Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What is the best use of a song on a TV show?**
**Non-theme songs preferred. “Best” is loosely defined: Most memorable? Most moving? Cleverest? Most unexpected? etc.
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
I’m glad that last week I gave a short, simple and singular answer, because there’s absolutely no way to do this one without moving into a laundry list, starting with “The OC” and “Hide & Seek,” a sequence so seminal in its moment that it earned an “SNL” parody. Then you have to pick something from “The Americans,” a show that has mastered the art of building scenes around iconic ’80s hits, with the “Tusk” chase standing out as first and best among equals. Along the same lines, “Freaks and Geeks” probably had 15 perfect needle-drops and if I went with the “Americans” moment from the pilot, I’ll go with the “F&G” finale use of Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain,” with Lindsay’s pure moment of discovery and self-discovery.
I know we were asked to stick to non-theme songs, but that last use of “Suicide is Painless” as the helicopter ascends in “M*A*S*H*” still has to be eligible. Speaking of finales, the use of “Don’t Stop Believing” in the finale of “The Sopranos” has basically overtaken any other use of a song that was pretty much ubiquitous anyway. The question didn’t specify that the song couldn’t be original, so I want to mention “Planet of the Apes: The Musical,” as my favorite musical moment from “The Simpsons.” Keeping in mind that recognition does no equal endorsement, Roger Sterling’s blackface performance of “My Old Kentucky Home,” was mortifying, magnetic and a magnificent character-driven moment. I feel like I need to mention one moment from “The Leftovers,” so I’ll go with trampolining to “Protect Ya Neck.”
Having gotten an assortment of worthy contenders out of the way, I think my actual and final answer will be some song from ‘The Singing Detective,'” which is a cheat, but you could probably pick 20 musical moments from what is possibly TV’s pinnacle. So once I’ve gotten there, my choice is the easy one for anybody who has seen the miniseries, specifically the hallucinatory doctor’s diagnostic chorus of “Dry Bones.” It’s astounding. It’s hilarious. It’s inspired. It’s completely in keeping with the show around it. It’s my last and final answer.
[POST-SCRIPT: Since I emailed my answer in, I’ve thought of at least 10 answers that I WANTED to go back and include, but only one that I NEEDED to go back and mention: Leland Palmer singing “Mairzy Doats” with the Horne Brothers on “Twin Peaks.” OK. Whew. It was going to haunt me if I left that one out.]
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
“Westworld” Season 1’s player piano belting out a version of “Black Hole Sun” tops this for me. Giant genius show composer Ramin Djawadi (he does “Game of Thrones” too) delivers that disjointed and unsettling anachronistic feel to the faux Western theme park filled with robots, and that player piano is almost a character unto itself. The piano just springs to life with oddly jarring preprogrammed moments. We get chilling reductive versions of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” or a smashing orchestral send-up of the Stones’ “Paint It Black,” all toying with the artifice and setting of this lethal playground that has – as it appears – a mind of its own now.
Runner-up goes to Hulu’s “Hard Sun” playing the premise of that non-stop wincingly graphic Brit thriller perfectly in line with Bowie’s “Five Years” at the end of the first episode. That jam was a cut off the “Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” back in 1972. I devoured that whole album when my childhood friends were all listening to The Partridge Family. That song always stuck with me. They used it quite well to underscore the gravitas of the story.
Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider
The series finale of “Six Feet Under” is usually considered one of the best ever, and part of that is likely down to Sia’s emotional “Breathe Me” that plays over those last scenes. You can’t really achieve more finality than seeing how every character on the show will die (er, spoiler: we all die), and experiencing those fates back to back to back was so emotionally overwhelming (and in one case, a little funny). The show was defined by that song as soon as I watched it play out, and the song also became defined by the show; I can’t listen to it without replaying those final moments and feelings in my head (and my heart!) It was a perfect, iconic choice.
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
I struggled with this, because first I couldn’t think of any good options, and then I Googled around and found a few lists, and then there were TOO MANY OPTIONS.
But on a personal level, the one that truly makes me sob, the one that really gets to me at my core, has to be the use of Sia’s “Breathe Me” in the “Six Feet Under” series finale. It’s just… everything, life and death and heartbreak and love wrapped together in a crescendo of emotion, totally unforgettable and life-changing. There have been so many great moments that integrated music and television, but that’s the one which truly wrecks me, every time.
Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com
Assuming I’m not allowed to choose a song from a musical series like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (my answer would be “It Was a Shit Show”), I instead have to choose something from “iZombie,” a series that often surprises me with its musical choices. It all started when the show used After the Fire’s “Der Kommissar” during the climax of the Season 1 finale and my appreciation has only grown in the years since. But if I had to choose the use of one particular song over the course of the entire show, it has to be The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” that plays over a fight about the zombie cure (see below). Is it on the nose? Yes, especially since a character sang a few bars of it prior to the scene at hand, but it’s these little choices that ultimately elevate the jokes to the next level that make the show so consistently enjoyable. It’s clear that music actually has a purpose within “iZombie,” and the series somehow manages to regularly find new and creative ways to have fun with its soundtrack. In fact, this week’s episode’s inclusion of “Space Jam” is so unexpected and funny and perfect that it has me rethinking my answer already. Basically, the rest of television should try a little harder to live up to “iZombie’s” level.
Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx
Best use of a song on a TV show EVER? How much time have you got?
Okay, fine, let me see if I can keep this list at under a dozen, only picking one song per show, even though certain series like “Miami Vice” and “The Americans” are well known for consistently great musical selections. In fact, let’s start with a pair of choices from their respective pilots: Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” playing as Sonny Crockett re-evaluates his entire life and career when he finds out an old partner has been lying to him, and Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” accompanying a foot chase and knife fight between Philip Jennings and a Soviet defector. All of Josh Schwartz’s shows use music well, so I’ll pick one serious and one silly choice: “Hide and Seek” from ”The O.C.” scene where Marissa shoots Trey, which was so iconic, “SNL” parodied it years after the fact with “Dear Sister,” and Jeffster’s performance of “Mr. Roboto” during Ellie and Captain Awesome’s wedding on “Chuck,” a perfect blending of nostalgia and silliness and action. “Mad Men” used tons of great songs, never better than when Don and Peggy danced to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” after making peace with their working relationship. ’60s soul and R&B classics have been overused to the point of cliche, but a couple of ’80s shows brilliantly got to the catalog before that happened: “The Wonder Years” with “When a Man Loves a Woman” accompanying Kevin and Winnie’s first kiss, and “Wiseguy” with “Nights in White Satin” as Vinnie Terranova and Sonny Steelgrave catch a breath in the midst of their final battle. In recent years, “The Leftovers” and “Fargo” have had a duel for the unofficial title of TV’s best (and/or most eclectic) soundtrack, with the former probably peaking with Kevin Garvey’s afterlife karaoke rendition of “Homeward Bound” and the latter with “War Pigs” accompanying a particularly violent stretch of action. “Twin Peaks” memorably used a lot of songs, and I initially was going to list something else here before Fienberg reminded me of Leland Palmer getting the Horne brothers to dance to “Mairzy Doats.”
But there’s a clear runner-up and a clear winner. The runner-up: “Make Your Own Kind of Music” accompanying the ”Lost” sequence that finally showed us what was inside the hatch after months of speculation. Nobody had any idea what was down there, and surely nobody thought that a Mama Cass song would be our musical guide to the place, yet the buoyant, retro quality of the song fit spectacularly.
Your winner, though, has to be “Don’t Stop Believin'” from the famous, divisive, instantly memorable final scene of “The Sopranos.” Somehow, this power ballad about a small town boy and girl moving to the big city became the most ominous choice imaginable for what should have been an innocuous scene of a family eating onion rings and a young woman struggling to parallel park. David Chase struggled to find the right song choice for every Sopranos musical moment, none more than that. The stress and worry paid off.
Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com
Oh gosh, I can’t even get through the opening of “Mr. Robot’s” seventh episode without having my soul ripped out as we see the flashback of Shayla — who was murdered in the previous episode — and Elliot meeting for the first time while The Cure’s “Pictures of You” plays. I would trust Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail to handle party music duties at my house, which is a big deal, and this was his best use of song for maximum emotional effect in his show yet. The Cure has about a hundred songs better than “Pictures of You” but in that moment it was the best. But the real answer here is the pairing of Mike White’s beautiful direction, Laura Dern’s energy, a giant sea turtle, and Regina Spektor’s “Human of the Year” at the end of the first episode of “Enlightened.” God that show was so fucking good.
Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), Give Me My Remote
The right song choice can elevate a good scene to a great one… and I am absolutely the kind of television nerd who has bought official soundtracks for shows I love. It would be very easy to cheat and mention how great the song choices on “The OC,” “Westworld,” “Scrubs,” “Cougar Town,” and “Supernatural” have been, but the question is about one song, so I’m going to go in a slightly different direction. (Okay, I definitely just cheated. They all are exceptionally excellent at incorporating music and I am very bad at choosing between favorites.)
Cheating aside, what stands out to me when I think about music on television is “Grey’s Anatomy”; Season 2, in particular, overflowed with memorable music moments. But when I think about “Breathe (2 AM)”? Ohhhh boy. The song played in the second (non-Super Bowl) part of the bomb-in-the-body-cavity arc, as Meredith (whose hand was on a live explosive), tried to work up the nerve to move the device. It’s the emotional climax of the episode (decade-plus spoiler alert: things only partially work out, see below), and the music/lyrics fit so beautifully with Meredith’s mindset as she faced possible death. (At one point the song’s beat syncs up with the patient’s heart monitor. It sounds cheesy, but it is fantastic.) The song and scene are intertwined in my mind, and, frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox
I could list oh so many, right up to the tremendously fun and inventive use of “Under Pressure” on my beloved “The Magicians” a week ago. But I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up a choice I’m relatively sure nobody will mention: the use of Patti Smith’s “Horses” in the season two finale of “Millennium,” some of the most enjoyably mind-bending TV I’ve ever seen. In the Season 2 finale, the show, figuring it was going to be canceled, literally ended the world, and it did so via a long haze of strange imagery, told from the point of view of a woman slowly losing her mind as she confronted what she had been party to (namely the release of a deadly virus). The show then was renewed for a season three and had to walk back the apocalypse. Oops. (You can watch a version of the 10-minute sequence slowed down to a full hour here.)
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
With all due respect to Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” in “The O.C.,” “Noel” in “The West Wing,” and all the Springsteen songs in “Show Me a Hero,” Justin Theroux’s rendition of “Homeward Bound” holds a very special place in my heart, and you can read all about it in the oral history of Season 2’s iconic finale. The HBO drama has a ton of under-appreciated music moments, so, for kicks and giggles, I’ll also highlight the amazing use of Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” throughout the penultimate episode of Season 2 and Kevin and Nora’s dance number, “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” by Otis Redding.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: “Atlanta” (fives votes)
Other contenders: “The Alienist,” “Counterpart,” “iZombie,” “The Magicians” and “Superstore” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.