Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

FLASHBACKS: "Music and Storytelling of the May Sweeps," 1997

Okay, if I'm going to be honest in this re-linking of old articles of mine, I should include my...over-enthusiastic, under-critical moments. Some occur here, in a big two-part review I wrote of some of the major TV events from the May 1997 sweeps. (Hey, they were major then. TWELVE YEARS ON, these, um, probably don't hold up. In fact, I know leonardpart6 has reviewed, and eviscerated, at least a couple of 'em.) Sometimes I'm a critic, sometimes I just sound like one (a frequent failing of a young writer), but I think I made some good points here. ("Evil big band music" is a phrase that brings me joy.)

Warning to kradical: I rip into Rockne O'Bannon for his work on the miniseries Robin Cook's Invasion, in those days before he'd finally shown again that he was capable of good work by creating Farscape. (I'd read Harlan Ellison's column dismantling O'Bannon's work on the 1988 film Alien Nation, where Harlan said Rock, I'm your friend, and I need to tell you: YOU CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS ALIEN NATION CRAP.)

Link to Part I, put online on June 18th, 1997.

Link to Part II, online July 6th, 1997.

Music and Storytelling of the May Sweeps
by Christopher Walsh

Okay, how much TV did we all watch this past month? How much did we wish, afterwards, that we had watched? At least as far as TV is concerned, if it's crap, it's still free, and it's still eminently easy to tune out (neither of which could be said for Twister). And in the quest to remember what was wheat and what was chaff in the special events and their music, TV is still worth talking about.

Robin Cook's Invasion

The only reason I watched the first half of Invasion is because I was recording it on an unfamiliar VCR for someone I know, I couldn't figure out how to set the unit's timer, and I had decided simply to press "Record" at 9:00 and "Stop" at 11:00. In other words, I was being lazy. Well, even for someone like me who will forgive most anything if there are hot enough babes in it (this had Kim Cattrall and Rebecca Gayhart), this miniseries was probably Exhibit Z in how hard it is to do science fiction credibly on television. (Forgive them, for they know not what they do.)

Again, as with The Beast, we get fairly cool computer-generated special effects in service of a story on par with creative typing. Robin Cook, by the way, first wrote the story for the miniseries and then wrote the novel, perhaps sensing that there was no point in trying to stuff a novel's elaboration into a four-hour chunk of TV sweeps time. The acting was of the ridiculously standard "we're possessed by aliens, so we're stiff" mode that's been a cliche for decades. Luke Perry probably can portray someone with a brain -- he's at least effective as an archaeologist in the opening of the wondrous The Fifth Element -- but he doesn't do that here. And anyone who complains about the stylish SF series Babylon 5 having overwritten dialogue should watch Invasion and see how much worse such writing can be.

Rockne O'Bannon, who wrote Invasion's script, has yet to demonstrate for a second time the promise he showed on his New Twilight Zone work from 12 years ago. On his Zone script "Wordplay," O'Bannon used science fiction as a tool, to explore how a man felt overwhelmed by a society he didn't understand. Here, like in the film Alien Nation and the series SeaQuest DSV (which he helped to create, but then left before it premiered), he uses science fiction as a popular and commercial seasoning of otherwise overcooked ideas; it's as if he's been saying, "Hey, this sci-fi stuff is a hit with the kiddies." When it works logically, yes. When it's used cynically, it shouldn't, Independence Day notwithstanding.

Invasion's composer Don Davis is slowly raising his profile in feature work, going the route of small films by young filmmakers. The audience-polarizing Bound has been his first big calling card of this sort; I am criminally lacking in my knowledge of Miklos Rozsa, but was Davis's music meant as a Rosza tribute? (Or was it more a reference to hard-boiled 1940s films in general?) [2009 note: I decided after watching Bound again that there's an element of that, plus a kind of Ennio Morricone-style kinkiness. I changed this article to reflect that when Lukas Kendall ran an edited version in the print magazine.] In the meantime, he continues to work concertedly in television, mostly for NBC's recent science-fiction-ish miniseries The Beast, Pandora's Clock, and now Invasion. For each of these, Davis has had the potentially thankless task of trying to translate symphonic power to a frequently electronic ensemble (which, as noted about The Odyssey, can turn ridiculous), but on each project he has created a sound that successfully grabs your attention, which is the modest goal most TV music aims for.

Invasion has a slamming musical opening with interesting electronic percussion, and this sounds offbeat enough to make the audience sit up and take notice. There was fairly standard foreboding music throughout Part I, as more and more people become infected and turn stiff. Having not seen more, there's not much more I can say about this program. (At least Davis's music was used in the promos and commercial breaks.)

As with The Beast on Varese Sarabande, Don Davis will get a soundtrack album of Invasion's score, courtesy Super Tracks, where this music might be able to stand on its own. (And someone who has HBO might want to see how Davis fares on the recent cable-film Weapons of Mass Destraction.)

The Shining

Horror, as Stephen King writes in his non-fiction work Danse Macabre, is an inherently conservative genre. Characters descend into a special hell where all is twisted and deviant, but some of the people always conquer this darkness and escape into the light of normalcy. It is this release back into the world of love and the nuclear family -- though with always a hint that the evil survives -- that is so satisfying about a decently told horror tale. King has used this idea to advantage throughout his career, and it is a story progression that most horror stories, even the Friday the 13th crap, follow.

The above is both apropos to why the finale of the TV version of The Shining works like gangbusters, and in a different way why Stanley Kubrick's film with Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall worked its own awful magic. The ABC miniseries works reasonably well during its first four hours, with strong work from Rebecca DeMornay as Wendy Torrance and effective acting by the child who plays Danny, but it wasn't making much of an impression on me. It was in Part III that the show hit its stride, and I think one key to this is when Steven Weber comes into his own playing the tormented Jack Torrance. Whereas Nicholson's performance was that of a nut -- though admittedly one of the great nuts in horror film history -- Weber, at the end, conveys a sense of both the possessed madman who is attacking his loved ones with a croquet mallet and the family man who is horrified at what he is doing while he does it. Weber's struggling with demons was his most effective acting moment. In the end, he lets himself die in a boiler explosion, which stops the hotel's evil forces while his family escapes.

Having Jack vacillate between Evil and Good, and choose Good, probably follows the original novel (which I haven't read). The miniseries -- ending ten years later when Danny graduates from high school -- plays to the sense of a normalcy that is both restored and heightened: (duh, SPOILERS AHEAD) Danny, using "the shine," can see his dead father watching him proudly. This is the return to the light that horror normally plays to, and it's a wonderful moment, the most affecting in the miniseries. The hint that Evil never disappears occurs, too, as we cut back to the ruins of the hotel, where a sign announces its coming restoration.

Kubrick's intention, however, was much different. He deliberately changed the ending (and included the famously awful shot of Nicholson in the snow) to deny the audience a return to happy normalcy; he wanted viewers to leave the film feeling uncomfortable and unhappy. One critic suggested once that Kubrick portrays the events in the hotel as a microcosm of the horrors committed in the name of Manifest Destiny; this might explain why Kubrick added Native American references and motifs to the film. If so, the message is that there are horrors for which we as a society have yet to atone. I have enjoyed both renditions of The Shining, the new one because it successfully follows the horror-tale formula and the first one because it so successfully violates that pattern.

As to the music -- well, it was fairly standard action-horror business. Written by Nicholas Pike, who previously scored Sleepwalkers for King and director Mick Garris, the music augments the horror with a few themes cropping up here and there. Two choral motifs add to the supernatural feel at the hotel, while a piano theme used early on seems almost a nod to "Tubular Bells." However, the end result simply feels shapeless, mainly marking time and saying "this is horrible," and not doing so very distinctively. (There are even shrieking strings straight out of Psycho near the end!)

Again, the music is reasonably effective -- and again, one can at least try to imagine better scores, as I did with The Odyssey. As the hotel's evil spirits conjured up images of the big band era -- including such tunes as "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and "I Can't Get Started" -- one possible scoring approach occurred to me: is it possible to write evil big band music? Remember, the same team that produced this miniseries also produced The Stand, which had one of the best unexpected scores to a TV program in years -- some of W. G. Snuffy Walden's best work. The filmmakers knew that what Stephen King has called "that big old 16,000-track John Williams thang" would overwhelm their story, and Walden complied by writing for a small rock-and-blues ensemble with occasional orchestra (orchestrated, by the way, by Don Davis). Something similarly offbeat might have worked better for The Shining.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

This is the handsomest piece of TV I've seen in a long time. Done with style and verve for ABC -- following a flatfooted version on CBS a few months ago -- the new four-hour miniseries of the Jules Verne classic is thick with ideas, condensing the novel in well-thought-out ways and adding absorbing new wrinkles such as racial difficulties and family conflicts. The narrator Aronnax, portrayed by a surprisingly good Patrick Dempsey, becomes a more active character here, adding action and conviction without sacrificing the character's intelligence. This miniseries avoids having obvious villains -- a smart choice, as Nemo (Michael Caine) is one of the greatest ambiguous characters in science fiction. In fact most of the characters, whether from the novel or newly invented, have their own ambiguities, and all are well-drawn; no one acts like a simple hero or a simple villain, but like an individual with personal motivations. This simply makes for better drama, especially at the finale, when Aronnax commits an act that he would not have done any other time before. Even Verne's other works, particularly Journey to the Center of the Earth, have an intriguing role in this story.

The attention to detail is eye-opening. The submarine's sonic environment is rendered to an extent that television rarely bothers with, and makes the Nautilus that much more believable. I also admire special effects that are well- done and subtle, and 20,000 Leagues makes admirable use of these. Such effects include a 20-foot-long shark swimming between two rows of divers (one of the best composite shots I've ever seen on a TV show) and, to close the miniseries, a long pull back from one yard above the ocean to hundreds of feet over it.

If I were just evaluating the first half of this miniseries, I'd be an even happier reviewer. Like the eight-hour miniseries The Stand mentioned last time, whose first four hours really sold the story successfully, this new rendition struts with confidence, conveying the spirit if not the exact plot of the original tale. However, also like The Stand, the story loses some of its focus about halfway through, and has to struggle back toward the heights of the opening. At the end, the story doesn't unravel so much as stop, resolving only a couple of plot threads. This dilutes the story's power. (And unlike the ending of the novel, which left open the fate of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus, the miniseries doesn't exactly present a chance for a sequel that could tie up these threads.)

I should say that I almost began to play "what might have been" concerning the score, but upon looking at the miniseries a second time I have to admit that the music has grown on me. I perked up when I learned that Mark Snow, who has done superlative atmospheric work on The X-Files, was scoring this miniseries. My impression upon viewing the show, though, was that it was fairly standard orchestral work, with occasional moments of cheesy synthesizers. The third opinion can be a charm, however, and my current feeling is that this is a well-crafted, effective score with hints of Herrmann. The use of synths is still there at times, and they work less well than does the orchestra, but once again Mark Snow does what he is highly capable of: achieving an intriguing atmosphere. This music is still more straightforward than X-Files, which might have been why I wasn't too impressed at first, but is light-years ahead of his work on those Ernest movies.

TV series

Despite the premature demise of the enjoyably bleak EZ Streets (I can't believe I just said that), I find a happy abundance of not earth-shattering but still-worthy television on view today. One item important to me is that a well-written TV show (or even a badly-written one, frankly) can convey a sense of structure that dramatic writing simply must have, so these programs can serve as object lessons in How To Write. Yes, the drama is often simple and undeveloped, but then so is much of our beloved film music. Like film music, TV programs have to have an immediate impact; they must hook you, or they feel like dead air and you rightfully tune out. While this encourages most TV programs to resort to cliches -- there's a book that lists the mere few dozen plots that have served as the basis for probably 98% of all sitcom episodes ever -- there are shows that grab you the way a good Herrmann-scored Hitchcock film can grab you. These are worth looking for, and which ones grab you depend on your own personal taste.

The idea is simply to watch carefully, and to have little patience for programs you find dishonest. Yes, the level of crap on our hundreds of channels is probably well above 9-out-of-10; yes, most viewers are content to watch the most shallow and obvious shows, rewarding them with ratings; yes, the ratings system itself is both fundamentally flawed and not likely to be replaced. There is still worthwhile material on the tube, being made by people who care.

(Before we start, if readers think that The Simpsons is conspicuous by its absence below, frankly it's because Film Score Monthly has already done long articles about why The Simpsons is so great, and I wouldn't have much to add -- plus I've missed a bunch of this season's shows. Forgive me.)

ER, The Practice and weird themes

Four years ago in Film Score Monthly, producer-we-love Nick Redman stated that composers working in film and television "would have to think in terms of new textures...[and] the possibility of small ensembles, chamber music." Richard Kraft added how he admired Graeme Revell's work on Dead Calm, scored "for cello, African percussion and heavy breathing," and a Richard Gibbs piece "for ukelele and chicken." (FSM #36/37, August/September 1993). The point was that the next likely path towards distinctive scoring would be the use of idiosyncratic musical sounds. There is more and more of this on television nowadays, mainly in opening title music that we have trouble humming. (I find it ironic that the most interesting melody I heard on TV last month was the "longing for Ithaca" theme in the otherwise terrible score for The Odyssey.)

Yes, the experimentation has been to the detriment of theme work; even a composer as thematically driven as Danny Elfman leaned away from obvious themes in his textured Dead Presidents score. Live with it. The results have been noteworthy for their true assertiveness, a still-too-rare feature of television scoring. I recently read a Jerry Fielding interview where he said most audiences will remember a unique sound more readily than a theme, and I find myself agreeing. To give one example, on the Mission: Impossible cue "Train Time," it was the brass color and not the slamming 8-note motif which first made an impression on me -- and that motif was pretty straightforward.

So now we have such title music as ER, Homicide: Life on the Street (with Se7en-esque opening credits that are worth checking out), NYPD Blue, The X-Files (at least there's a theme we can grasp), Home Improvement and its tongue-in-cheek "machine music," and Seinfeld's Seinfeld-style scoring. The late-season offering Fired Up (blessed with two very winning actresses but not yet too distinguished in its script-work) had thick and smile-inducing use of fiddles, courtesy Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo fame. Also, the markedly edgy theme to David E. Kelley's excellent new series The Practice immediately establishes that show's ragged feel.

For the most part, however, this experimentation has not reached to the actual scores for episodes. Exceptions have been Seinfeld, NYPD Blue -- whose music really evolved out of what Mike Post was writing as far back as Hill Street Blues -- and of course The X-Files, which Lukas evaluated in FSM #76 (December 1996).

As for some other shows mentioned above: Though ER's Martin Davich has worked off-kilter bongo rhythms into the operating room scenes, creating an interesting and distinctive sound that breaks through the sound effects, the rest of the episodic scoring has been of the "here's the solo piano, it's time to cry" school. In other words, these are ideas we've heard before.

Also, the only part of The Practice that I've found to be slightly disappointing has been the episodic scoring by Stewart Levin, who did stronger work on Picket Fences. It's as if the music is tracked in, and they're using nothing but the synth-string sustains from NYPD Blue. Like too much TV scoring, the music has also tilted the feeling of scenes too obviously in a certain emotional direction; a phone call from a potentially disturbed defendant was scored with music that said, "Look out, he's nuts!" Perhaps, being a courtroom drama, The Practice should use as little music as possible -- though it doesn't use much as it is -- and let what music there is punch out of the sonic void. It might be more interesting...more experimental. (And next time you watch the show, note the sly use of the Picket Fences theme in the logo for David E. Kelley Productions.)

Star Trek: Voyager

Happily, there were some felicitous moments music-wise on the show this season -- and, happily, I happened to tune in just when these particular episodes were on. Dennis McCarthy provided a beautiful, classical-sounding sadness to the episode where Robert Picardo as The Doctor lives a life with a computer-generated family. And for the season finale, where the Voyager meets first the Borg and then the one race even the Borg fear (spiffily rendered in Babylon 5-style computer effects), Jay Chattaway threw in a percussion-based theme and threatening brass that barked and trilled. Quite simply, cool.

But we're still left with the current Star Trek conundrum: two shows with strong actors, strong writers, strong directors, strong producers and strong composers -- yet the results more often than not are shows that simply mark time at a cost of over $1.6 million an episode.

In Closing

Hmm. It's starting to look as if the only truly noteworthy music-related event in the May Sweeps was having k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge on Ellen's so-called "Puppy" episode. So now, as we settle into summer reruns -- punctuated by NBC's suprisingly desperate "If You Haven't Seen It, It's New to You!" campaign -- remember that TV can reward the careful viewer whose TV consumption is well-seasoned with grains of salt.
Tags: film reviews, flashbacks, harlan, music

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