In the current “Golden Age of Television,” it is undisputed that television programs have begun to venture into the cinematic. With longer run times, higher budgets and a broader horizon of freedom to express a theme or message, it is plain to see that television is no longer film’s “little brother” in the “family” of the overall media landscape.
One of the most prominent ways in which television has elevated its craft is through the augmented role of music. For the past century, music has been an integral part of film culture. There is no “Rocky” without “Eye of The Tiger,” there is no “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” without “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.” Imagine a movie without a score or musical montage. It would just feel like a hollow stage play. Conversely, music has no storied history in television (save for catchy theme songs). In fact, the only example of overlaid audio I can think of in past television is the episode of “Seinfeld” when George attempts to use Petula Clark’s “Downtown” as a clue for his work project. And even still, that was 1996.
As television increasingly moves towards cinematic production quality, it only seems right that similar musical integration techniques are adopted. Just as with the movies, now, television programs that lack music just seem of a lower stratum than those that do. However, it is not enough to slap a Top 40 hit into the credits sequence, and call it a day — it must be done skillfully, purposefully. When done right, music has the power to add dimension, to convey something that could not be expressed clearly through dialogue or camera movement. In addition to adding rhythm, a kinetic energy to a moment or sequence, music is even integral in constructing the tone of the project. Music has the ability to evoke something in viewers that would not be able to be felt without it. So, without further ado, here are the top ten television musical moments of 2018.
10. “Billions” (Season 3, Episode 7), ‘Street Punks’ by Vince Staples
While watching two white men steeped in the world of white-collar crime walk off an elevator, Vince Staples may not be the first artist to come to mind. Yet, in “Billions” episode “Wags and Axe,” no other song could be so fitting. As hedge fund boss, Wagner (David Constabile, “Suits”), and his (quite literal) partner in crime, Axelrod (Damian Lewis, “Band of Brothers”), enter a celebration of their latest escape from the law, Staples’s “Street Punks” comes thumping into the scene. As the song grows, so does the anxiety in Axelrod’s expression — the once triumphant tune transforms into something almost threatening, encircling. “You a muthafuckin’ street punk / This’ll blow you up.” The song taunts Axelrod, drowning him in a beat that punctuated a near-perfect display of contradiction and consternation.
— Samantha Della Fera, Senior Arts Editor
9. “Killing Eve” (Season 1, Episode 2), ‘Contact’ by Brigitte Bardot
While the majority of this list is dedicated to moments when music has worked to convey things that are more “macro” (overall themes of episodes or the series as a whole), moments when music has worked to convey things of seemingly smaller significance are often overlooked. Introducing audiences to a new character can be tricky, especially when the characterization must be done for a character as enigmatic as Villanelle (Jodie Comer, “My Mad Fat Diary”). Too complex a character to be described merely through dialogue, there must be some other factor at work to communicate clearly who Villanelle is, which is where music is crucial. It is hard to pinpoint why exactly Brigitte Bardot’s “Contact” works so well in encapsulating the essence of the glamorous French assassin, yet it does. It is the perfect choice as the both the song and the woman inhabit a middle ground between chaotically bombastic and sleek. Synchronized with her unfeeling exit from her lover’s apartment, viewers are able to see that for Villanelle, her coldness is not only reserved for her kills. Rather, she approaches many things, even human contact, with an indifferent methodology.
— Ally Owens, TV Editor
8. “Dirty John” (Season 1, Episode 3), ‘Angel Baby’ by Rosie and The Originals
Bravo’s “Dirty John,” in many ways, could be considered the sleeper hit of the winter season. When it was first announced the reality show giant would be recreating the popular true crime podcast, many fans salivated over the chance to see just how badly Bravo could butcher the twisted tale. Shockingly, it has not happened. Part of the appeal of “Dirty John” is the preservation of the realism of the events rather than opting for shameless sensationalism (à la Lifetime). One of the ways they maintain this realism is through the integration of recreations of home video footage. One of the most memorable examples of this comes near the end of the third episode — footage of John (Eric Bana, “The Forgiven”) and his wife lovingly exiting their wedding. Because by this point in the series, viewers have been made well aware of John’s pattern of horrid abuses, the picturesque moment set to sappy slow dance classic “Angel Baby” receives a sinister twist. The chilling feeling this sequence evokes in large part is due to the stirring nature of the song. It is no accident that this ’60s oldie was selected. It is reminiscent of a time when men dominated women, a past that John clearly wishes he could return to through his exploitative control of passive women.
— Ally Owens, TV Beat Editor
7. “Barry” (Season 1, Episode 6), ‘Fight Song’ by Rachel Platten
There are three people present for this scene: a bad actress who is stuck in a bubble, a cop who is mildly confused about the case she’s working on and a Chechen mobster who is bad at his job. The cop is chasing the Chechen, who is chasing the actress, who is sitting triumphant in her car, blaring “Fight Song,” completely unaware of the events outside. This scene is one of the best in “Barry.” The music cuts right through the middle of the chaos, drowning out the gunshots and screams. It’s a reminder to its viewers that “Barry” doesn’t take itself too seriously. The scene has high stakes, but the usage of “Fight Song” makes it feel as though the show is communicating that the stakes could be higher and smarter people could be participating. It isn’t only hilarious, it is also comforting. It diffuses the tension just enough to remind you that even though everyone involved is a little too stupid to do much damage.
— Max Schwarz, Daily Arts Writer
6. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (Season 3, Episode 1), ‘Let’s Generalize About Men’ by Rachel Bloom
Yes! Even in-universe musical numbers count as musical moments. Over the course of its four seasons, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has built up a reputation of being the premier mixologist of social commentary and straight up bops. Written and performed by showrunner Rachel Bloom, “Let’s Generalize About Men,” continues in the show’s tradition of using musical theatre to make acerbic points about many overlooked shortcomings within our society. After being left at the altar on her wedding day by ex-fiancé, Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III, “Designated Survivor”), protagonist Rebecca (Bloom) and her group of girlfriends project their feelings regarding Josh onto the entire male sex. And while the song definitely does not shy away from poignant critiques of its titular target, it also brilliantly analyzes the unhealthy aspects of the “primal ritual” that a large number of women engage in when wronged. I give you fair warning before listening, the song will be stuck in your head for the entirety of 2019.
— Ally Owens, Beat Editor
5. “Bojack Horseman” (Season 5 Finale), ‘Under the Pressure’ by The War on Drugs
Diane’s (Alison Brie, “GLOW”) journey captured in the most recent season of the best animated series in TV was tragic, relatable and one that never quite produced any answers to explain why her seemingly swell life went to shit. Her most poignant moment comes at the conclusion of the season, while she gently leads Bojack to rehab after a disturbing turn of events in the penultimate episode. She explains to him how there isn’t a distinction between good and bad people, just good people trying to be good. However, it never really seems that she herself accepts her own wisdom, and in her search for catharsis, we see her take an idyllic coastline drive as “Under the Pressure,” a sprawling, Springsteen-esque track wraps up a stunning season.
— Sayan Ghosh, Assistant Arts Editor
4. “Atlanta” (Season 2, Episode 6), ‘Evil’ by Stevie Wonder
Love it or hate it, Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” is the best example of a TV show that takes whatever expectations you may have of it and, like Craig Ferguson before an interview, rips them up and throws them in your face. “Teddy Perkins” is the result of that creative process, resulting in an episode that gets progressively more horrifying with each passing minute. By its closing, viewers end up like Darius (Lakeith Stanfield, “Sorry to Bother You”) — confused, shell-shocked and, frankly, kind of broken. Stevie Wonder’s almost funeral-esque “Evil” seems to be the only option to close out the traumatic episode, feeling as menacing and well, evil, as you have ever perceived it.
— Sayan Ghosh, Assistant Arts Editor
3. “GLOW” (Season 2, Episode 5), ‘I Know What Boys Like’ by The Waitresses
In what would subsequently become known as the season’s #MeToo episode (as though the inclusion of such content is something to be ashamed of), the iconic novelty song gets a dark distortion in its employment at the close of the episode. The most impressive thing about this musical moment is how, even after one of the grimmest episodes of the normally lighthearted series, it was still able to preserve its tongue-in-cheek, smarmy tone. In an episode dedicated to analyzing the culture of entertainment in which female performers overwhelmingly are forced to commodify themselves for male pleasure, it is hard not to take the somber route in terms of music choice. Only, if the people behind “GLOW” were to do that, it would feel disjointed from the rest of the series, as though it was a subsidized Very Special Episode™. Over the years, “I Know What Boys Like” has become a joke, a gag song, used in moments to parody overt sexuality. Thus, the choice to subvert this association with the song is brilliant. Just as we expect to laugh when we hear the song, audiences expect to laugh at “GLOW.” So, when something as hauntingly real as Ruth’s (Alison Brie, “Mad Men”) near-sexual assault happen, we halt and pay attention. When “I Know What Boys Like” is used to close such a powerful episode, it is impossible not to look at the song in a different light.
— Ally Owens, TV Beat Editor
2. “Wild, Wild Country” (Season 1, Episode 3), “AM. A.M” by Damien Jurado
The ethereal “AM.A.M” in documentary “Wild, Wild Country” is hard to ignore in the third installment of the series primarily because of the jarring feeling of a modern song accompanying historic archival footage. Conventionally, in documentary, it is standard that footage will be shown alongside music from the given era. Manson Family footage will be shown alongside a track from The Doors. Ice Cube will supplement shots of the 1992 L.A. riots, and so on. Although taken for granted, documentary music can provide a formidable challenge: it must understatedly convey the tone or zeitgeist of the era, group or topic it is investigating, yet avoid being too “on the nose.” How well did “AM.A.M” meet this criterion? Consider the fact I was marginally considering joining the sect guilty of poisoning a town simply because of how dreamlike and mesmerizing the song made the Rajneeshees’ World Festival appear. Even the most standoffish viewer would be able to overlook the divisive reputation of the group in favor or enjoying the sheer joy captured onscreen.
— Ally Owens, TV Editor
1. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Season 2, Episode 8), ‘Someday’ by The Strokes
The name for this episode entitled “…Someday” which shows Midge and Susie on their dynamic, mildly depressing comedy tour, comes from The Strokes’ classic 2001 song “Someday.” The song plays as the credits roll, a strong punctuation to an important episode that appears to almost mirror both the tone and lyrics of the alternative track. It is the type of song you’d listen to on the road, windows down, hair flying, screaming the words at the top of your lungs as to mask the tedium of a long drive with an uncertain destination. Midge’s life in that moment is reflected in the lyrics of the song. “I’m working so I don’t have to try hard, tables they turn sometimes.” In the past year, her world was turned upside down: breaking out of codependency to a place of autonomy and self-assurance. The pristine world of “Mrs. Maisel,” often peppered with the sickingly sweet chords of 1950s standards, is suddenly blown apart by a modern, guitar-driven promise of change.
— Samantha Della Fera, Senior Arts Editor