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Obession, to the Tune of 'Desperate Housewives'

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America seems to be coming down with Desperate Housewives fever — maybe it's the catfights, the treachery, the sex, or all of the above. But what makes Mike Pesca obsessed about the hit ABC television series has nothing to do with any of that. It's the pizzicato violins...


The ABC Television show Desperate Housewives ends its season on Sunday. Last year, this was one of the break-out hits of television, winning big ratings for ABC. This year, not so many watchers, but NPR's Mike Pesca has been among them, actually not so much a viewer, as a listener. Here's Mike with an explanation.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Typical Sunday night ritual, wife settles in front of the TV for Desperate Housewives, husband, me, mutters something pejorative about the entire dramedy genre. Then, retreats to the other end of the one-bedroom apartment to read blogs or check fantasy football scores. If you're not watching, you can really hear a show.

(Soundbite from Desperate Housewives)

Music, that's alternatively foreboding and light-hearted and well, plucky. Plucky strings for the plucky housewives. I couldn't stop imitating the pizzicato violin sounding like a cross between a coffee percolator and a chicken.

(Soundbite of Mike Pesca imitating music)

Clearly, I needed help, someone who could explain the noises in my head.

Mr. STEVE JABLONSKY (Composer, Desperate Housewives): For some reason that sound of, you know, the players plucking their strings rather than bowing them can be kind of off-putting, a little quirky.

Every week, Steve Jablonsky composes and conducts the music for Desperate Housewives.

Mr. JABLONSKY: It creates a cool, sort of rhythmic sense to the show, because the show moves really fast. And that's another thing that's good about the pluckiness of that; it's also very percussive and rhythmic.

PESCA: In this scene, as a character types at her computer, the music comments punctuates and keeps us interested in what's not the most captivating, dramatic action.

(Soundbite from Desperate Housewives)

In general, Jablonsky's score has to do a lot more than the music on some other shows. Desperate Housewives is full of murder, narrated by a dead woman and even featured a character cruelly locked in a basement, Boo Radley-style. It could be the darkest thing on, if not for Jablonsky's music, which shifts things from black to black comedy.

Mr. JABLONSKY: We have a term that they throw at me. They say well this is another wicked, fun scene. We want to like all the housewives, so even when they're doing these dastardly things, they're really being horrible, but it's fun.

PESCA: As far as the amount of music on Housewives, per 43-minute show about 20 to 25 minutes will have scoring underneath. That's inline with the television trend says John Burlingame who teaches the History of Film and Television Music at USC.

Mr. JOHN BURLINGAME (Teacher, History of Film and Television Music, USC): There was a time in the 1960s where you'd be lucky to have 12 to 15 minutes of music in a one-hour show, because it was felt, I think, in those, in that era that music really needed to stay out of the way of dialogue. But over the years, that tended to increase. I mean if you look at a, at many episodes of the X-Files, for example, some of those shows had 35 to 40 minutes of music in them. On the other hand, you look at the Law and Order shows and they have almost no music.

PESCA: There is that tendency to think that having almost no music produces a verite feel. On Housewives, Jablonsky says, when they want to go for realism, his bosses will often say take out all the music.

Many composers will tell you that even accomplished producers often don't understand music and fear that it will overwhelm the acting, writing and directing that they do have a mastery of. Music strikes fear in the hearts of television executives.

(Soundbite of music)

Well in a 1950s soap opera cue like that, it sure does. But these days the score can hint and tease and set a mood. This music set the mood on the ABC show Invasion, like House and Conviction, scored by Jon Ehrlich. He says that over the past 30 years, there's been an evolution in all aspects of storytelling on TV.

Mr. JOHN ERLIC (Composer, House and Conviction): Actors tend to be more naturalistic and restrained. Stories don't tend to wrap all threads up neatly and cleanly and perfectly. And the same goes for the music.

PESCA: No one watches a program for the background music. In the case of Invasion, not enough people watched it for the foreground action either and it was canceled by ABC. As for Desperate Housewives, the question looms, will it bounce back or wither and die?

(Soundbite of music)

Though if you put it this way, things sound more promising.

(Soundbite of music)

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeline Brand.

ADAMS: And I'm Noah Adams.

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