** Spoilers Ahead. You have been warned.
Whatever your stance on TV may be, I’m pretty sure as a collective we can agree that 2017 has already been and continues to be a stellar year for television. widely acclaimed shows like Legion, The Leftovers, and American Gods made their debut, while so far there have been triumphant returns of shows like Better Call Saul, Rick & Morty, and Master Of None. Ethereal, Lynchian mind-fuck Twin Peaks returned after a 26 year absence and there is a new series of outrageous sci-fi throwback Stranger Things planned for release this October.
All great shows in their own right of course and for very good reason, but there is an aspect of TV I feel isn’t as talked about as perhaps it deserves to be. A clever screenplay, good directing, and solid acting will always be the foundation of a successful show, but you can really hammer home an episode of sheer quality with a memorable and driving soundtrack.
One show in particular I feel really gets to grips with this notion is Netflix’s recent pseudo-crime drama Ozark.
Starring Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, this show immediately gripped me for a number of reasons, most notably the musical backdrop of many of its key scenes.
Ozark is a show that isn’t afraid to intersperse its action with moments of silence, giving not only its characters but also the viewer time to reflect on the previous scene’s content. Silence is a TV show crutch I feel isn’t used nearly as much as it should, although you could lay part of the blame with the Marvel-led action-fests that have plagued our streaming services of late for their sheer lack of subtlety.
Breaking Bad was one show of note that really excelled at this. Ozark goes a step further though and cleverly places perfectly fitting songs among these scenes. The beauty of this is that the majority of them fit so well that you don’t even notice, you just accept that they pretty much belong there.
The first example of this comes at the end of Ozark‘s first episode.
Bateman’s character Martin “Marty” Byrde has just come away from staring death in the face and has a last ditch attempt to save his and his family’s lives. He must relocate to a small Missouri waterfront resort called Lake of the Ozarks and run a successful money laundering scheme for his new drug cartel boss Camino Del Rio (Esai Morales).
During the drive away, Marty stops the car, gets out and walks into the woods. This scene is accompanied by Radiohead’s “Decks Dark,” from 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool. This works not only as a natural backdrop but also successfully reflects on the opening episode as a whole. The opening three quarters of the episode are spent following Marty’s run of the mill work and family life, when all of a sudden this is all turned upside down and both Marty and the viewer is left wondering what the hell will happen next.
The following episode of Ozark sees Marty and his family struggling to adapt to their new life while Marty himself goes in hunt of a suitable business to use for his money laundering operation.
While Marty and his wife Wendy (played by Linney) are out in town setting the foundations for this operation, their two children Jonah and Charlotte (Skylar Gaertner and Sofia Hublitz respectively) ignore their parent’s orders to stay put and go off to explore on their own. The next scene features a montage of the two children seemingly having fun and is accompanied by Daniel Spaleniak’s “Dear Love Of Mine” from his 2016 album Back Home. While this scene should be a happy one, the sombre tone of “Dear Love Of Mine” stop it from coming across as positive. It alludes to more of a pensive feeling than a calming one and does well to suggest that trouble is most certainly not far away.
One of the cleverest uses of TV soundtrack featured in Ozark comes a few episodes later.
Marty chooses to enlist Ruth (Julia Garner), a local thief and member of the town’s troublesome Langmore family, to help pull off a heist of the local strip club. Right at the start of the episode, the familiar guitar riff of The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” ring out, accompanying the outstanding ‘Money Laundering 101’ scene in which Marty narrates and shows a couple of tricks of the trade.
The fun doesn’t stop there though as the final scene of the episode features Marty’s son Jonah walking in on his father in the middle of the money drying part of the laundering process. Jonah, still fresh from learning the real reason why he and his family had to relocate in the first place, asks his father what he’s doing. Marty stares back and there’s a moment of pause, before “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” plays again and Marty repeats his ‘Money Laundering 101’ guide from the beginning of the episode.
It’s a common method used in TV to repeat a scene in the same episode. The reason it works so well in Ozark is the familiarity of using the same song, however, unlike how the scene plays out at the start, the way it ends the episode gives the scene a new focal point.
Instead of speaking to us the viewer, he’s explaining the process to his son. Little TV nuances such as this one can go unnoticed in many shows, but the simple, yet clever idea of using the same song to really link the two scenes together greatly benefits not only the viewer but the entire episode as a whole.
The final example of Ozark‘s brilliant use of soundtrack I want to discuss is perhaps the most subtle. In the season’s finale, there is a lingering shot of Garcia (Joseph Melendez), one of Del Rio’s enforcers and watcher of the Byrde family, sitting in his car listening to Gary Wright’s 1975 track “Love Is Alive.”
During this scene, Jonah is seen leaving his house and running into the woods. Garcia is suspicious and decides to get out and investigate. My absolute favourite part of this scene as a collective is how the track’s lyrics cleverly allude to something either character could be plotting. The opening lyric of “Well I think it’s time to get ready, to realise just what I have found” explains the thought process of not only Garcia discovering either Jonah and his family might be up to something, but also Jonah himself deciding to retrieve an important item he hid in the woods a few episodes prior.
It goes without saying that I think Ozark is one of 2017’s shining lights in TV and fully deserves all of its praise.
For those who recognise Bateman most for his gloriously tongue-in-cheek performance as Michael Bluth in Arrested Development, it may come as a surprise to see him as part of a show as rich and as dark as Ozark. But boy does he deliver. I’ve also grown increasingly more certain that a truly great show can only fully immerse a viewer into its story via the format of television.
Soundtracks have remained a popular staple of cinematography for as long as I can remember, but its the longer format of a series that really gets to go wild with its music. Ozark stands as one of this year’s most memorable users of this aspect, adding a cleverly placed veneer to what is already a very accomplished and layered show. Ozark not only deserves praise for fully encompassing this notion but for using it cleverly, choosing songs that bring the most out of very choice scenes.