TV shows use songs to tell stories

'True Blood,' 'Life' add music to advance plots

Two music-driven television shows — one new, one returning — demonstrate how placements can play a pivotal role, either by drenching scenes in song or by very carefully placing just a song or two for lengthy stretches.

“True Blood,” which HBO unveils Sept. 7, is set in northern Louisiana in a world that bounces between a roadhouse bar and vampires. In the premiere episode alone, there are a dozen synch placements, a few of which are used at length. NBC’s “Life,” which returns to air Oct. 3, will follow the musical pattern it employed last year, in which most episodes only used two songs, but played nearly three-quarters of each song rather than just a few bars. The tunes originate from obscure artists like Daniel Johnston as well as arena headliners like the Rolling Stones and Radiohead.

Usage is less about quantity than accentuation. Case in point: Morphine’s “Buena” during a four-minute segment in the first season of “Life.”

“That was bizarre in that we put it into a cut and it played out to the second,” says Rand Ravich, “Life’s” exec producer, who selected all the show’s music in its first season. “You have to be careful — music has to enhance; you don’t want it to overwhelm. It’s nice to see when it acts as one more component” in a scene.

In the first two episodes of the new season, Ravich has two tunes he believes will have a similar effect: “Colleen,” a Curtis Mayfieldish R&B number by the Heavy in the premiere, and Low’s “Cue the Strings” in the second episode.

“True Blood” is taking the approach that music should be an additional character. CC Adcock, who has been fusing blues, zydeco and rock ‘n’ roll throughout Louisiana for two decades, has been tapped to lead the house band at the show’s juke joint.

“There’s music playing all the time, and that can mean older swamp pop that Excello put out as well as the Dixie Chicks,” says music supervisor Gary Calamar. “The vampires are hundreds of years old, so they have a wide range of very sophisticated music tastes. We’re using some world music — Tuvan throat music, Swedish music.”

Calamar was working on “True Blood” while winding down on NBC’s “Swingtown” and preparing for another season of Showtime’s “Dexter.”

“Dexter,” he notes, “is lots of Latin and Cuban sounds. In the same way, ‘True Blood’ is about a vibe, one defined by blues, country and the dramatic score by Nathan Barr. HBO and Showtime take their music seriously; it’s the creator who determines how experimental you can be.

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