The Rise And Demise Of TV Theme Songs

One of the favorite albums in my record (vinyl) collection is a two-disc set from TeeVee Toons called “Television’s Greatest Hits” with no less than 65 theme songs from ’50s and ’60s shows. The themes cover children’s shows, comedies, dramas, detective, sci fi and late night talk shows. Some of the recordings are not the original performances (no doubt due to licensing restrictions) but the album is still a delight for the nostalgic TV junkie.

I love the opening title credits and the theme music of my favorite shows. To me, the credits are as much a part of the program as the story. The credits set the mood and tone of the program and get the viewer ready to laugh or be serious. When the viewer sits down to watch a show after a hard day’s work, the credits eases him into a world of enchantment and entertainment.

In modern shows, the cast/crew credits are almost an afterthought, slapped across the bottom of the screen while the viewer is trying to watch the story. Tacky!

My vote for the best title credits ever is “Mission: Impossible.” Every single episode of the seven-year run of the original series had different visuals comprised of action clips from that particular show set to the jazzy beat of Lalo Schifrin’s unforgettable score. The fan could instantly tell which episode was playing just by the credit sequence.

Another great opening credit was the 1966 “Batman” that used a stylized pop-art animation, a nod to the show’s comic book origins.

Many classic TV themes are what I call “story songs” that introduced the series concept and the characters so the viewer could jump into the story. Let’s see a show of hands of those who can sing from memory the themes for “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Davy Jones made “The Brady Bunch” theme a staple of his live shows.

My favorite “story song” is from “Alias Smith and Jones,” which used a spoken narration over the snappy music (“Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry, the two most successful outlaws in the history west. And in all the trains and banks they robbed, they never shot anyone.”). In a dreadful twist of irony, Roger Davis, who spoke the narration for the first season narration, replaced Pete Duel as Hannibal Heyes in the second season after Duel’s untimely death.

The most recent example of the “story song” that I know is “Castle,” introducing the ruggedly handsome mystery writer and his muse, a female NYPD detective. Unfortunately, by season four the clever credits had dropped out altogether. Why? Maybe the producers thought that after three years the viewers knew the characters, or maybe the humorous credits no longer fit with the darker storylines, or perhaps the network need the extra few seconds to cram in more ads.

Some theme songs were such great works that the studios released an extended version of the music on a single. In my music collection I have the “Hawaii 5-0″ theme redone lounge-style as “Martini 5-0″ by The Blue Hawaiian surf band.

The beauty of a great theme song is that it stuck in the viewer’s brain all week along, so the hapless victim kept thinking about the program even when she wasn’t watching it.

Alas, the day of the great theme song is over. Nowadays a scripted show is lucky to have a few seconds of a “sting” or sometimes nothing more than a chord! Why? The change occurred during the rise of cable TV when the studios were desperate to keep the viewer from clicking to another channel. The idea was to hook the viewer into the story immediately. Also, with today’s DVD sets and streaming video, “binge” viewers who watch several episodes continuously might find repeated viewing of the same credits tedious and time consuming.

In my Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol mystery series, Sandy starred in a ’70s TV show called “Buddy Brave, Boy Sleuth.” And he even has his own theme music–a two-minute instrument piece called “Land O’ Pies” (don’t ask me what that means) on Michael Nesmith’s CD “Rays.” The first time I heard this piece I thought, “Yeah! That’s Sandy’s theme song!”

So what are some of your favorite TV theme songs? And if you’re a writer, do your characters have a theme song?


The Rise And Demise Of TV Theme Songs — 4 Comments

  1. Sally,
    You are so right about there being no music in today’s TV shows. Everything is too rapid-fire and frankly, I don’t think there is anyone left in Hollywood who could write a theme song. They sure don’t have people to write a plot. But you made me remember some of my favorites. I’ll be humming them all night.

    • You’re so right, Gayle. The older shows had class and style. Why is it colleges has classes on scripwriting but TV shows (and movies) are badly written? As for theme songs sticking in your head, “The Wild Wild West” and “Barbary Coast” themes are two that are permanently drilled into my brain.

  2. Thanks for the ear opener. I was an early TV junkie too. In my first novel, Covering the Sun with My Hand, pop culture TV was interspersed throughout. I’m in the middle of line edits with my mystery, Nights of Indigo Blue, I haven’t heard the jingle yet. Will be listening for it…

    • Hi Theresa, the older TV shows had well-crafted theme songs. It’s a lost art form. Even movies are moving away from long opening credits.