MTV’s faux-reality show The Hills returned in late March to air the rest of its extended third season. Besides making stars of its 20-something cast, The Hillshas the distinct ability to disconnect generations of human beings from one another, since the show consists of little more than long, awkward pauses some age groups apparently find to be as compelling as, say, actual narrative.
Those pauses and the cast’s extensive nonverbal communication tend, however, to be set to music, specifically modern pop and rock music, the kind of music MTV would be playing if it wasn’t showing The Hills. In other words, the network’s most popular series makes the argument that MTV does not play music irrelevant and outdated. In fact, during the third-season finale in early December, there appeared to be more music than dialog. Most interestingly, the music wasn’t just peripheral; it served a necessary function.
The titles and lyrics of the songs offered editorial comment – James Blunt’s Same Mistake played while one cast member informed his sister of his ongoing relationship problems – while the music’s energy level and tone matched the apparent mood of the cast members. Transitions between scenes showed establishing shots of LA, and the music provided connective emotional tissue that the cast couldn’t.
That kind of significant role for music isn’t surprising for a series that’s a spin-off of Laguna Beach, which framed itself as a reality version of Fox’s The O.C., a series that gave a huge jump-start to primetime television’s use of semi-obscure pop and rock songs.
After The O.C. reminded producers that TV could both use and sell good music, dramas began increasingly inserting hip songs into as many episodes as possible, like when CSI‘s Gil Grissom once considered a dominatrix’s corpse to the strains of Icelandic group Sigur Ros’ haunting Svefn-g-Englar.
But they also often used music where it didn’t belong, as producers of some scripted shows assumed they could make their terrible writing, choppy editing and poor production design all come together with one great song. That has the opposite effect, as music that’s too good for a show just highlights how bad a show actually is. If only those scripted shows would have taken a cue from reality TV. Reality has been a leader in effectively using music – both original scores and licensed songs.
Most popular and engaging reality series have distinct approaches to music that match the show perfectly. CBS’ The Amazing Race, for example, has a pulse-pounding score that could make a race between a pile of Play-Doh and a box of crayons seem dramatic.
Bravo’s family of cloned reality competitions such as Project Runway and Top Chef use an original score – in the case of those two shows, it’s subtle electronic pop by Barefoot Music – and it helps unify the network’s series, though the score is different for each show.
Survivor‘s composer, Russ Landau, re-orchestrates the show’s theme song every season to correspond to its new location, frequently using local instruments, and the score, while incorporating familiar refrains, also features similar regional flourishes.
Not all reality TV music is as cinematic or engaging. CBS’ Big Brother has recycled the same music season after season. While the editors use the music to make editorial comments, such as playing church music over scenes of hypocritical religiosity, it mostly just pulls viewers back into the series, reminding them that while the cast of hateful morons might have changed, the series is the same old trashfest. Likewise, VH1′s Celebreality series have jaunty yet trivial music that’s as forgettable as whatever Flavor Flav or New York are doing on-screen.
Ultimately, all of these series seem to have made clear choices to find music that corresponds to their content, and that either adds to the experience or gets out of the way. The best music in unscripted television is either unobtrusive or functions as an unseen character. But that’s not an arbitrary distinction, and has to match the show flawlessly and be selected deliberately, as carefully as cast members are chosen. Because as The Hills proves, music can sometimes offer more life than the actual cast.