I’m a big fan of television show soundtracks.
Not scores - I find those fairly boring, personally - but I love a well soundtracked TV show and find that it adds an excellent layer to the narrative. There are many, many TV shows with fantastic soundtracks - here are two that stand out in my TV-watching experience over the last few years. Well, and I may mention a third - although I don’t mind admitting that it is a bit of a sneaky indulgence that probably just deserves its own post.
This British show started off with some of the best, most fun episodes I’d seen on TV in a while. The first series was just 6 episodes and that was the worst thing about it - that there just wasn’t enough of it. The show did go on for another few seasons, but let’s never, ever even mention 4 and 5, ‘kay?
So what happens when a group of delinquents in South London who are just starting community service for various crimes are hit by a freak electrical storm and gain strange powers? Do you really think they’ll become superheroes? They’re not ‘good’ people - they’re all here because they’ve done something wrong, so who is to say they’ll then use their powers for good? And, anyway, haven’t we had enough of using your powers for good? And I don’t mean in the super-villain sense, just in the "oh shit, but how can I use what I’ve got to fix my life" sense. You know, ordinary petty criminals with selfish desires - they’re just like you and me, really.
Misfits opens with a crime - look, we’re all criminals here and it was self defence anyway - but the gang’s probation officer ends up very dead when they retaliate to his sudden maniacal violence against them (the storm gave this poor sod some serious aggression as his ‘superpower’. Not cool, storm). Next thing they know, the misfits have these strange abilities and the dead body of the show’s sole authority figure to dispose of. Wouldn’t you use your powers to hide the body of your dead probation worker? The entire first series then revolves around the consequences of this first death - lots of other great stuff happens too, of course, but we spiral outwards from here, the characters developing their own arcs and entering varying dynamics with each other as they travel along an interesting trajectory as a group.
Never mind that the show couldn't maintain the same verve much past the second series (don’t even pretend the third series was that great - it was okay), but really, Misfits started off so very strong. And amongst many of the things it did right was its really solid soundtrack. At times the songs are used humorously and literally, as in "Something’s Gotten a Hold of My Heart" by Gene Pitney, when resident joker-misfit Nathan meets Ruth, the gorgeous young volunteer who turns out to be an elderly woman who can temporarily revert to her youth. In fact, at the moment she flashes back into her elderly self, the song we hear is Neil Diamond’s "Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon" - it’s very evident that the show’s writers are in on the jokes, of course.
Sometimes the songs were used brilliantly at an entirely inopportune time and often - again - for comic relief, such as when Hanson’s ‘MmmBop’ plays on the car radio as the lot in orange hazmat suits are on their way to rob a bank. Who doesn’t love a little MmmBop?
The first season alone had songs from singers/bands as varied as Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, The Velvet Underground, Florence & the Machine, Jeff Beck, Joy Division, Ms Dynamite, The XX, Sam & Dave, The Black Keys, Candi Staton Blur and Lady Gaga. That’s just some of the artists they used, and in just 6 episodes. Brilliant, really.
It just makes me very sad that the show crashed at some point in series 3, but when it was good, it was a fantastically entertaining, funny, campy romp of a show. And it brought us this badass Metronomy track, the very girth of which amazes me every single time I hear it.
American Horror Story: Coven
I’ve quite enjoyed AHS since it started. I like its campy little quirks, I like that each season starts a new storyline, a new setting and an entirely new premise, I like the rotating cast of actors who get to play different characters each time, I like the strong female cast and I really, really liked the witches of the third series.
AHS: Coven was set in New Orleans, with a large and entirely impressive female cast, most of whom played witches in a coven - or witches against the coven. Jessica Lange plays the resident Supreme of the Robichaux Academy who will do anything to regain her youth and maintain her position. She is threatened by the arrival of a number of young witches, each of whom show various powers and any of whom may replace her as the Supreme. The only other person as powerful as Lange’s character is famed New Orleans voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, played by Angela Basset in an incredibly powerful, complicated performance. There are powerful witches, strange desires, incredible music from the south, oh - and Stevie Nicks.
AHS: Coven employed a creeptastic cover by Lauren O’Connell of the classic folk song "House of the Rising Sun" (made famous commercially by The Animals in 1964) for its initial trailer. The song itself tells of a house that has ruined many a young man - a house that may be a prison or a brothel or a gambling den or even a coven - and so works here as a sly indication of all the despair that befalls the male characters on the show.
Speaking of creeptastic, AHS: Coven mined New Orleans’ musical culture in the best way possible. Angela Basset was nothing if not pitch perfect as Marie Laveau, and if there ever anything less it was smoothed over with the perfect accompaniment. Louisiana producer Papa Mali’s haunting tracks are featured a number of times on the soundtrack, often providing the aural setting for Marie’s beauty salon or when one of the young witches, living voodoo doll Queenie chooses to use her powers. Papa Mali definitely makes for a richer, more evocative scene each time.
Another perfect New Orleans number used in AHS: Coven is by the legendary Dr. John, who, of course, has sung about gris-gris magic before, too. But here, it’s his classic "Right Place, Wrong Time" that’s used during the scene of the coven burning another witch at the stake - a witch who, yes indeed, really was there are the wrong time.
But let me make it clear - AHS: Coven was pretty much made to feature the music of Stevie Nicks. One of the contenders for the position of the next supreme is the ‘swamp witch’ Misty Day, played by Lily Rabe. Misty has the power to resurrect the dead and is a sort of classic pagan Wiccan - she’s all about being one with nature, living in harmony with the animals and never hurting a soul. This doesn’t work out for her when her Pentecostal community see her resurrect a bird and burn her at the stake - but of course, Misty can’t die. So she turns to music to ease her loneliness. And who better to help heal her hear than the great white witch herself, Stevie Nicks?
When one of the coven first meet Misty, she’s in her shack in the swamp listening to my favourite Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac song, "Rhiannon". "This song was her anthem," says Misty, "…doesn’t it just penetrate your soul and tell the truth about everything you've ever felt in your whole life?’"Why yes, yes it does, Misty.
I admit, after many episodes features Stevie songs and Fleetwood Mac songs, I nearly wept when Stevie herself made an appearance as Stevie Nicks, super star and practitioner of white magic. Playing into every rumour that had been spread about her being a witch, Stevie Nicks fit right into the fierce female cast of the show, even though - and she admits it - she really can’t act. But what does it matter? We get to see her sing "Rhiannon" live! Almost. And it’s amazing.
This is where I cheat and mention a show that really shouldn't be here, a show that needs dozens of its own articles - Nashville. I know I’m not alone when I say that this is possibly the most interesting, fast moving and entertaining television shows I have seen in a long time and I’m not even a fan of country music, generally. The thing is, Nashville has it all - a huge range of characters with complex arcs and steady development who share incredible shifting dynamics, great drama, fantastic eye candy and oh my god the hair and the shoes and the dresses - never say glam hair and spangles couldn’t change something from just okay to "whoa, hey what just happened?!" because on Nashville it really can. And yes, though you may, like me, not particularly love country music, this show’s got something infectious going on.
Technically, the music is performed as part of the narrative - it’s a show about country singers after all! But really, that’s a technicality, right? I suppose by the same rules I should mention Glee but we all know that went to shit a few seasons ago. The thing with Nashville is, it’s still great. Every song you hear it worked into the scene - it’s either a live performance or a recording or a rehearsal and it’s all performed by the actors themselves. Nashville producers have brought in a few country greats to help with the original songs, but they’ve also done something true to the spirit of the show - they’ve found those songwriters in Nashville who are still trying to make it big and have featured their music on as a way to give them the break they need. What’s not to love? Sure the show has some issues with an all too white cast (it’s Nashville, you can do better, producers!) and an indulgence towards some of the more annoying characters (I’m looking at you, Deacon, you and your constant man-pain), but it makes up for this by having two incredibly complex female characters (country music stars Rayna James and Juliette Barnes, played by Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere respectively) who act as the major drivers for the larger plots.
But Nashville really does deserve it’s own post, one that may never end, especially if I bring in fellow super-fan Kate Elliot with whom I break down every episode’s narrative as if it were a great classic of contemporary literature - hey, there are layers at play here, layers! In the meantime let me end this post by linking you to one of my favourite songs in Nashville, a bluesy little number called "Hennessee", performed at the iconic country music bar the Bluebird Cafe by three characters who aren’t yet at the big time yet. In fact, one sort of left the show and that was annoying but let’s enjoy this for now
What have some of your favourite television show soundtracks been recently? And which of you love Nashville the way that so many of us unabashedly do?