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Cold Justice turns 100. Meet the person behind its ‘suspense twang’ music.

Cold Justice turns 100. Meet the person behind its ‘suspense twang’ music.
Oxygen's Cold Justice is airing its 100th episode in October 2022

Cold Justice began its life nine years ago on TNT, but since 2017 has been on Oxygen, where it’s about to kick off its seventh season and 100th episode.

Even more remarkably, the work done by the show’s team of investigators—now consisting of prosecutor Kelly Siegler and detectives Steve Spingola, Abbey Abbondandolo, and Terri Hook—has resulted in 21 convictions and 55 arrests, according to Oxygen.

So much of true crime just digs through old cases to pump out an hour of TV, unconcerned about how this affects victims or suspects or anyone else. Not Cold Justice.

Cold Justice star Kelly Siegler
Cold Justice star Kelly Siegler (Photo by Chris Knight/Oxygen)

Cold Justice’s 100th episode will be in two parts (Oxygen, Saturdays at 8), exploring the 2007 murder of a college student—a case that Oxygen previously announced was solved by the show’s team.

Minot, ND, police chief John Klug told The Minut Daily News explained how the show helped lead to an arrest:

“We tried to actively investigate Anita’s case for the past few years, and finally, with the help of Cold Justice,’ we were able to move forward and regain focus. Due to the resources, logistics, planning and experts they were able to provide, we were able to obtain an arrest warrant.”

Those resources are possible because this is a TV show, and TV shows need to be entertaining and engage viewers.

Cold Justice does that through all elements, from its cast (which has changed over the years) to its soundtrack.

Robert ToTeras is the show’s long-time composer. He’s also scored Netflix’s Sugar Rush and many other reality TV shows, plus writing music for more than 50 commercials and feature film songs. I talked to him about his career last year, and about Cold Justice in particular.

ToTeras told me he’s “always been a musician,” taking piano lessons at age three. “I was one of those kids that was in love with music and television simultaneously, which to a lot of parents looks like no future at all,” he said. After college, he worked as a singer/songwriter, selling his own music and touring.

“Then I moved to L.A. and kind of stumbled into this,” he said. “I was an assistant first, which is kind of a usual route. But then I ended up getting fired because there wasn’t enough work for the composer I worked for.”

They were on good terms, and stayed in touch, and ToTeras kept sending the composer music. One day, the composer told him, “There’s a show that I can’t do. Would you like to do it? And I’ll give the producer your information.” That was the Marti Noxon-produced 2010 TeenNick series Gigantic.

The music producer for Gigantic later got in touch when she was working on Bravo’s cooking competition Around the World in 80 Plates, produced by Top Chef producers Magical Elves.

“It really interested me and I loved it. I love the process of writing for reality,” ToTeras told me. “You don’t have any idea of what the picture is. You’re writing a big library for different kinds of things that might happen. I loved it, it was just so great. It was so creative in a different kind of way, that I fell in love with doing unscripted.”

While some composers struggle with creating music for TV shows without knowing how that score will be used, ToTeras welcomes the challenge.

“I don’t find frustration with that process at all,” he said, “because this is how it has to happen. They’re editing like crazy. If you were writing the picture, you’d be writing the picture on the same show, every week, while you’re scoring the other shows too. That would be nuts. When you do scripted, there’s one round of notes, usually—unless there’s a real problem—and then you’re on to the next episode. You couldn’t do that in reality because it’s a constantly evolving thing. It’s a different animal, but it’s a beautiful animal.”

“There isn’t a musical situation I don’t love. I know that sounds weird,” he laughed. “I don’t have an issue switching to another thing where it’s completely collaborative, or working in this really strange way where you’re just making a library.”

“Because number one at the end, I’m just making music and I love that. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing on this earth at any given time during the day,” he added.

How Cold Justice’s music was created

Robert ToTeras
Robert ToTeras

“I got that show, because I read about it in the trades, and called someone I know who worked at that production,” he told me. His contact hadn’t even heard of it yet, as they hadn’t sold it to a network, but ToTeras wasn’t deterred.

“I said, I know exactly what that show is going to sound like, because there was a breakdown of what the show was going to be.” He asked his contact, “Can I just write like 10 cues and give them to you?” and recommended they be used in the pitch presentation to networks.

It worked: “They did that, and and so there was never any other composer attached to that show,” he said. “I’m really proud of that show, because it was really a specific sound that I came up with instantly when I read [about it]. Most of them don’t happen like that. I call it ‘suspense twang.'”

To create the specific suspense twang, he started by watching some footage.

“The first thing they do is go visit the victim’s family and find out about the person that they’re going to get justice for, and oh my god! When I first saw that I was like, this isn’t a moment I’m trying to build. You’re telling a real person’s tragic story. I just knew it had to be authentic,” he said.

Working on a show that gave attention to victims’ stories and the effect on their loved ones, and was also not exploitative—like so much of true crime can be—was important.

“When you’re talking about the real people these things happened to, and you’re talking about them or to their families, you want this [music] to represent as much as you can possibly do without actually knowing them personally,” he said. “I thought about that a lot; I spent a lot of time. I wrote music and trashed it, wrote more music and trashed it, until I could really try to capture that feeling.”

“It was really a pleasure to do, and an honor to do. Most TV shows don’t actually help people—TV’s great, I’ve devoted my life to it,” ToTeras said. “But most TV shows don’t actually help people in the real world, and I happen to work for one that does. That’s sort of amazing.”

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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