Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hey ABC, please stop the music - Sepinwall on TV

In today's column, I finally expand on a point I've made in several recent "Grey's Anatomy" and "Cupid" reviews: my complete and utter disdain for the wacky You Are Watching Something Funny music that ABC feels compelled to include in comic scenes on almost all of its drama series.

29 comments:

Billiam said...

I've only ever watched about 2 episodes of Grey's, and I was turned off by scenes that have an aura of silliness without being funny. I hadn't really thought about the fact that much of the blame belongs to the music, and that the music might be the fault of the network rather than the show.

Wallwriting said...

Your question, Alan, is part of something bigger. TV watchers today are much more sophisticated than in the past. True, television has always grown more sophisticated with each generation, but the Bochco shows of the '90s and The Sopranos put a spike in the curve.

Cable's been savy about this for years now, but network TV, for the most part, has not--their argument being that the ratings for such shows just aren't there.

I think the ratings aren't there because the networks' version of a sophisticated show is not on the same planet as cable's version. Even when the big four try to put out something meaty, they hedge their bets. "Laugh now" music is just a part of that.

Consider shows like Kings, which may be a bold experiment in language for network TV, but is ultimately little more than an Aaron Spelling primetime soap with more interesting dialogue. The best cable equivalent I can think of is Rome--another soap buttered up with language. But just look at the difference between the two. Kings is nowhere in Rome's sphere, and Rome was considered to be only an above average show for HBO.

Sophisticated television will never be the norm if the networks continue to keep one foot planted so firmly in the days of laugh tracks, closeted gay neighbors and the Two Darens.

H E Pennypacker said...

You know I've never had a problem with laugh tracks - especially if its an actual Studio Audience, multicamera sitcoms in my experience generally have to rely on wit rather than cheap slapstick to get a laugh.

But nothing gets my goat like jaunty music, it first surfaced on lame comedy movies like Home Alone or anything with Tim Allen and now it's surfacing on TV, which is a pity because cringe whenever I hear dancing strings or a piccolo, just awful.

srpad said...

I don't watch "Grey's", any clips on yotube with examples of this phenomena? I enjoy inviting rage :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm going to Devil's Advocate myself. Disclaimer: I'm a musician.

1) I hate cutesy music on TV shows. And...although I used to love Giacchino's work on Alias, his music for Lost has been bugging me for a while (too many treacly strings, etc.), and just always seems to get in the way, but I'm definitely in the minority on that (most critics love him). He's very talented (see: Medal of Honor), but I think he's being directed to overwrite the score for that show (IMO).

2. Hate laugh tracks and studio audience laughing with a blinding passion (god I sound like a curmudgeon). It will usually cause me to not watch a show

3. Small point: ABC is 'branding' themselves. Their shows all have a similar color palette and musical sound, so that when you flip past it, you know you've landed on ABC. Think about the stupid xylophone tag at the beginning of online episodes (practically hits you over the head, **ABC**, **ABC**, **ABC**).

4. Now for the devil's advocate part. Most TV shows and commercials nowadays use repurposed music, music that was already written (classic rock or disco songs, obscure current pop hits). I think sometimes songs are placed in programs at probably reduced licensing rates (correct me if I'm wrong) that record companies are trying to 'break' or that the show is trying to package on a soundtrack album ($$!!). Repurposing is cheaper than hiring studio musicians (read: me).

So, that violinist or oboist who's trying to make you laugh managed to make their mortgage payment that month. Go ABC!!

That being said, composed music doesn't have to be cheesy, and it's certainly not the musician's fault that the oboe or trombone, etc., was used for comic effect.

BF said...

srpad, an example. It's far from the most egregious case, but you can see a clear deliniation between "music that screams whimsey" and "music that screams drama".

dark tyler said...

Alan, I applaud you. That is all. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I was just having a discussion the other day with someone about the music on 24. But we were saying how much it added to the show. Even your column really seems to go after shows that use music to highlight when a scene is funny. Why does that seem to bother you so much, but the use of music when a scene is supposed to be dramatic, sad, scary, etc. doesn't bother you?

Anonymous said...

It works on Brothers and Sisters (and Desperate Housewives) because the tone is light and the show itself is soapy and not to be taken seriously. But if any show is trying to go for something different they should think it over.

Joe said...

Hear, hear (pun intended). Long time lurker here who works at a non fiction cable network. I am always asking producers to cut back on this use of music in our programs and agree that the ABC usage also annoys me. All their shows seem too much the same heavy/snarky/lite mix. Too much of a good thing, to me.

LA said...

Joe, do you work for HGTV by chance? The music on some of those Pie Town shows is horrendous.

Marc said...

Alan, While I agree with everything you have written, and I hope the Abc higehr ups read and listen to what you said, it's a shame it couldn't be a seperate column and not one instead of a positive GREYS column. Greys has been great again these last few weeks and we all know its gets acknowledged when it isn't, it's a shame when it is good, people seem to still want to hate it (not you). I saw That Matt Roush and Robert Bianco wrote positive stories stoday. Maybe the word will get out, to those that have given up.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Marc, I wasn't crazy about either of the Grey's episodes I watched -- in part because of all the cutesie music, but not entirely -- so I couldn't write that column at this time.

Pamela Jaye said...

You remember me - I'm te one who can't locate the "funny" music.
Then, the other night, on a season 1 ep of Brothers & Sisters, I heard it! Just like I've heard on Grey's a thousand times. It was so familiar, I almost missed it.
I was excited that I was no longer missing what everyone else heard.

So later I picked up that scene in the Unusuals that you mentioned (if the guy comes to tell Amber about her money in only one scene - I haven't watched the show yet) and - it wasn't there.

So, now I'm confused again.

Is it a specific music cue - or just "happy" music?
What I heard on B&S were *the exact same notes* (I had thought they were just a Grey's music cue, like the Mer/Der theme, previously)

I thought I'd finally found it.
Then again, if a character i a show is dead, in a dream sequence, you sometimes have to remind me that actor was in that ep.

I do, however, know when to laugh.

(did people really not know in the 50s? and are the laugh tracks - which I finally noticed in some shows (i've deadened my ears to them) - the same tracks from the 50s, with the laughter of people long dead?

Pamela Jaye said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pamela Jaye said...

edited post

...I didn't have a lot of trouble with the secret basement interns, myself - just that they got away with it - but they *would* - this is Grey's. Denny, I, of course, hated. Since he's been gone, it's been better.

I can't remember whether Shonda is in your twitter list (I don't know that it's her for sure but so far, the things she's saying that I have seen seem right)

So I was looking for a particular cue. If it's not that, then I seen to be as deaf to it as I am to laugh tracks (until I am watching with a friend I want to like a show - then suddenly laugh tracks stand out)

Isaac Lin said...

The West Wing often had light-hearted music during its more humourous segments. I never found it distracting though. For the most part, soundtracks should be non-intrusive and be almost subliminal in their cues. (Of course there are always exceptions for stylistic effect.)

Alan Sepinwall said...

Pamela, it's not a specific cue. It's a kind of music, and once you're aware of it, it becomes impossible to not notice it, unfortunately.

boffo said...

This is why I could never watch Pushing Daisies. I had it on for about 10 seconds, and the cutsie music irritated me so much that I decided there's no reason to watch a show that irritates me. So I turned it off and never watched again.

SJ said...

I am totally with you on this. Movies and TV shows in general abuse music to often "manipulate" the viewer's emotions, but Grey's just takes the cake.

Why can't all shows use music like The Wire or Breaking Bad? Extremely minimal use of music where all the emotional work is done by the directing and acting.

Or if you are going down the music route do it like The Sopranos which used music wonderfully.

Anonymous said...

I'm more annoyed with the awful emo-type songs they like to play under dramatic scenes, usually near the end of the show. Brothers and Sisters does this a lot. The music is so awful and usually so intrusive that it's hard to hear the dialog. I half expect one of the actors to get up and close the window. The songs all seem to sounds like the song by Jan's assistant Hunter on The Office dinner party episode. Yeech.

LA said...

Boffo - We're on opposite sides of the spectrum here. Because of its whole stylized look and sound (including the cadence and rhyming of the dialogue) Pushing Daisies was the only show where I felt the hippy-happy music was truly appropriate. On Daisies, I felt like its use was actually a creative decision versus an edict from corporate.

Different strokes, I guess.

Pamela Jaye said...

seen it the comments at poniewozik

"In the same vein, do I sense an encrouching ABC backlash from/among TV critics--or I'm I overreaching on their blog subtext? Seems like the alphabet can do no right these days, what with complaints that their show music sucks, their new series suck, their scheduling sucks etc. Did we tire of flogging the NBC horse already?"

good article about Chuck and Subway, though.

Anonymous said...

I notice this sort of thing the most on B&S, so I blame/credit Blake Neely, since he did the same thing on "Everwood." But it doesn't really bother me that much.

And this is only tangentially related, but that "jaunty oboe" everyone keeps talking about, that is used to signify humor, is a clarinet. How do people not recognize the sound of a clarinet? There is nothing jaunty about the sound of an oboe. I blame TWoP, since that's where I first came across that term.

srpad said...

Thanks for the example, BF. I had noticed this but was curious just bad it would be on Grey's. In Desparate Housewives, the plucked violin is a signiture of the series so I guess it doesn't bother me. Now if only we can just do something about the Episode-Ends-With-a-Silent-Montage-Under-Music-That-Expresses-An-Emotion thing that was powerful maybe 5 (10?)years ago and is now tiring.

Damien said...

I think it's a question of degree of intrusiveness, rather than simply having it or not having it. Dramatic or whimsical music is nothing new. It's been used since the talkie era (and before). It's a perfectly legitimate mood enhancer when used skilfully. But there's the rub. If it's over used, chopping and changing from scene to scene, is overly loud or simply inappropriate to what's being shown, then yes, it can be annoying.
With respect to laughter tracks for sitcoms – I think they have their place, again, if done skilfully. Doing it right is a bit of an art form in itself. I find it works best when the laughs come from a live studio audience and are contextual to what is being filmed. Often the actors feed off the audience response or delay their lines, etc, which makes it all seem even funnier – classic example: The Carol Burnett Show.
Applying pre-recorded laughter is harder because you need to be careful to mix it up – loudness, length, type, appropriateness, etc, etc, rather than simply press a button on the editing console market LAUGH.
Take for example the recently shown season 9 of British sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf , a three parter. It had no laugh track (the previous series, going back some 20 years, had laughter tracks and were shot in front of a live audience). It was widely criticised for NOT having a laughter track. It felt like something was missing. I agree.
So, I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with mood signalling soundtracks or laughter tracks, but they have to be applied skilfully so as not to be intrusive. Getting the networks to appreciate this is another matter.

Damien said...

What's up with the paragraph spacing? Grrr!

Felix Hoenikker said...

oddly i have the same reaction when i see pamela jaye has a comment in a thread -- i turn off and leave the thread

Baylink said...

Alan: is it, perhaps, oboe lead? That seems to be the most popular whimsy-indicator in orchestrated incidental music, to me...

And, Hoenekker; dude: what's with the hatin'?