For years, instrumental TV theme songs were de rigour. Then, sometime in the mid-to-late 60s, somebody realized that you could sum up the entire premise of the show in a one-minute, three-verse song. Writers didn’t have to add in any exposition! Keep in mind, this was before the age of a two-minute “previously, on ____” preceding every 42-minute program. Viewers needed some way to know what they were getting into.
As time wore on, more generic theme songs took hold, usually about themes like friendship (Golden Girls) or family (Full House, Family Matters). By the mid-90s, tv themes had become chart toppers in their own right, and I still get a little giddy when the Friends theme pipes onto the radio.
Commercial breaks expanded, and run times contracted. Networks had to cut something from their shows, and theme songs were the first to go. By season 9, the Friends theme was about 12 words long. Other themes were reduced to a single line, followed by a nonsense word (Friendship is family forever…. toodles!). Don’t believe me? The Mike And Molly song is 17 seconds long. 10 words.
In tv theme songs – as in fashion and politics – the pendulum always swings back eventually. Instrumental theme songs are it again. I’ll be damned if they aren’t darn catchy, too.
A great title sequence calls for a great theme song. There’s a bit of a tense, Hitchcock-y buildup, so you know there’s going to be drama. But then the cymbals kick in, so you’re pretty sure there will be fun times and laughs, too. Who needs three verses explaining Don Draper’s back story when you have that? (I would actually benefit from three verses explaining Don Draper’s back story).
I started watching The Simpsons almost as soon as it aired, even though I was barely a toddler. My mom didn’t approve of Bart’s attitude, but that didn’t mean we weren’t allowed to watch it. It just meant that my brothers and I had to go upstairs to do it. This really typifies my parents’ child-rearing philosophy. Like, my room could be messy for a while, but my door had to be closed. Hi, I’m half Irish Catholic, if you couldn’t tell.
Anyway, the most exciting part of the show when I was 4 or 5 was “the couch” – the sight gag at the end of the credits when the family piled onto the sofa. To get to it, you had to sit through a rollicking tour of Springfield. Danny Freakin’ Elfman, you guys. Genius.
Totally jazzy and New York-y. Oddly, more of an early-60s feel than the Mad Men theme. Jeff Richmond is without a doubt one of the great tv composers of our day. His wife’s pretty cool too I guess.
Parks and Recreation
Upbeat and spirited, this is like a theme song for optimism itself. Will Leslie Knope prevail? Of course she will. You don’t write a theme like this for someone who’s anything less than triumphant.
Boy Meets World
I have so much trouble finding people who remember the original Boy Meets World theme. We all remember the generic 90s tune of the later seasons (when this boy meets world — boy meets wor-or-orld – travelin down this road that we call ly-eeef –). But, do you remember the synth-y yet magestic tune of the first season? Extra bonus, the entire title sequence looks like it was created on Microsoft Paint, pre-Windows ‘95.
Law And Order
I don’t know if it’s the solid bass backbeat, the twangy guitar, or the — is that a clarinet?? — but if you blindfolded a person who had never seen Law and Order, played this sequence, and asked them what this show was about, they’d be like “police procedural set in a big city? Early 90s?” I like the moment about 50 seconds in when you think that it’s over, then the music kicks back up, like “just kidding!” Am I overthinking it if I think that’s supposed to evoke the moment ⅘ of the way through the show when you think they got the bad guy but it was a different bad guy? Yeah, I thought so.
This doesn’t all-the-way qualify, because they say Batman a crazy number of times. By the end of it, it’s like when you repeat a word multiple times and it stops sounding like a word. I also notice that the way kids sing “na na na na na na na na na na BATMAN!” doesn’t sound much like this. See, I find that children are terrible at most things because they haven’t been alive very long.
What’s amazing is that even though this is a superhero cartoon, it kind of sounds like 1960s beach music, too. Except for the part where they won’t stop saying Batman.
I think in this context, “do” isn’t a word.
Oh, Babar. The show I always saw 20 minutes of because it was on HBO right before I had to leave for church in the morning. Babar was a gentle, sweet show (about colonialism), so this lovely little melody fits perfectly. Unless, that is, crazy, terrible shit always started to go down in the final 10 minutes.
Leave it To Beaver
When you listen to this peppy, spirited little tune, you just know that for the next half-hour you are going to be in a world where the biggest problem is an 8-year-old with a slingshot. If only that darn announcer would just shut up.
Honorable mention: Clarissa Explains it all
Just a cheerful, energetic number featuring a 14-year-old girl dressed like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. I had to DQ it from the list proper because there were a few too many words in there.
Honorable mention: Andy Griffith Show
This theme song is iconic and completely evocative of the show. I’m not denying that. Here’s the thing, though. When I was in elementary school, our music director decided to debut a sung version of this song at the spring concert. It wasn’t even my grade doing it, but all I can think of when I hear this song is 40 eight-year-olds with recorders trying to squeak out the melody, then putting them down to sing about a fishin’ hole. It was actually way more cute when Andy Griffith sang it than when two classes of third graders did it, who would have thought?
Also, I know this makes me sound like a dour and joyless person, but I can’t stand when people whistle, and this song just encourages it.