The best jukebox in town isn’t in a funky dive bar filled with interesting or questionable characters. It’s not in a forgotten corner of a smoke-filled billiards hall overrun with wannabe pool sharks. The best jukebox in town is the TV in your living room, den or bedroom.
Last weekend I binge-watched the remarkable Netflix series, Russian Doll. Full disclosure, I'd pop a tub of popcorn and settle in for hours just to watch Natasha Lyonne reading public notices from the classifieds. So, I knew I’d be an instant fan. But, halfway through episode one of her latest television triumph, it was the show’s music that vied against her for top billing.
It’s not giving too much away to share that Lyonne’s central character, Nadia (weirdly yet aptly self-described as “if Andrew Dice Clay and the little girl from Brave made a baby”) keeps dying and re-living her final moments. The music that signals her re-set to square one is Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up.” It so perfectly fits those scenes and the theme of the series one wonders if the show's creators heard it on Pandora one afternoon and decided to write an entire series around it.
There’s more brilliantly selected music in the series, like Anika’s haunting version of the Ray Davies tune “I Go to Sleep” and John Maus’s sinister “Cop Killer.” There’s a Spotify playlist pieced together for anyone wanting to hear the songs. If you haven’t watched the series yet, it might be fun to dial up the playlist and see if you can guess the show’s themes and notions just from the music.
You’d have a good chance at succeeding in that little game because the show’s creators painstakingly chose the right songs to drive the narrative. All this music is a pretty sweet benefit of the glut of programming modern television watchers enjoy. For instance, I’ve watched both seasons of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Amazon’s award-winning series. Since it’s set in the late 1950s, the tunes don’t just evoke the mood of the era, they’re also songs many younger music fans are entirely unfamiliar with, so a binge watch of that show is like a time-warped trip back to Perry Como’s favorite record shop.
This might seem all too obvious, of course, but the idea of using music this way – either old favorites or obscure songs or tunes licensed for use from up-and coming bands, an especially nice perk to this phenomenon – it’s all relatively new.
Another show I’ve been watching a lot lately is All in the Family. Due to recent events, I’ve been drawn back to Norman Lear’s 1970s TV classic. Someone somewhere else has already penned an article on how revisiting those episodes proves how little America has changed in nearly 50 years. Just substitute “Trump” for “Nixon” and “Russia” instead of “Watergate” in some of those episodes and it’s like the show was shot just weeks ago.
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The point of bringing it up is that, watching shows from the pre-cable era, you notice a real absence of music in those programs. Even the most critically-acclaimed dramas of that time (because dramas tend to thrive from well-curated music soundtracks) are void of the era’s best songs. Think of the classic roots music that could have given a show like The Waltons more gravitas, were music placement a trend before cable. Gunsmoke aired for 20 years without the benefit of a Johnny Cash song to reflect the particular badness of some new villain in Marshal Matt Dillon's way. Occasionally, Ricky Ricardo would sing “Babalu” or Suzi Quatro might punk up Happy Days as Leather Tuscadero. But those moments were written into the scripts and the music didn’t really reinforce the episode’s narrative the way music does today.
True music lovers still watched television then and the music we did get from those programs were theme songs, the 30-second ditties that introduced our favorite shows, like Edith and Archie warbling “Those Were the Days” or Laverne and Shirley schlemiel-ing and schlimazel-ing about making their dreams come true. In some ways, those theme songs set the tone for every episode. When John Sebastian was done singing “Welcome Back” each week, you knew Mr. Kotter was about to learn a lesson about how you can’t go home (or, in his case, how you can’t go back to teach at the school you once attended without some hijinks from the young, hip kids). If you dropped in on season four, episode four of Lost, well, you’d be lost. But, so long as you tuned in from the beginning and heard that classic TV theme song, you could watch any episode of any season of Gilligan’s Island and know exactly what was happening.
So, music has long played a role in what we’re watching on television, but its role has shifted seismically and for the better for adventurous music lovers. That’s exciting and should have you searching for the next show you’ll binge, if you love TV but love music even more. That Nilsson song that’s so central to Russian Doll? I’d never heard it before watching the series (sorry, I was always partial to Paul Williams). Now, it’s stuck in my head every morning (as it’s intended to be) and I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times on Spotify. I’d never have heard it punching up numbers on the juke at my favorite public house. But, it was a happy surprise from the one here in my own den.