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TV Sweeps Round-Up Part Two

by Christopher Walsh

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 (with Seven-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.

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