By Cory Barker, Greg Boyd, Les Chappell, Emma Fraser, Noel Kirkpatrick, Andrew Rabin, Anthony Strand, and Cameron White
Welcome back to the This Was Television Hall of Fame, folks! As we tend to do here at the HoF headquarters, December brings yet another change to the Hall of Fame framework. Like the last few months, our staff will pick their nominees and make their pitches as to why those nominees are HoF-worthy. And also like the last few months, you will then be able to have the final say and vote for who actually gets enshrined into the very, very important TWTV HoF (construction underway). And yes, 60 percent still gets you in.
However, after some discussion, we realized that inducting just individual shows into the Hall would be partaking in the same sort of reductive canonizing that this project started in position against. Therefore, from here on out, all things related to television can be nominated and subsequently inducted into the TWTV Hall of Fame: Individual shows, seasons, episodes, performers, writers, directors, key grips, caterers, title sequences, and as you’ve probably already noticed by the headline, this month’s theme, opening theme songs. The five-year window is also likely being phased out as well. This is turn is part of a larger move that will in the future (like, 2013) allow folks more participation and engagement with the site and the HoF. We hope this works out, and if it doesn’t, we’ll just pretend it didn’t happen, like season two of Friday Night Lights.
This month’s theme is the best opening theme songs. And just so we’re clear (Rabin), the song had to air in the, you guessed it, opening titles or intertitles. The song could have been previously produced as an individual song, just as long as it actually aired with the show’s titles. Let’s do this.
“Cheer Up Hamlet,” “Mackers,” and “A Walk in the Rain” by Greg Morrison, Lisa Lambert, and Bob Martin for Slings and Arrows (2003-2006)
Slings and Arrows deserves to get in as a show as well, but I think the case for its theme songs is even stronger. They’re quite simply the best ever created. As iconic as something like the Cheers theme may be (and as nicely as it sums up the themes of the show), to me there’s something far more impressive about crafting a song about Hamlet that contains the lines: “So your uncle is a cad who murdered Dad and married Mum / That’s really no excuse to be as glum as you’ve become.” While there might well be good arguments to be made for the show not being inducted, I don’t think the same can be said about the first season’s theme. It’s wonderfully original and utterly brilliant, as well as seriously catchy.
But the greatness doesn’t stop there. While the song from the second season can’t quite match the genius of “Cheer Up Hamlet,” it comes pretty close. In season two, the characters took on Macbeth. Unlike season one’s song, “Mackers” is about the theatrical superstitions surrounding the character rather than the actual story of the play, which might be why I like it a little less. The witty summary of many of the key aspects of Hamlet is just so completely inspired that this song seems slightly pedestrian in comparison. But of course, I’m comparing it to the single greatest theme ever, so that’s not exactly fair. It still blows most other theme songs away in terms of uniqueness, humor, and overall awesomeness.
Finally, there’s season three, in which the play is King Lear. While season one’s theme has always been my favorite, you will get no argument from me if you prefer this delightful tune, which is titled “A Walk in the Rain,” a reference, of course, to the famous storm scene. Much like “Cheer Up Hamlet,” a lot of the fun here is in seeing some incredibly dark plays sung about it such an upbeat and clever way.
So there you have it: three terrific themes, each fitting their respective seasons perfectly. Indeed, they work so well that Slings and Arrows doesn’t even feel the need to include a fancy title sequence: just Cyril at a piano playing and singing while Frank has a drink and enjoys the song (and in season one, sings as well at several points) and everyone else in the bar goes about their business (before stopping to applaud at the end) As much as I love those elaborate HBO titles, who really needs them when you’ve got such great songs?
“Batman Beyond (Main Title)” written by Kristopher Carter for Batman Beyond (1999-2001)
The opening title sequence is a crucial part of any television show. It allows the creative team to set the tone and mood of the show even before meeting any of the characters or gaining an understanding of the plot and what’s at stake for aforementioned characters. To that end, may I present Batman Beyond? While I don’t think I could argue for the show to be included in the Hall of Fame, I do think its opening titles stand apart.
The main reason for this is how both the song (an instrumental synthesized beat and vibrating, meandering guitar melody) and the visuals set the tone for the show to follow. Ominous words like GREED, APATHY, and POWER are followed by HOPE, corresponding to the dramatic, bat-covered reveal of the show’s Batman in full Beyond costume. The mid-level screeches and low-note repetitions stand metaphorically for the screams of a city living in the pain of corruption. And the whole spectacle begins with the camera zooming in on Gotham as the heart-thumping beat builds to the drum-kit beat and into the guitar melody. Unlike Batman: The Animated Series, with its slightly more heroic horn melody and iconic pose of Batman on top of a building, standing above the city he protects, Beyond wants you to have no bones about the show you’re about to see: this is Gotham City, same as the old Gotham City, the one Bruce Wayne tried so hard to protect.
Together, these visual and audio cues give an indication of a very dark show that broods on the mysteries of being a hero, and of the legacies we leave behind (particularly in the case of the aging Bruce Wayne). It’s undeniably dark, but dark doesn’t always equal good for a TV show. Regardless, this intro sequence is simply one of the best examples of how to draw an audience into a show in one minute or less.
“Tank!” written by Yoko Kanno and performed by The Seatbelts for Cowboy Bebop (1998-1999)
Let me first declare that Greg is obviously cheating. He’s nominating three songs from one show, and he doesn’t even really like one of them! Plus, c’mon, “Cheer up Hamlet” is clearly the best one. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaannywaaaaaaaaaaaaay.
My nominee is “Tank!” from Cowboy Bebop, and it’s pretty damn near perfect. It’s a big band bebop piece, and its racing and nervous energy nicely mirrors the improvisational way its characters would work to capture the episode’s bounty and run from (and eventually toward) their pasts. It’s an organized chaos of a tune, with bongo drums and sudden solos, and the full version of the song is even better than the TV cut.
Just don’t hold that time it was used in a My Own Worst Enemy promo against it.
“Main Title” written by J.J. Abrams for Lost (2004-2010)
If, as Cameron (rightly) suggests, the opening theme song allows a show to set a mood, I’m not sure there’s a better representative of that point that the barely 15-second Lost theme composed by J.J. Abrams (I know, weird). Although it is very short, Abrams’ combination of swirling sounds and seemingly increasing volume perfectly primes the audience for the experience of watching Lost. It begins pretty clearly, makes a change mid-way through, and by the end, you’re completely off-balance wondering what in the hell just happened. The title them expresses the ominous nature of the show’s atmosphere, and particularly in the early seasons, really embodied how disorienting those castaways must have been once they crash-landed on the island.
What’s also great about the Lost theme is how it never felt dissociated from the show’s rhythms and themes, even as things progressed. In those early years, I always felt like it represented what being sucked out of a plane through the air would feel like; the middle seasons, it recalled the fairly prevalent amount of times that someone was captured and/or knocked out by the Others, the Freighter Folk, or whomever else and subsequently hazily woke up in a confusing place; and I could totally see that sound being what you hear when you’re skipping through space-time and consciousness like the characters did in the final two years.
And finally, this theme works because of its simple, creepy elegance. With a show that always had way too many balls in the air and far too many stories sprawling across time and space, it was always nice to have this theme there to give us not only that short little break, but also that reminder of where this all began: with a terrifying, disorienting plane crash.
“Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” composed by Sean Altman and David Yazbek, performed by Rockapella (Sean Altman, Scott Leonard, Elliot Kerman, and Barry Carl), featuring David Yazbek and Greg Lee for Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (1991-1995)
There’s something utterly ridiculous to the idea of a children’s geography game show on public television that simultaneous features two separate, distinct hosts and a house band that doubles as a comedy troupe, all based on a computer game. So on some level, it makes sense that Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? would have an awesome theme song. And “awesome” is really the only way to explain it. The WitWiCS theme has had a life far beyond its series. Do a search for “Carmen Sandiego theme” and you’ll find footage of Rockapella (minus any of the members who were actually on the series) performing it in concerts up to today.
Written by the Tony nominated lyricist of Broadway hits The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels along with the lead singer of Rockapella, the WitWiCS theme is a bit of lyrical genius. In right around a minute and a half, the lyrics reference 25 international locations, many of them through clever word play (“steal their Seoul in South Korea,” “stole the beans from Lima”) and rhyme scheme. And Rockapella is the most famous a capella group in the world for a reason. The song opened by showing the group singing while doing some sort of random dance, before going to a closing credit sequence featuring all of the series’ animated villains. “The Chief” Lynn Thigpen gives a farewell message, and finally the entire studio audience gets up and dances on the show’s giant map floor. The visuals represent the game show itself while also calling back to the animated villains of the computer game which launched it.
So as the winning contestant would say at the end of every episode:
DO IT, ROCKAPELLA!!!
“California” written by Alex Greenwald, Jason Schwartzman, Joseph Meyer, B.G. De Sylva & Al Jolson, performed by Phantom Planet for The O.C. (2003-2007)
Rom-Coms are right that hate can sometimes turn to love, as this is what has happened with my feelings towards my chosen theme song. The 30-second opening titles for The O.C. had me reaching for the mute button when the show first started, now I can’t get enough of stretching out the “Here We Come” part of the song. Teen shows have had many themes that walk the annoying/awesome line—yep Dawson’s Creek, I’m looking at you—and these songs have a habit of staying in your head until the next episode rolls around. They also tend to be songs that are not specifically written for the show in question and Phantom Planet’s “California” fits this pattern as it previously featured in the Colin Hanks ‘classic’ Orange County film (I see a theme with this theme).
There is a certain hopeful quality to “California” from the plinky-plonk piano to an instant desire to sing-along. The O.C. wasn’t always the most joyful of shows, but there is an idealistic tone that is introduced in the pilot when Sandy Cohen brings Ryan “Fists of Fury” Atwood home to his McMansion and shows him hope for a better life. A better life isn’t the rich and lavish lifestyle that we see hints of in the opening images; it’s the family unit that Ryan finds in his new home that makes him a rich man, not his access to an infinity pool. The song compliments the bright blue and sunny opening credits, credits feature smiling and happy moments, along with Luke and Ryan fighting on the beach—there’s got to be one fight, right?
It was an acoustic version of the song that featured in season three’s “The Shape of Things to Come” as Ryan punched Daniel from Ugly Betty that made me fall in love with the song and come to appreciate it as a theme. The season 4 Christmas episode “The Chrismukk-huh?” has us encountering a ‘Bizarro World OC’ and to match this change we also get different band singing the intro. This subdued version is performed by Mates of States and indicates that something is ‘off’ in this episode and needs to be fixed.
There are moments outside of the show that extend this fondness including a trip a beach in Norfolk, England that happens to be called California and because I am super cool (not really), it had my friends and I bellowing the song out at the top of our lungs. This coupled with a Christmas Eve night out a few years ago where they played the song in the club I was in (random yes) and I decided to ring a friend demanding that he had a happy Christmas; this was at 1am so he might not have appreciated it as much as I hoped!
A great TV theme is instantly recognizable and conjures images from the show and “California” does just this. If I ever take a trip to California I will become a giant cliché and have this blaring on at least one occasion.
“Theme From The A-Team” composed by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter for The A-Team (1983-1987)
As several of my counterparts have already pointed out, a truly iconic theme song for a show needs to be one that sets the mood and calls up images of the show within the first few beats. And it’s hard to think of one that did the job as well as the score to The A-Team, Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo’s legendary 80s action-adventure series. This was not a show that was interested in pushing an agenda or tugging at the heartstrings—this was a show where men were men, things blew up constantly and despite endless gunfights and fist fights no one was ever seriously injured. Similarly, the opening theme of The A-Team is one that’s similarly forceful and bombastic, full of dynamic crescendo that’s designed to get the blood pumping from moment one.
The theme also contains a prime example of a lost art in television these days, the ability to simply explain a show’s premise and move on to the show itself. Where a modern version of this story would likely take an entire premise pilot to lay out the circumstances in which Hannibal, Face, Murdock and B.A. were wrongfully imprisoned and court-martialed, The A-Team would rather hurry up and get to the action. Accordingly, the entire backstory is compressed into twenty seconds that even the narrator seems to want to be done with as soon as possible, an understated background drum giving it the sense of a top-secret military briefing. A casual viewer could tune into any episode and know exactly what was going on from the first minute, a virtue that few shows today can claim.
And from there, a ricochet of gun shots spell out the show’s title, and the true joyful militarism shines through. It’s a flurry of images that promise non-stop adventure, with a full orchestra keeping the momentum going for an entire minute even as the images get more over-the-top. Helicopters! Exploding Jeeps! Hannibal in a lizard suit! Face following a Cylon! B.A. breaking down a door and then grinning widely! (And of course, a car crashing through the front of a building, because that’s the only way to make an entrance in this universe.) For The A-Team to succeed, it needed a sense of adventure and confidence from the get-go, and the energetic yet slightly goofy theme was the all-important first step.
“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” composed by Quincy Jones and performed by Will Smith for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996)
On the surface, it’s strange that NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—which premiered in 1990—has an old-fashioned opening that painstakingly recounts every step of its main character’s journey from West Philadelphia, PA to Bel-Air, CA. The show was targeted at teenagers, but the theme song’s format was right out of the 1960s glory days of the gimmick sitcom. Like those of The Beverly Hillbillies or Gilligan’s Island, the theme song makes sure that new viewers understand how the convoluted premise fell into place.
It becomes even stranger when we consider that the show’s premise is actually pretty down-to-earth. There’s no set of unlikely castaways, no backwoods family in the city, and no identical cousins. Just a kid living with his aunt and uncle because his mom didn’t know how to keep him under control. There’s really no need to rehash that story every single episode, because the show makes perfect sense without it.
But the producers—along with star/songwriter/rapper Will Smith—absolutely made the right decision by including the song, because it quickly became the show’s trademark. The visuals are exaggerated to the point of cartoonish, separating the opening from the rest of the show. But more importantly, the tune is obscenely catchy, ensuring that the show itself will remain on viewers’ minds. And that has remained true as the years have passed. Fresh Prince was always a watchable show, but it was never a great one. Yet, sixteen years after it left the air, I know dozens of people who can sing the theme song verbatim.
I’d go so far as to say that the song is show’s primary legacy at this point, at least in my experience. When the show is brought up among 20- and 30-somethings, the conversation might touch on “the Carlton Dance” or Uncle Phil’s glowering or the mid-run recasting of Aunt Vivian, but it will inevitably turn to the theme song. It’s indelible, far more than the show itself.
Which of these these theme songs are Hall of Fame worthy? You tell us. Vote away.