It started innocently enough. I got into a semi-spirited Twitter debate with Poker Grump and a motley assortment of misfit toys regarding what TV theme song was the best ever. I advocated for “Hawaii Five-O”, but the Twitterverse spit out a ton of intriguing alternatives. I was inspired by the debate to challenge Poker Grump to post our Top 25 TV theme songs simultaneously for criticism and frivolity (Grump’s list is cross-posted here). There really is no underlying wager to settle or winner to be determined, although I assume I will emerge victorious in the court of public opinion ….
Since Poker Grump accepted the challenge, things have taken an ugly turn, with several dozen TV theme songs running through my head non-stop for the past 24 hours. I started by listing TV theme songs off the top of my head, then searched iTunes and online lists (see here and here) for ideas of songs I had overlooked. Then, I started plugging in the obvious top songs and knocking out the obvious misfits until I had my list. The process was harder than I had anticipated; there was a lot of handwringing over the final fifteen spots, and I found myself having to make some tough cuts of songs I had assumed were locks for the Top 25. Obviously there’s a large element of “eye of the beholder” in play when judging the “best” TV theme songs, but there are a few criteria I tried to use to sort out my list:
- Did the theme song set the mood and/or provide background for the show?
- Was the theme song an earworm? When the song comes on, do you find yourself humming, whistling, and/or singing along?
- Was the theme song for a show I regularly watched, and/or which was widely popular?
- Has the theme song crossed over into popular culture—e.g., is the song used in other TV shows or commercials, or otherwise parodied, sampled, quoted, and/or referenced in pop culture?
So, without further ado, here's the list (in traditional inverse order) (where I couldn't find a different, "official" title, I went with "Theme from ________" as a default song title):
25. L.A. Law / “Theme from L.A. Law (instrumental)” by Unknown: Ripped off by a dozen law dramas since.
24. Bones / “Theme from Bones (instrumental) by The Crystal Method: Suspenseful, yet strangely scientific. Perfect fit for the show.
23. Monk / “It’s a Jungle Out There” by Randy Newman: Neurotic and playful. You had to see the series to get the song.
22. The X-Files / “Theme from the X-Files (instrumental)” by Mark Snow: Eerie mood-setter for a paranormal conspiracy show.
21. Rawhide / “Rawhide” by Ned Washington & Dimitri: None of us remember watching this show, but thanks to the Blues Brothers, we can all sing it. Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, keep them doggies rollin’ …
20. The Muppet Show / “Theme from the Muppet Show” by Jim Henson & Sam Pottle: Catchy tune, and they played weekly games with the opening credits years before The Simpsons.
19. The Addams Family / “The Addams Family Theme” by Vic Mizzy: Oh snap! Snap!
18. The Flintstones / "Theme from The Flintstones" by Hoyt Curtin: It's a good time, a yabba, dabba, doo time, it's a gay, old time!
17. Hill Street Blues / “Theme from Hill Street Blues” (instrumental)” by Mike Post: Soft piano, soaring strings, good for a hankie before the first commercial.
16. Batman / “Batman Theme” by Neal Hefti: Perfect superhero theme. Great hook, greatly sampled and parodied.
15. Star Trek: The Next Generation / “Theme from Star Trek: The Next Generation (instrumental)”: The essence of pure space adventure.
14. The A-Team / “Theme from the A-Team (instrumental)” by Mike Post: Just a kick-azz theme song for a bunch of guys who kicked azz every week.
13. Family Feud / "Family Feud Theme Song (instrumental)" by Unknown: Easily the most recognizable game show theme of my lifetime.
12. Happy Days / “Happy Days” by Pratt & McClain: How better to make the mid-70s to early 80s feel like the late 50s?
11. The Brady Bunch / “Theme from The Brady Bunch” by Sherwood Schwartz: What color hair did the girls have? Now try to stop singing. ‘Nuff said.
10. Gilligan's Island / “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island” by Sherwood Schwartz & George Wyle: What was the name of the ship? How many hours was the cruise? Now try to stop singing. ‘Nuff said.
9. The Beverly Hillbillies / “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” by Paul Henning: Someone says, “Bubblin’ crude.” You say, “Oil that is. Black gold. Texas tea.” Now try to stop singing. ‘Nuff said. Plus, there’s the Neal McCoy homage, “Hillbilly Rap”, where he takes “bubblin’” to new heights.
8. Dallas / “Theme from Dallas (instrumental)” by Jerrold Immel: Big musical theme to introduce big hats, big hair, and big stars.
7. Mission: Impossible / “Theme from Mission: Impossible (instrumental)” by Lalo Schifrin: Possibly the most ripped off TV theme song riff. That's a huge compliment.
6. M.A.S.H. / “Suicide Is Painless (instrumental)” by Johnny Mandel: A moody intro for a black comedy about war. Couldn’t argue if someone wanted to move this up a few spots.
5. Miami Vice / “Theme from Miami Vice (instrumental)” by Jan Hammer: This was a groundbreaking show for kids my age, and really ushered in a new style of TV show, with pop music soundtracks, fast paced / jump cut editing, and an emphasis on style over exposition. The song perfectly conveys the energy and excitement of both Miami and a cop show.
4. The Dukes of Hazzard / “The Dukes of Hazzard” by Waylon Jennings: One of my favorite childhood shows, and the catchy song perfectly encapsulates the essence of a couple of Southern good ‘ol boys fighting against the man and having a good ‘ol time.
3. The Jeffersons / “Movin’ On Up” by Ja’net Du Boise & Jeff Barry: Catchy gospel-inspired tune with some important cooking advice—“Fish don’t fry in the kitchen, beans don’t burn on the grill.” I dare you to find a person who doesn’t tap their feet and sing along to this one!
ADDENDUM (4 January 2012): Mea culpa. I should have kept the courage of my convictions. Hawaii Five-O is perfection, and must be placed in its rightful Numero Uno position. Just take a look at this Brian Setzer Orchestra live performance posted by Lucki Duck over on his blog, Small Potatoes Poker & Sports Betting:
All In the Family: Iconic, but honestly, the show is no longer a cultural touchstone the way Cheers or the other shows are, particularly to people under 50. It’s the War & Peace of TV theme songs; everyone is supposed to remember it and revere it, but most people couldn’t sing a line from the song or relate a classic scene from the show.
Cool theme songs, but the shows are largely forgotten (you might know a scene or two, but characters? Episodes? Memorable quotes? Come on, now!): SWAT, Barney Miller, Bonanza, Laverne & Shirley, Taxi.
Good theme songs, but just not as good as others in their genre: WKRP in Cincinnati, Night Court, Charlie's Angels, Law & Order, Seinfeld, Psych, South Park, Entourage, The Simpsons, Magnum P.I.
Overly sappy / cringe-inducing theme songs (memorable doesn’t mean good): Sesame Street, The Greatest American Hero, The Golden Girls, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Radio hits masquerading as TV theme songs: Dawson’s Creek, Friends, Party of Five.
So, which songs did I get right? Where did I botch it horribly? What is your top five? What TV theme song did I utterly overlook? Comments are open!!
Corn earworms (image source).