Favorite TV themes
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Everyone knows The Rockford Files had the best theme song of any show ever aired on television, but I’ve been consistently hard-pressed to come up with a second-best, or fill out a top five. It’s just too hard to pick from, or even recall, so many tunes. Another one always pops up after the list is supposedly settled. I usually give up and say 60 Minutes. (Note: I have never actually had this conversation with anyone who wasn’t just a voice in my head.) Can you guys help by sharing your favorite TV-show theme songs?
Comfortable in the knowledge that Jimmy James agrees,
Dammit, Matt. I started with The Wire, then started working backward, thinking that you’d given us the whole of TV history to work with and I could dig deeper than that, and then I was on YouTube looking up theme songs, and then my productivity for the day was perilously close to being completely shot. So I’m going to tear myself away and call it a day by suggesting two shows, the one that came to mind immediately, and the one that threatened my entire work day. M*A*S*H still lingers in my mind as having the most memorably melancholy theme of all time, though you really have to listen to the version with the lyrics rather than the instrumental version, which is merely catchy. That one’s a winner for grown-ups, but for kids—or anyone with a working nostalgia gland—can anything really beat the sweet, enthusiastic, all-inclusive theme to Sesame Street? “It’s a magic carpet ride / every door is open wide to happy people like you…” It’s basically just an all-inclusive invitation to come play, which perfectly sums up the show’s tone and intent. The original version still makes me smile. Problem is, if you look it up on YouTube, you find 40 versions from 40 different eras, and once you’ve watched all those, YouTube starts giving you amazing modern Sesame Street clips, and the next thing you know, an hour’s gone by and you’ve done no work. Let me help by giving you the one you should watch:
I’m going to try not to overthink this, because I don’t want to give you eight different songs. The first two that came to mind for me were the themes for It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Curb Your Enthusiasm, which makes sense, since both shows feature opening-credits music that’s used ironically: classic old-timey happy-days tunes that offset just how petty and crappy the people in the show are. On the darker side, I really liked the music and credits for Masterpiece’s Sherlock, because it’s sweeping and epic, but just enough to get me excited about the series—it’s not over-the-top. It’s perfect for getting people psyched up for drama, and fortunately short enough that it gets right to the action. Oh, and one more: the Andy Griffith Show, because it’s so quick and simple, yet you hear those first three notes, and you know what show it is. It’s just some guy snapping his fingers and whistling, yet nothing else sounds like it.
This one’s easy for me: Green Acres. It’s the quintessential TV theme, in my mind. It’s catchy, but not annoying. It sets up the premise for the show, but in a charming way, so you won’t get annoyed watching the same thing 100 times. Also, it’s just plain funny. New York is where Lisa (Eva Gabor) “would rather stay.” She “gets allergic smelling hay.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I adore that show like Lisa adores a penthouse view, but, c’mon, can you blame me?
In the age of DVR and TV on DVD, it takes a lot for me to not skip though the opening-titles sequence of a TV show. Deadwood’s opening keeps my finger off the fast-forward button, as does Mad Men’s, but those have more to do with the combined package of music and visuals. There’s only one TV show whose opening song—and complete score, actually—I’ve actually sought out to download and listen to during my non-TV-watching hours, and that’s Downton Abbey. It’s robust, elegant, and even a tiny bit ominous. (Also, it’s strangely reminiscent of The X-Files theme, which is an excellent little earworm in and of itself.), Listening to it always infuses whatever I’m doing—working, cleaning, creating a dowager-countess hat, whatever—with a little extra sense of class and intrigue.
One of the greatest things television in the ’80s gave us was the great, cheesy theme song. Silver Spoons and Growing Pains are both great examples, but my favorite remains the theme to Perfect Strangers. Harmonica, tingling keyboards, horns, and strings, all leading to a soaring chorus proper for an era that gave us Peter Cetera: “Standing tall on the wings of my dream.” What this had to do with a journalist and his long-lost Eastern European cousin as they lived a wacky life in the Windy City while wooing a pair of flight attendants is beyond me. But after listening to the opening theme song, I was prepared to root for Larry and Balki, no matter what hijinks they got themselves into. Because as the song said, “It’s my life and my dream / And nothing’s gonna stop me now.”
This is probably Halloween-proximity nostalgia talking, but I remember that when I was a kid, part of what I loved about The Night Stalker was the way the opening theme seemed to capture the shape and appeal of the show, the way it started out so homey and kind of funny, like Darren McGavin’s hat, and then—WHAMMO!!—the melodramatic buildup kicked in, until the squealing, stretchy-balloon noises that preceded the big finish warned that something scary was going to happen, and soon, I’d have to choose whether to watch it like a big boy, or hide behind the couch. In more recent years, though, no show has made me lean forward intently trying to make out the lyrics to its theme song than Terriers. It got to the point where I had to look up the lyrics online, just so I could have a good laugh comparing what they really were with the ridiculous lines I thought I was hearing. Turns out my hearing’s actually pretty good.
If there’s one contemporary TV show whose theme I will listen to on its own, unironically, it’s Treme. A condensed (and I think up-tempo) version of John Boutté’s “The Treme Song,” the song is not only an infectious toe-tapper of the highest order, but it juxtaposes wonderfully with the credits sequence, and the show itself. On the surface, lyrics like “Down in the Treme / it’s me and my baby / We’re all goin’ crazy / buckjumping and having fun” don’t fit with a show about people struggling to survive in post-Katrina New Orleans. But of course the show is ingenious, and knows this, and sets the upbeat ditty against images of storms beating through houses and FEMA members taking phony oaths. It’d almost seem snide, like a case of “whistling past the grave.” But if Treme is about anything—and it’s about lots and lots of things, but if it’s about anything more than all the other things—it’s the power that music (and culture more generally) has to galvanize communities, how crucial it is in developing a shared sense of meaning from experience, and how important that meaning becomes in the wake of the storm (literally and figuratively). So it only makes sense to bring an example of this to the structural fore of every episode.
I’m sure some people will say it’s the worst theme on television because of its insidious catchiness, but for my money, nothing beats the playful madness of the SpongeBob SquarePants song. The manic energy, the melody, the goofy lyrics (“Absorbent and yellow and porous is he!”), which are punctuated by the exclamation “SPONGE! BOB! SQUARE! PANTS!” at the end of every line—it has an infectious joy that I love. I don’t think there’s a more exuberant theme song on television. SPONGE! BOB! SQUARE! PANTS!
My wife’s been on a big It’s Garry Shandling’s Show kick. Her interest was largely and justifiably sparked by nostalgia for its goofy, jaunty theme song, which was co-written by Shandling, producer Alan Zweibel, and Fame songwriter Joey Carbone, and sung by Bill Lynch, a journeyman of Midwestern rock bands like Tide. When I was a kid, there was nothing funnier. It made no sense. Garry would start talking to the audience, which itself didn’t compute. Then he’d go for a pee or otherwise keep himself busy, and all the while, the credits would play as if it were completely normal, while a nasal man self-referentially talk-sang “Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme song” and rhetorically inquired, “How do you like it so far? / How do you like the theme to Garry’s show?” It’s still so funny, and so catchy. In the best way possible, it sounds like a throwaway Randy Newman composition with lyrics by Jerry Zucker, and it’s perfectly suited to Shandling’s unconventional. unpredictable, self-aware half-hour comedy.
After America watched The Rembrandts’ theme for Friends (“I’ll Be There For You”) scale several different Billboard charts, ultimately topping the ones for Hot 100 Airplay, Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks, and Top 40 Mainstream, it’s no wonder that the next several years saw other sitcoms offering up similarly catchy ditties over their opening credits. Lord knows that many a great melody has been wasted as the theme to a really terrible sitcom (for proof, just check out “T.V. Medley” from Family Guy: Live In Vegas), but to this day, I still feel like the theme for Jesse, Christina Applegate’s first post-Married With Children series, was an earworm so insidious that, had it only been released as a single, it would have defied the show’s general suckiness and made the band responsible—the Tories—as big as the Rembrandts. Yes, I realize that’s kind of damning them with short-term success and a lifetime of being perceived as little more than a one-hit wonder, but given that the Tories broke up after the release of their second album (The Upside Of Down), which featured the song in question (“Time For You”), I have to think that the boys in the band could’ve lived with that.
Like Claire, I could go on about this subject for hours. I think it’s a genuine shame that the once-mighty TV theme song has been reduced to a few sad little chords played over a perfunctory title card. The ’80s were probably the golden era of the theme song, and it didn’t get any better than “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” from Cheers. Is there a person born between 1960 and 1985 who doesn’t know the lyrics by heart? It’s pretty much the best song ever for a drunken sing-along, which is a good thing, in my book. More recently, I also really enjoy the Parks And Recreation theme song, which is peppy and patriotic (a little like Leslie Knope, you might say) but also incredibly catchy.
I’m going to split my vote between two ABC gems from the 1980s. I love the first-season Spenser: For Hire theme, which mixes sax with some aggressive electric guitar to evoke just the right blend of grit, sex, and intrigue. And yeah, I’m a sucker for that ’80s synth in the bridge. Part of the reason the music works so well is that the intro sequence is extremely well-edited, achieving a sharp rhythm while also doing a great job of wordlessly telling the viewers what the show is all about. (I’m not exactly a Spenser super-fan, I just think its opening-credit roll was the high point of the craft for that era.) Alas, in the second season, the producer commissioned a new arrangement, probably on account of network research that showed women were a big part of the show’s audience. The result was a softer Spenser theme that sounds more like a Kate & Allie boxing montage than a show about an urbane Boston private eye. The third-season theme is better, but still fails to recapture the edge of the original. And that is the story of the Spenser: For Hire theme song. My other vote would be for the Sledge Hammer! theme, because 1) it’s the freaking Sledge Hammer! theme, and 2) it captures show’s the unblinking, ahead-of-its-time comic sensibility.
This might seem like a bit of a cheat, since I already wrote about The Simpsons’ opening sequence in an inventory about perfect opening-credits sequences, but when I think of a really memorable television theme song, my mind immediately goes to Danny Elfman’s gloriously cinematic instrumental theme for The Simpsons. True, the melody bears a more-than-passing resemblance to passages in André Previn’s great score for the Billy Wilder satirical masterpiece One Two Three, but the Simpsons theme song gloriously captures the irreverence, scope, and barely controlled chaos of Matt Groening and company’s timeless satirical vision and it does so without resorting to words. No small feat.
I don’t just love “Love Is All Around,” the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show; I love that the producers rerecorded the version of it that played over the end credits every season of the show, giving seriously anal-retentive TV geeks a subtle clue as to which season of the show they’re watching. (My favorite? Season six’s smooth-jazz trumpet-and-piano duet.) The song itself, of course, is a great statement of independence for the show’s central character and for anybody who’s ever embarked on a new adventure, not quite sure whether they were making the right call. Another ’70s favorite? Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton sitting down behind the upright piano to belt out “Those Were The Days” at the start of All In The Family. Has there ever been a title sequence that more instantly let you know exactly who the show’s characters were and what kind of world it took place in?
Meredith beat me to my answer: I used to actually get mad when an episode of Cheers featured the shortened version of its theme song, and to this day, it represents a high mark in the genre. Today, theme songs are often an afterthought, truncated to the point of parody as more and more ads replace time once spent on actual episode run-times. No longer can we see pantomime-laden, fourth-wall-breaking mini-movies at the outset of each episode. In their place are exercises in minimalism, often so short that they seem embarrassed to even exist. But in this new world order, one theme song stands out: the one for Mr. Sunshine, a three-word theme song that somehow was the best thing about the entire show. The theme suggests a show I would want to watch, unlike the show that actually followed it. A show that fulfilled the promise of this ditty would be one for the ages. Oh well. At least we have these five syllables to tide us over until that day comes.
I’ve always enjoyed shows with cold opens, the sequence that comes before the opening credits. For me, the cold-open-into-title-sequence king will always be ER, especially in its early years. Usually in the cold open some chaotic thing or another is happening, like someone busting through County General’s ER doors with a bleeding child, or a series of ambulances arriving after a 20-car pileup. Right at the peak of the chaos are three quick drumbeats, and the show is headlong into a theme song that pulsates with the same intensity of the opening. (Except when the opening was a quiet scene… then the drumbeats were taken out, and the theme song faded in.) The song has a piano interlude, but that’s just there to distract from the fact that the pace is quickening and the volume is rising, coming to a crescendo meant to leave viewers amped up and ready to watch the show. It was the most intense 50 seconds on TV, and it always worked, no matter who was in those credits. Even though the show went in some oddball directions in its later years—not the least of which was casting Scott Grimes and John Stamos as ER docs—I didn’t finally give up on it until they ditched the theme song. It just wasn’t ER anymore after that.
This is such a cliché for someone from Philly, but I have to go with The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. This is not just because the credits were filmed at the park three blocks from my apartment—although I do get a little private thrill every time I walk by—but because it’s such a useful cultural/generational dipstick. When I was a 22-year-old doing the Internet-dating thing, I once showed up at a restaurant to find that this was my third date in a row where the guy had clearly understated his age by at least a decade to get his foot in the door. Since my previous two dates had felt like awkward conversations with some distant-uncle lawyer, where both sides’ jokes and stories were met with a few seconds of confused silence—and, most importantly, because as a budding freelancer, picking up my half of a check meant I would be eating peanut butter and jelly for the rest of the week—I decided to get out in front of the situation. I blurted: “Now this is a story all about how—” and then stared expectantly. He looked confused, but reflexively responded “…uh, my life got twist-turned upside down”? The guy did turn out to be 15 years older than me, but the ad-hoc test didn’t steer me wrong—we had plenty of things to talk about. Also, it’s just a kind of great, ridiculous song.
First off, I have to agree with Matt that nothing tops The Rockford Files. But the ’70s were a prime era for TV themes: Something about the full orchestras, the rock ’n’ roll rhythms and the jazzy overtones create a real mood. There’s a bustle, a melancholy, and an urbane sophistication to these songs, all wrapped up a neat melodic box. I’ve written before on this site about my love for the Taxi theme and for Barney Miller, but I’m also awfully fond of The Bob Newhart Show theme, with its bubbly bass, brassy horns, and plaintive interlude. It’s like a whole day in Bob’s life, from sorting through the craziness of the city to relaxing after work. (Not for nothing is the theme called “Home To My Emily.”)
I’m an Ohio native, so the theme to WKRP In Cincinnati is a favorite for sentimental reasons, but it also does everything a good theme should do: It sets a tone for the show and leave viewers with something to hum while thinking about it. On the second point, the bouncy, welcoming theme—music by Tom Wells, vocals by Steve Carlisle—stands head-to-head with any ’70s or ’80s sitcom theme. (It became a minor hit.) But it's the words, by show creator Hugh Wilson, that make it the perfect match to the show. Like Taxi, Alice, Cheers, and countless others, WKRP was about people who end up together while they wait for their dreams to come true, or put them on hold, or just give up on them altogether. “Got kind of tired of packing and unpacking” goes one line that explains with a shrug how the singer ended up where he did. The show is about what happens next.