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Looking back on TV: two thoughts on the double aughts

In television on 12/19/2009 at 9:57 am

Blood and music. Lots of other stuff happened in TV land during the double aughts. The rise of HBO, the death and rebirth of comedy, the revival of the game show/competition, so-called reality television. Deeper thinkers have that covered. But I have a thought or two. You’ll indulge me.

So there I was, couple years back, walking toward the grocery store when i saw, out of the corner of my eye, a man — middle aged, overweight, hair thinning a little — carrying two jugs of bleach as he crossed at the light.
The sight sparked a thought that stopped me cold. The thought was that this was all very familiar and horrible. Starts with the scene from (fill in the blank CSI or Law & Order) where, after taking their evidence out of the Acme Whiz Bang Machine, the forensic toady identifies the exact brand of bleach used BY THE KILLER to clean up at his latest serial killing and, by simple googling, the toady is able to identify who has recently bought a suspiciously large amount of bleach and, well, I was pretty close to making a citizen’s arrest.
So that’s my first observation about the last decade of television. It’s been killer and from both sides of the entry wound, as it were.
It’s been the decade of the serial killer. What show hasn’t had one? It’s been a staple on soaps for years. Just catching the beginning of the double aughts was Profiler (1996-2000), starring Ally Walker and Julian McMahon (Nip/Tuck) as serial-killer trackers. Now, we have Criminal Minds (2005-), which I have not yet been able to watch even to the first commercial break. Creepy.
Then TV went through the looking glass with the arrival of Dexter (2006-), a serial killer who kills serial killers. Is he a bad man who does good things or a good man who does bad things? We don’t care. It seems we love Dexter because there is such poignancy in Michael C. Hall’s portrayal of the monster, because there is such shockingly unexpected humour and such great villains — Jimmy Smits as the DA gone very bad, and John Lithgow so nakedly disturbed in this just-wrapped past season.
That Dexter is also a blood-spatter specialist employed by the police leads to the other side of the death ledger: the CSI-ification of police procedurals, with frequent shots of technicians lustily hacking into cadavers, peeling back layers, squidging around to retrieve bullets, gelatinously recreating the path of the blade/bullet/unknown blunt object with CGE. Forensics porn.
Back in 1996, when in L.A. to preview the fall season, I recall being among reporters pestering exec producer Tom Fontana about why he was bringing a new coroner into the main cast of characters on Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-99). He made the case that coroners were key, that Michelle Forbes’s Dr. Julianna Cox had the power to declare a death a homicide or not, and that he saw tremendous dramatic potential. There was scoffing all round. Cox rode into the Baltimore in her red convertible in 1996 and rode out the same way in 1998, leaving behind a shattered heart or two and a decent cluster of performances but no broken ground. Fontana was right about the dramatic potential, but he forgot a key ingredient: the bucket of chum.
Now it’s the rare crime show that doesn’t have a cadaver technician on the payroll. Vivid examples outside the CSI (2000-) family are Crossing Jordan (2001-07) and Bones (2005-), the latter of which specializes in really old cadavers. Eeew. Ick. But kinda fun, right?

Another trend that caught my fancy while looking back at the double-aught decade of TV is music.
Sure, shows like Grey’s Anatomy are like record store showcases on occasion, with the hype machine going into overdrive to promote the inclusion of this emo heart-breaker or that singer-songwriter’s lament. And I have been known to check out the show’s music page, and occasionally iTune a track. But other shows have more eclectic choices that have led me to some great musical discoveries. And I have not included Glee because a show about music is too obvious to be singled out for its use of music, no?

Here are five of my fave shows with great musical selections.

1. Sopranos (1999-2007) Creator/exec David Chase had a hand in selecting the music, which often fit so snugly into the scene, it was as though he’d had it special ordered. Highlights: Alabama 3’s Woke Up the Morning, Johnny Thunders’ Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory and Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody. Wikipedia has a great list of tracks, matched to episodes. But buy at least the first soundtrack: Sopranos: Music from the HBO Original Series (also Sopranos: Pepper and Eggs — Music from the HBO Original Series).

2. Rescue Me (2004-) Like David Chase over on Sopranos, Rescue Me creator and star Denis Leary takes his post-9/11 firehouse drama’s music seriously. Here’s a link to the music page (click on the episode, then click on the song link to play it; past seasons at bottom of the page). Fave from past season: Ryan Adams’ My Blue Manhattan in Episode 17, over a montage of the lads heading out to an inferno. Fave overall is still the theme song, Von Bondies’ C’mon C’mon. Listen without bouncing. I dare you. It’s on the soundtrack.

3. Swingtown (2008) While some neighbours in this drama set in the 1970s were getting funky with sex and drugs, the new neighbours were stiffly resisting. Until they weren’t. Great series with potential that died too quick a death. But the music is forever. Highlights: Every episode was a music blast. Here’s a nifty site, heardontv, that gives a list of episodes, which clicks through to the songs for each episode with links for playing or buying. Such as the pilot, which includes Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now, Captain and Tennille’s Love Will Keep Us Together, Bowie’s Golden Years, Rita Coolidge’s Higher and Higher and Gary Wright’s Dream Weaver.

4. Hung (2009) HBO series about a dad and high-school coach pimping himself out to make money to be a better provider? Talk about a series for the recession. The bleak humour blossomed and this became a good little show by the end of its first 10-episode season. The music was pure joyful discovery for me. Highlight: Loretta Lynn’s Have Mercy as the hero doles out a free sample to the neighbour. Here is the entire soundtrack/episode list.

5. Vampire Diaries (2009-) This CW show about good and evil vampire brothers and the mortal girl one loves is surprisingly not the soapy teen angst-fest I thougth it would be. I haven’t seen a lot of it, but I love what I’ve seen and the music has been quite intriguing, though a little young for my ringing ears. Highlight: Episode 2’s Help I’m Alive by Metric and Sara Bareilles’ Gravity. Oddly, the series’ official music page doesn’t list all the tracks (and doesn’t list Episode 2’s songs at all), but this fansite is better, so thanks to katzforums.

Also check out my favourite shows and TV moments from 2000-2009.

— Denise Duguay

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