Are Great TV Theme Songs a Thing of the Past?

Barb would never press "skip intro."
Barb would never press "skip intro." Toby Osborn/Unsplash
In 1982, a show about friends who work at a bar made its debut, and it opened with one of the greatest songs in television history. Gary Portnoy’s “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” prefaced the hit show Cheers, and the world was a better place for it.

Flash forward a few decades and streaming services have seized the platform. We don’t have to sit through every second of a show if we want to watch it — we can skip intros and look at our smartphones and binge-watch, dammit.

But in this overstimulated and patience-deprived world, we’re slowly killing The Great TV Theme Song.

We’re not sure if this once time-honored artform can ever thrive again as it did in its golden age of Cheers or Twin Peaks or Golden Girls, but we do know a couple of things: If we don’t want to see it peter out into the purgatory of all those skipped intros, we need to bring back the Gary Portnoys of the world, and we need to cherish the power of a good opening song coupled perfectly with a star-studded visual counterpart before it’s no longer an option.

The problem (or convenience, depending on your stance on the matter) began in 2017, when Netflix added the “skip intro” option on most of its canon of shows and movies. We were no longer required to listen to the opening of Downton Abbey — a beautifully composed orchestral piece by John Lunn — or the iconic “falling man” title sequence in Mad Men that featured “A Beautiful Mine” by RJD2.

We know, we know. On our fourth consecutive episode of The Sopranos, we shouldn’t have to sit through another minute-and-46-second intro before we get to the action and violence (even if the music is great). We get it.

But that’s the problem, and it brings us back to our main point: binge-watching has ruined our ability to fully appreciate TV intros, and because of our desire to watch several episodes in one sitting, we don’t need recaps or character-revealing montages unfolding to an upbeat earworm (think Tom Selleck’s Magnum P.I.) And streaming services just encourage us to skip it, anyway. (But given the opportunity, who could really skip past a Hawaiian shirt-clad Selleck and his ’stache?)

The only logical conclusion to this pattern is that we will lose those powerful introductory songs that set the tone and feel of a show (we’re afraid it’s too late for the gloriously cheesy Magnum P.I.-esque ones, save for satire). Those musically sticky songs that still resonate with fans generations later are part of an era that might be well on its way to an end.

In our opinion, most of the great TV intro songs were in the ’80s and ’90s, and usually clocked in between one and two minutes long — and the intros themselves did more than list the title credits. Full House, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The X-Files and so many more all summed up the premise of their respective shows and introduced main characters.

We want to have complete control over our telly but keep the niceties of a simpler era. We want exciting openers with tacky montages, over-the-top ballads and all the fuzzy feelings. We want to keep the element that makes TV shows most memorable.

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But not all needed lyrics. Knight Rider and Unsolved Mysteries have two of the best electronic opening songs, especially for their time, and they still absolutely slap today. The Twin Peaks theme by Angelo Badalamenti is one of the most beautiful pieces of instrumental music ever written. Twilight Zone’s eerie opening is recognizable to anyone old enough to skip past parental controls. And Curb Your Enthusiasm’s “Frolic” by Luciano Michelini is one of the most anticipated numbers after the HBO title card fades. You should have your screen time taken away for skipping past these intros.

As for the future, title sequence designers could be worried about audience retention, thanks again to modern technology and our ever-evolving inclination to live life as fast as possible, even on the couch. And while some focus on retention, others are racing to cram as much content into one episode as possible that they dismiss the intro almost entirely, with seconds-long flashes, like on The Blacklist.

So, what’s the solution? We don’t know. But it’s bugging us. We want to have complete control over our telly but keep the niceties of a simpler era. We want exciting openers with tacky montages, over-the-top ballads and all the fuzzy feelings. We want to keep the element that makes TV shows most memorable. We want to hear that we can go someplace where everybody knows our name.
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Diamond Rodrigue
Contact: Diamond Rodrigue