Before VCR’s and DVR’s entered the picture, summer was a time to catch reruns of favorite shows and episodes of a so-called “replacement series” (anyone remember the Ken Berry “Wow” show?). These days, however, summertime TV is packed with original programming, especially on basic cable.
“My first real break was ‘Nip/Tuck’ which was a summer show. That was sort of the beginning of basic cable trying to do scripted drama in the summers,” composer James Levine explained when reached by phone for an interview. “FX did it with ‘Nip/Tuck,’ TNT did it with ‘The Closer,’ which I also did. I did 'Royal Pains,' which is on USA in the summer. So now there is a ton of original programming on in the summer.
Levine works with showrunners and creators to create the musical identity: “Hopefully the executive producers have a strong vision for what the music is. That’s usually where the work happens. Definitely, the network has an opinion and the producers have an opinion, but generally I work with the producers and creators to establish a tone and a vocabulary for the show musically.”
Building on what has gone before
At the time of this interview, the Emmy-nominated Levine was composing music for “Major Crimes” and “Rizzoli and Isles,” two well-performing summer shows for TNT. With crime dramas like those as well as “Glee,” the composer can build on past seasons.
“For ‘Glee,’ there’s sort of a palette that we go to, like a painter would, with different colors that we know are very specific to the show,” Levine explained. “If new characters come in or new storylines develop, we try to add new ideas, create fresh takes on things and just evolve the sound every season. The world of a character evolves, so why shouldn’t the music evolve alongside that character?”
“Glee” changed its dynamic in Season 4, though, as some established characters headed to New York City and new faces joined the glee club.
“We sort of established a new musical tone, new identity for what was happening in New York with Rachel going on Broadway,” Levine offered. “It was an opportunity to do something new, and it was fun.”
Like doing a new show every year
Speaking of FX, their “American Horror Story” ("AHS") redefined the classic anthology series model, changing themes and characters each season. Levine, who earned an Emmy nod for his work on the show, says it’s like doing a new show every year when they come back from hiatus.
“It’s like a tabula rasa; you just start over,” he said. “Every season, forget what you did before because it’s a new story, new time, new cast, new location, new lighting, new tone. We know it’s going to be dark, scary; you just have to think of it as a brand new animal. With that challenge is great opportunity, I think, to stretch and push yourself further and find something new.”
Starting at the end of the summer, Levine’s focus turns to “AHS": “That’s when my summer shows begin to wind down a bit. Then I start ramping up for ‘AHS,’ and that takes us to the beginning of next year, usually.”