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  • Status Quo Ante: Music in (Post)Quality TV
  • Willem Strank (bio)

When Robert J. Thompson recognized the second golden age of television in 1996, his oldest examples for a new phenomenon called “quality TV” were already fifteen years old.1 The new type of cop show, exemplified by Hill Street Blues, is sometimes referred to as the beginning of a “‘quality’ revolution,” and Thompson’s attempt at defining the new kind of television catering to “blue chip demographics” or “‘upscale’ viewers” has been quoted numerous times by now.2 The normative and apologetic impetus of the term “quality TV” has evoked its share of criticism, obviously, but it has endured to describe a phenomenon sometimes attached to Thompson’s “second golden age” (1981–95) and sometimes to the series that followed suit, often dubbed a “third golden age” (from 1997).3 All things considered, Thompson’s original approach was not exceedingly normative, though quite possibly apologetic. His definition was tied to no fewer than twelve criteria, and his groundwork led to the perception of quality TV as a television genre with a distinct target audience, high production values, and commonalities of style.4 While most of the newer articles and monographs about quality TV hark back to Thompson’s definition from 1996, the term is of course much older [End Page 458] and had been used as a distinctive marker of ennoblement in television discourse much earlier, as Robin Nelson pointed out in 2007.5

Jason Mittell came up with a viable alternative to the term “quality TV” in 2015, noting an increasing number of TV series adhering to a self-imposed “narrative complexity” since the mid-1990s.6 Narrative complexity was defined as a combination of episodic form and serial narration, a paradigm indebted to a new creative approach toward the traditional limitations of television narration.7 Although “complexity” may indeed be just as apologetic and as normative a criterion as “quality,” Mittell’s definition was picked up by many as a more text-based alternative; at the same time, some features of TV series produced between 1981 and 2019 are definitely appropriate to reconcile the differences between complex and quality television. One dominating feature is the high production values of newer series (Rome, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire), inviting comparisons to the visual style of cinema rather than to more economical studio alternatives. There is furthermore a tendency to multiprotagonist narratives and more extensive world-building (The Wire, Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad, and Better Call Saul). Most formal innovations hint at avant-garde (Homicide: Life on the Street) or mainstream conventions (Breaking Bad) of filmmaking. A number of the series are reflexive concerning their genre (The Sopranos) or television in general (30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm). Comedy and drama formats alike tend to tackle more “serious” subject matters, sometimes outright dispensing with conventional entertainment (Oz, Treme).8

Some tendencies of music in quality or complex TV series are compatible with these observations, although it is obviously difficult to mirror narrative complexity in a medium that has to borrow actual meaning from its contextualization.9 Genre and setting are often at the center of a reflexive aesthetic strategy in quality or complex TV series; however, the music rarely follows suit, for settings are often introduced in very traditional ways (Miami clichés in Dexter, mariachi clichés in Breaking Bad). Some series make music itself their topic and thus add a deeper reflexive dimension to it (Nashville, Glee, The Getdown). The use of music in Twin Peaks became a model for the reflection of more trivial forms (Revenge, Bloodline). Many conventions look toward the “big brother” of cinema for inspiration: Game of Thrones may try to tear down established stereotypes of fantasy narratives, but the music makes extensive use of our pop-cultural concepts of the “medieval” and the “epic,” both mirroring the successful Lord of the Rings soundtracks by including song performances excessively recycled as leitmotifs (“The Rains of Casta-mere”) and a symphonic accompaniment suitable as afterthoughts for grand speeches and for helicopter camera sweeps alike. Meanwhile, the “Scandinavian” school of sound design native to Nordic noir films [End Page 459] (Insomnia) and series (Forbrydelsen) has been a...


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