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For every perfect TV theme song matchup like The Sopranos or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, there are always those songs that seemed too good for the series they were saddled with. So we ask our staff (and you):
What’s a TV theme song you like despite not liking the show itself?
The Jetsons’ opening credit sequence is far superior to the show that follows it. The sky is painterly, and there are pops of paper cut-out animation that’s like an inferior animated version of a Saul Bass sequence—which is still pretty cool for a cartoon as shitty as The Jetsons. The episodes coming after the opening were hacky and hinged mostly on the Jetsons’ complaining about the tribulations of their ultra-convenient, gadget-heavy, robot-filled lives (or at least that’s how I remember them). But that opener is a neat package of better-than-it-has-to-be art and jaunty music that succinctly shows exactly what you’re getting yourself into by continuing to watch. Minus Rosie the robot slave and the Scooby-Doo knockoff pet dog.
I was never a big fan of Airwolf, even at a peak Knight Rider-loving age when I should have gravitated toward any TV show revolving around some cool, technologically advanced vehicle. Maybe it was the show’s muddled, unnecessarily complex espionage backstory; maybe it was that Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine lacked the easy chemistry of David Hasselhoff and a computerized William Daniels; maybe it’s just that, inherently, a helicopter just isn’t as badass as a black Trans Am. Whatever the reason, I never watched it, but I’ve always loved Sylvester Levay’s epic synthesizer score. It’s a theme that—while, again, it can’t compete with Knight Rider’s gold standard—never fails to excite, even if it couldn’t quite get me excited enough to stick around.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Frasier, mainly because I think Kelsey Grammer is a huge dickbag. I do, however, like the theme song for Frasier, which he happens to sing. I don’t like it because it’s a great tune, but because my idle-singing-prone brother used to sing it around the house all the time. He’s no Frasier-head either—he just thinks it’s a funny song, which it is. I’ve probably heard it thousands of times at this point, meaning it’s tipped from me saying “stop singing that fucking song” to me quietly singing it to myself when I’m bored. And you know what—my brother’s right. It’s a funny fucking song, with a zillion little things to laugh at in only about 30 seconds. The phrasing, the lyrics, and the musicality of it are all ridiculous, and when I actually listen to Grammer’s version, I break into giggles every time he does that “HA HA” right in the middle. I just love it.
I haven’t gotten through a full season of American Horror Story since the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink second one. So why do I keep dipping my toes back in every year, somehow hopeful that the show might work past its recurring problems and actually inspire me to keep watching until the bitter end? One simple, superficial explanation: I adore that creepy waltz of an opening theme! Along with the reliably evocative credit sequence it accompanies, Charlie Clouser’s minimalist lullaby dirge—undulating low in the mix, augmented by stray skitters or screeches or power-saw buzzes—promises a much more harrowing nightmare than the histrionic campfest Ryan Murphy inevitably delivers. I want a show that lives up to a fraction of the goosebump-provoking power implied by that intro soundtrack… though, admittedly, this year’s disappointing permutation of the song suits the Purge-biting “topical” bore I’ve already bailed on just fine.
Considering I watched a good amount of the show, it’d be weird to say I disliked Perfect Strangers, but I more or less watched it because it was on. (There were a lot fewer viewing options in 1986, kids.) I haven’t seen an episode in years, but I’m guessing it’d be unwatchable now. That Jesse Frederick theme, though. I’d argue it’s his masterwork, even with his Full House and Step By Step themes. I’m a sucker for a catchy chorus, and the theme’s “Standing TALL, on the wings of my dreams!” is goddamn triumphant. Throw in some footage of Mark-Linn Baker driving around 1980s Chicago and you can’t miss.
I can’t watch Beverly Hills, 90210. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what it’s trying to do; in general, I’m a big fan of campy silliness on television (hi, Ryan Murphy), and the amount of cheese generated by this series would provide enough material for a chain of fondue restaurants. But my significant other did a rewatch of the whole thing, and I was shocked by how unappealing I found it. But damn, that opening riff of the Beverly Hills, 90210 theme? Absolutely killer. The song moves from minor-chord rock to major-key absurdity so perfectly, that wanky lead guitar just soloing all over the damn thing, it’s impossible for me to not get caught up by it. Of the three indie and punk bands I played with in high school, all three at some point couldn’t resist covering it—that opening lick, followed by this “tsh-tsh” handclap that’s been reverb’d to kingdom come? Irresistible.
For many, The Greatest American Hero straddles that line between “flat-out bad” show and “so bad, it’s good” guilty pleasure. I’ve never struggled with making the distinction; Stephen Cannell’s action-comedy has always been a miss for me. My apologies to William Katt, who was great in Carrie, and Connie Sellecca, who was in Hotel, but Greatest American Hero was a dopey mess from start to finish. It was just never quite smart enough a parody for me; its one saving grace is its theme song. Joey Scarbury and Mike Post’s “Believe It Or Not” managed to be both perfectly suited to the show and the cultural zeitgeist, at one point rising to the No. 2 spot on the Billboard chart in 1981. And of course, it found new life on Seinfeld.
It says a lot about the myriad failures of NBC’s would-be superhero comedy Powerless that the most pleasure I ever got out of watching it—which I did, religiously, in the hopes that a cast containing some of TV’s best comic voices might someday manage to find the funny more than once or twice per episode—was in the opening credits sequence. The visuals are clever enough—zooming past iconic comic book panels to see the bystanders caught up in the chaos—but it’s absolutely sold by the theme song, which contrasts typical superhero bombast with gentle, slightly eerie whistling. There’s a weird nobility to the tune that almost does the show itself a disservice; something with this much punch behind it should belong to a series with more power and ideas behind it than the tepid office sitcom that we got.
I understand why Adam Scott and Naomi Sablan chose Simon & Simon as the first show to get the Greatest Event In Television History treatment: Whatever happens after Rick Simon pulls his brother A.J. out of that door frame, it’s not going to match up to the expectations set by that opening title sequence. It’s a bait-and-switch typical of the escapist, action-oriented dramas of the ’70s and ’80s, a greatest-hits package featuring more front-end-loader-aided escapes, flame throwers, and aquatic mammals than the Simons could ever hope to pack into a single case. And underlining it all, from the second season onward, is Barry De Vorzon’s theme song, sounding like a pre-Michael McDonald Doobie Brothers instrumental, with its beer-commercial slide guitar and cowbell. The key, though, are the sax fills, the unabashed wailing of which builds to an energetic crescendo that never fails to delight me—whether it’s Gerald McRaney or Jon Hamm emptying that waterlogged cowboy boot. The side-by-side comparison of The Greatest Television Event In History and the Simon & Simon intro is probably one of the YouTube clips I’ve viewed the most, and the song is a big reason why.
I know plenty of people still love BoJack Horseman, but the show lost me somewhere in the second season, growing increasingly invested in its shithead characters’ ennui rather than, you know, the more base work of being funny. This is probably not a popular opinion, I realize, but at least we can all agree about that wonderful theme song, which blooms from a spry bit of boom-bap to something moodier and more symphonic, like a slightly more playful take on RJD2’s Mad Men theme. The track is the work of a musician with whom I have a similarly conflicted relationship: Patrick Carney, the supremely talented drummer for the Black Keys, whose work on the skins remains inspired even as the band itself drifts ever closer to Blueshammer self-parody. He’s at his best on this synth-heavy collaboration with his uncle, who provides the track’s achingly hip saxophone solo.
I don’t think I’ve ever even seen an episode of The Dukes Of Hazzard all the way through, but such is the power of Waylon Jennings that I will forever know the theme song by heart. Instead of getting all flashy like so many TV themes of its day, Jennings’ song sounded like it could be performed on any porch in Hazzard County, claiming that the Duke boys were “never meaning no harm” even as they shot arrows into police cars. The song went a long way toward making the Duke boys into the folk heroes they were aimed to be; more than the General Lee or whatever Catherine Bach was wearing, that theme became the most memorable part of the show.