The use of pre-existing recorded music in television drama is nothing new. In fact, closing out an episode, season or series with a poignant moment or montage set to popular music is now a trope in itself – even shows like The Blacklist conclude every second episode with such a montage, all-but killing the power and intended effect of the ending.
When used sparingly and thoughtfully, a single musical track can compliment/unsettle a scene or sequence like no line of dialogue or sound effect can. That is what director Johan Renck had in mind when he asked David Bowie to contribute the theme for the opening credits of his series, The Last Panthers, now on SBS. The theme eventually became "Blackstar", the first song on Bowie's final album of the same name, which was released two days before he passed away in January.
"I was looking for one of the icons of my youth to write the music for the title sequence, but was presented with a God," Renck said. "The piece of music he laid before us embodied every aspect of our characters and the series itself - dark, brooding, beautiful and sentimental..."
Indeed, some of the most memorable scenes in recent television history are owed to the use of music. Here are a few of them...
Six Feet Under (Season 5, Episode 12) - "Breathe Me" by Sia
Anyone who braved six seasons worth of emotional torture to reach the end of Six Feet Under were rewarded with the ultimate moment of catharsis, when creator Alan Ball closed the series’ casket by flashing forward to every character’s death, separating each with headstone-like title cards.
Along with this track from pre-faceless Sia, the sequence installs a suction tube to your tear ducts no matter how many times you watch it.
Deadwood (Season 1, Episode 4) - “Iguazu” by Gustavo Santaolalla
The aftermath of Wild Bill Hickok’s murder in Deadwood season one was accompanied by one of the most-used tracks on modern screens (The Insider, Babel, Collateral, Friday Night Lights, 24, Vodafone commercial).
The soulful, anticipatory guitar part of Santaolalla’s cinematic track plays directly into our sense of dread while amplifying the profundity of the scene.
Friday Night Lights (Season 1, Episode 22) - “Devil Town” by Daniel Johnston, covered by Tony Lucca
Reclusive legend Daniel Johnston’s sinister ode to small town life was the perfect counterpoint to the folksy charm of Dillon, Texas. The song supported those Dillon residents privy to the ominous side of the town – those who felt trapped and restricted by the town’s pinhole of an outlook and longed for a life in the wider world.
“Devil Town” appeared at various points throughout all five seasons, but it was here in the final moments of season one that we first felt its power.
The West Wing (Season 2, Episode 22) - “Brothers In Arms” by Dire Straits
Say what you will about Aaron Sorkin and his idealism/elitism, but the first four seasons of The West Wing remain ridiculously awesome (and not in the superlative sense – I mean they actually inspired awe) still to this day.
Unlike many a modern show, Sorkin and his director Tommy Schlamme saved music-set montages for seasons’ ends, and in doing so made it impossible to choose between the aggrandising climaxes of season two and four. Luckily, only one was available online to embed.
The Wire (Season 5, Episode 10) - “Down in the Hole” by The Blind Boys of Alabama
Special mention must go to the conclusion of “that season of The Wire about the kids”, but it’s the concluding pages of David Simon’s televisual novel that stick in the memory.
The final sequence of the final episode of the final season takes stock of how far and wide McNulty, Marlo, Bubbles and the city of Baltimore (and us) have travelled to get to this point, and not only does it compensate for some of the (alleged) weaknesses of season five, but also drives us mad that we were forced to say goodbye.
Breaking Bad (Season 5, Episode 8) - “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondelles
It feels rather blasphemous to highlight the only Breaking Bad cooking montage that doesn’t include Jesse Pinkman, but we can’t help but revere Vince Gilligan’s restraint in waiting until the show’s end to use what is perhaps the most perfect song by which to synthesise blue methamphetamine.
Gilligan and co. ensured every new cook offered a new perspective to the process, and this epic succession of clips attune viewers to Walt’s growing boredom at being the new Gus Fring.
Luckily, he manages to quit while he’s ahead and everything works out perfectly for everyone.
Mad Men (Season 1, Episode 13) - “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (The Freewheeling)” by Bob Dylan
Returning to the Draper house at the end of season one surprised viewers for two reasons.
One, Don’s sweet plan to join the family on a trip was quashed by arriving to an empty house, and two, creator Matthew Weiner had for the first time broken the timeline by including a Bob Dylan song that didn’t exist in the year the scene was set, thus sending TV bloggers into a whirlwind from which they never recovered.
Northern Exposure (Season 6, Episode 23) - “Our Town” by Iris Dement
I’ve spent well over a decade waving copies of Northern Exposure DVDs in the faces of Twin Peaks fans, as they aired concurrently and were both filmed in Washington state (though one was passing for Alaska).
Northern Exposure was taken over by The Sopranos’ David Chase (and boasted many prominent The Sopranos writers) halfway through its run, so it’s unsurprising that instinctive use of music became one of the show’s calling cards.
Though the series took a relative dip in story thanks to the exit of its lead character, the series closed out with the most fitting of songs – one that forced us to say goodbye to that peaceful, soulful town we never wanted to prove fictional.
The Shield (Season 2, Episode 13) - “Overcome” by Live (yes, Live)
Try to ignore the actual lyrics of this bit of earnest cock-rock and let’s put it’s use in context. Like The Wire, The Shield opted not to use a musical score, which made the rare appearance of music sounding from outside the frame that much more effective.
When you factor in a season's worth of crazy strike team business leading up to this moment, the reveal at the end of the montage hooked viewers for the third season.
The Sopranos (Season 6, Episode 1) - “Seven Souls” by Material featuring William S Burroughs
Through The Sopranos, David Chase perfected his Scorcese-influenced obsession with on-screen music.
We all know he managed to not only reintroduce Journey’s cheesy Don’t Stop Believing into pop culture, but actually added weight to the air-headed song. He also oversaw an ingenious two-track mash-up (before the existence of the mash-up) of Henry Mancini’s “Theme From Peter Gunn” and The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”.
But it was after a long between-season hiatus that Chase threw us for a loop with this seemingly ill-fitting season opener that establishes where our characters are at the minute, while creating a puzzle for obsessive fans to solve.
What are some of your favourite musical moments in TV drama? Let us know in the comments.
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