popular hit of that time period!

Anonymous said...

If you want to watch a movie that used music superby, watch and listen to ALL THAT JAZZ. Masterful Masterful!

Anonymous said...

The most overused "really intense dramatic moment" song on TV has to be, hands down, Jeff Buckley's version of "Hallelujah." I know I've heard it on at least five different series, and I'm sure there have been more. It's a fantastic song, but it's basically ruined for me now; it's a symbol of the worst kind of TV cliche.

Tom Ehrenfeld said...

Yes, stop the "Soundtrack Card!" Another egregious violation of this was displayed in Forrest Gump, where the use of music to convey emotion was perfectly consistent with a movie that simply wanted you to feel something but had no clue what it was.

Good use of music in movies: High Fidelity, Pulp Fiction, and, even though this is one-of-these-things-is-not-like-another, Hard Day's Night. One tv series that occasionally uses music brilliantly is The Sopranos (The Beast in Me and the Happy Wanderer were two great moments), although it overplays its hand in this regard now sometimes.

Emily Blake said...

Agreed. Montage annoying. But I did like the show very much.

I think the lowest of the pushes for soundtrack came in an episode of Smallville when Clark's friend Pete walked up and said, "Hey, Clark, have you heard the new Talone Mix?" which was the actual name of the soundtrack theyr were selling for the show. I felt dirty just having watched that scene.

Chris said...

I doubt it has as much to do with showrunners discovering new music as it does with them getting paid to place the songs in the shows.

Anonymous said...

I think this blog should have Dire Straits' "Brothers In Arms" playing on it full-time!

Anonymous said...

I'm just waiting for the "House" episode where the montage is set to "Dare to be Stupid" by "Weird Al" Yankovic.

Joshua James said...

I thought it started with DAWSON'S CREEK and that song "I DON'T WANNA WAIT" which they not only used in the show, but in every frickin' commerical (same exact device, actually) that's where it began to take on it's evil power.

Ally used karoake more, didn't she? I don't remember now. it's been blocked.

I do seem to remember MILLINIUM used a whole song for a woman on a drug who was hallucinating and not only was the song exactly right, it totally worked and was unlike anything I'd ever seen in a TV show - they used the whole song, too, three or four minutes, just on her.

So it's a power that can be used for good, if used right.

Joshua James said...

24 best show on television? i think not, sir. THE WIRE is better and smarter. So are many other shows too numerous to mention. 24 is good but not the best and it may have blown its wad by now, too.

deepstructure said...

i completely agree with this. since we only watch tv on dvr it's not a problem to zip through them, but sheesh! there's a lot of them!

even on shows where it can make sense (in that there's action but not dialog), like csi, zip!

funny, i've never watched house but just the other day saw a promo for it and laughed because i recognized 'teardrop.' although i must say elizabeth frazier's vocals are the best part of that song.

deepstructure said...

before the spelling police get me - that would be "elizabeth fraser."

Anonymous said...

I'm still laughing about the reference to Mary Tyler Moore -Ordinary People, but without the warmth- but here's an example of when music works.

I forget the name of the episode from West Wing, but it's the one when the Prez smokes in the cathedral and chews out God. The music is Brothers in Arms, the long version, by Dire Straits. Through the rest of the episode, it seems to be a character in the show. Just great.

VP81955 said...

And please, please, please, can we get rid of the sports equivalent of "Wonderful World," Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline"? The Red Sox (who I suppose originated it) use it, the Nationals use it (and I hate hearing it at RFK!), the NY Rangers use it, and I just heard it at Shea at a Mets game. Ah, what originality. Then again, kitsch is easier than thinking.

Anonymous said...

How 'bout the music in George Lucas' best film, American Graffitti. I've never seen a movie capture a time and a place better than A. G.

Toni Lea Andrews said...

The first time I remember the "song-at-the-end-of-the-episode" thing was the finale of "Northern Exposure." In that case, the song was so I good I went out and bought the CD.

Guilty secret: Because the only radio station I can stand without steering my car into traffic during the commercials is NPR, I am woefully unfamiliar with contemporary music. And I didn't even much like the pop hits of my own generation. Therefore, I LIKE the songs at the end of the episodes of television dramas. Between that and Mitsubishi commercials, it's my only exposure to songs recorded after 1986.

And as for House, they can do no wrong. Well, they do lots of wrong, but I still want Hugh Laurie. Bad.

Anonymous said...

"Brothers in Arms" was also used very well in a Miami Vice episdoe, but it wasn't over a montage, it just covered a drive through Miami.

I'm all for using good music, just not to cutting it to the same montage all the time. If I recall in that West Wing episode the song didn't cover a montage it just covered Bartlett getting into his motorcade and giving a speech deciding to run again. Or not...I guess I could look it up on some sort of inter-connected network of computers, but who has the time?

Anonymous said...

amen, amen and AMEN!!!
The COLD CASE montage last night was WHAT IF GOD WAS ONE OF US (again???? I only watch the show for fellow former DJ Thom Barry).

The Dixie Chicks LULLABY was used as underscore, thematic music on MEDIUM last season and turned up as... somebody's closing montage last week... I don 't even remember which show.... there were sooo many montages .... all the characters... all the angst... I'm dizzy...

Anonymous said...

and, oh yes, Mary Stella was right! The best use of music ever was on PICKET FENCES... right out of the gate, almost every episode the first season. I always thought it was a bit of Kelley's thumb to nose at COP ROCK (see, SB, this is how you put music in a drama and have it work!!!)

Tosy And Cosh said...

My favorite tweak of the cliche was in the first season of LOST when partway through the song-over-pensive-characters montage the song stopped and we realized Hurley was listening to it on his now-dead Discman.

And the film Magnolia kind-of tweaked it by having the montage characters actually singing the song, no? Very effective, that.

Another vote to retire Buckley's Hallelujah, sure, but can anyone fill in the blanks of who's used it? West Wing, OC, I know there are more?

Anonymous said...

I remember watching McBeal and thinking David E. Kelley must have watched the soap Another World. They were doing those poignant musical montages in the 80s.

Anonymous said...

House used it in their second season premiere. Shrek used the original Leonard Cohen version. I think someone said the original use of it in film is in "Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train."

The Wire, the best show on television (now finally acknowledged as such) only uses diegetic music, except for one montage at the end of the season, and they make that one count, showing a quick future of the characters.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Ken! It’s good to know that I’m not alone.

I’ve hated the whiny end-of-episode handwringing by proto-punk “sing from the nostrils” type artists. You can almost smell the angst.

Anonymous said...

Drama wise, the only time I remember it being done really well was the series finale of Six Feet Under, though at least they were building on solid foundations. Damn, I miss that show.

A problem I also had with Smith was the recycling of footage in the pilot. Sure, it was fun to see the heist again, but they could have saved it for an episode later on.

I won't deny I'm still bitter that Thief was cancelled (I presume), and his is what we have instead.