The Golden Age of Scoring on TV

Art by Travis Wilker

I’m far from the first person to say it, but we live in a golden age of television. It’s just kind of a socially accepted fact at this point. At any given time of the year it feels like there are at least 5 great must-see shows on each week. It’s like the steroid era for television, except that we’re all okay with the juicing. One of the many facets of this renaissance has been how incredible the scoring for television has become, rivaling the works of cinematic scores.

There’s a good scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall where the main character Peter, a composer on a CSI type show, is at work adding music to a scene. All he’s doing is some monotone, one-key variations that you wouldn’t notice. That’s basically what scoring for television has been regarded as for the most part – just filler. In 1990, a delightful and strange TV show came along that completely rethought the conventions of serialized storytelling, and it managed to rethink scoring for serialized storytelling as well. Miami Vice had pushed the boundaries on what a show could do with its soundtrack (There is also a long list to be made of shows in this era that have had impeccable soundtracks – Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Rescue Me just to name a few) and Twin Peaks pushed the boundaries on what a show could do with its score. Twin Peaks boasted a singular, unique work from Lynch’s composer in arms Angelo Badalamenti. It was simultaneously soothing and unsettling with its mixture of lounge jazz and horror synths. So much of the show’s sense of aesthetic and heightened reality came from Badalamenti’s tunes. There was nothing like it before, and there’s been nothing like it since. It’s only fitting that Badalamenti return as the fruits of his labor have come ripe. Full disclosure: I’ve only watched the first two episodes of the return. At this point, I’ve just decided I’m going to do what I did with the original series, and just wait 20 years until after it’s aired to watch it. So, I haven’t really heard much of Badalamenti’s work on the return, but even if it’s just the classics, it’s going to be great.

Ramin Djawadi has played a huge part in this renaissance. He’s done plenty of great work in film (Pacific Rim, Iron Man, Warcraft) but it’s been on TV where he’s had the biggest impact on the finished product. The theme song for Game of Thrones has become one of the most memorable ones around, you start humming it and people will join in almost instantly. There’s a particular set of 4 notes that gets repeated in different variations throughout the show (“Warrior of Light” is just one of many), and I don’t know that I’ve seen a show get so much emotion, mood and depth out of 4 notes. He whipped out some of his best work ever in the opener for last season’s finale. The track is called “Light of the Seven”, and it ushers through arguably the best sequence in the show’s existence. It starts off with a soft piano melody that slowly builds into something operatic involving strings, choirs and organs. I won’t recap all the events that take place in it, because if you haven’t watched the show it won’t make any sense, but just trust that it is a jaw dropping sequence. There are elements of the scene that have been built up for several seasons that lead to an explosive finish. The score captures the importance and gravity of the sequence, and honestly it wouldn’t have had near the same impact with Djawadi’s input. Djawadi seems to have residency at HBO, contributing another excellent score for Westworld. He’s using a lot of the same keys and time signatures, but relying more on electronic sounds and synthesizers to heighten the show’s examination of artificial intelligence, “Dr. Ford” is a standout track, and his western reworkings of famous rock tracks are superb (“Paint it Black” and “Exit Music (For a Film)” are just a few).

Max Richter is a composer that primarily focuses on his own classical compositions and releases, so it’s a real treasure when he lends his talents to the screen. You could almost argue that his score for The Leftovers could fall into the soundtrack argument, as it is largely reworks and variations of music from his album Memoryhouse. But no other music could have worked for The Leftovers. I say this as somebody who has loved this show with all my heart from day one – it is the most depressing show I’ve ever seen, to the point where it would be almost unbearable if it wasn’t done with the skill and emotion that it is. Richter constructs a work that is equally heart-wrenching and devastating, I have to lock myself in a dark room to listen to it. Just listen to “The Quality of Mercy” from season 2 and try to not get incredibly emotional. 

Brian Reitzell’s work on Hannibal is unlike anything else on television, and the closest to Badalamenti’s enchanting yet nerve-wracking work. The sound design and the score intertwine, luring us into a heightened reality of the senses. It’s hard to know where the sound design ends and where the score starts. Mac Quayle’s work on Mr. Robot completely captures the tone of the show and the thoughts of our lead character, Elliot Alderson. It’s a paranoid, mechanical work. The track “whatsyourask.m4p” is among my favorites as the show comes back to this melody throughout each season.  The easy comparison is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s scores for David Fincher’s films (The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl). I just mention those to give you context, Quayle’s work is by no means a copycat or imitation. No other score could have worked for this show, it wraps you up in its tense machinations and pulls you into the disconnect of Elliot.

As the way we watch and think about television has changed, the way we think about the music in them has too. The score has gone from background filler to an integral part in shaping the emotions and themes of the shows and characters they inhabit. Shows like Twin Peaks, Hannibal, Mr. Robot, Game of Thrones, Westworld and The Leftovers have really pushed the craft of scoring for television to new heights. Before this century, would you think to yourself “Man I can’t wait to hear the score on tonight’s episode”? I think it just about about every week now.

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