Look, I know it ain’t the ‘90s anymore, but am I crazy or has the TV theme song made a not unwelcome comeback in the last several years? In the beginning, dumb producers leaned on obvious ballads that were basically ninety-second elevator pitches – “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island,” et al. – or else turned earworm refrains into musical catch phrases. “You’re gonna make it after all” became “Thank you for being a friend” became “I’LLL BEEE THERRRE FORRR YOUUUUU!!!” A side effect of what we can no longer avoid calling the Golden Age of Television has been the replacement of mindless snappiness with songs that actually manage to reflect the tone and mood of the shows they introduce. Nostalgia junkies can have a gas chanting “In West Philadelphia born and raised” at their drunken thirtysomething dinner parties or whatever. Me, I like songs and I like good TV, and good TV knows how to curate its music selections.
So here’re my Top 5 TV Theme Songs.
Rules and Exemptions
For this list, I’m keeping the focus on the modern era, post-2000. Theme songs that are simply iconic (like Danny Elfman’s Simpsons theme or the badass bass from Seinfeld) don’t do it for me, nor do sugary narratives like Will Smith’s Fresh Prince rap. We’re looking at songs that really compliment their programs. Counterintuitive as it may seem, I’m also nixing instrumentals. No disrespect to RJD2’s soaring Mad Men theme or the lyricless version of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” that made House, M.D. seem profound, but an instrumental is basically a score, and a score is not a song, not in this context. And anyway, lyrics offer a challenge to music supervisors: they should be memorable but not infectious, relevant to the show’s content without being on-the-nose. An instrumental can be unassuming, but a song has to be bold, like good TV.
It should also go without saying that I’m biased toward shows I personally watch. As such…
“At Least it was Here” by The 88 (theme from Community)
Nothing scores a goofy sitcom like a song about contemplating suicide! I’m turbo-biased here, since Community is my favorite show not called Mad Men, but part of the reason I love it is cuz it refuses to shy away from the true root of comedy, which is pain – personal pain, interpersonal pain, pain that’s bottled up and repressed until it bursts forth in destructive, public displays. Each of the seven main characters is deeply damaged, and this little chipper-on-the-surface number by The 88 – a band that specializes in covering uncomfortable subjects with hooky melodies – invites the viewer to sense the anxiety that vexes all of our heroes. Has a line like “we could be roped up, tied up, dead in a year” ever graced a network sitcom before or since? And no, “Suicide is Painless” doesn’t count.
“You’ve Got Time” by Regina Spektor (theme from Orange is the New Black)
This show really shit the bed in its fifth season, but Regina Spektor’s theme song is a workhorse that’s opened the show with a bang since its inception. I’m on the fence about Spektor’s songwriting talents – Begin to Hope was one of my absolute favorite albums when I was twenty or so; it’s also the only album of hers I’ve listened to all the way through – but this song pounds, it drives, it slams like the jail cell doors that, come to think of it, don’t actually exist in the show’s minimum-security women’s prison. But dramaturgical inconsistency aside, “You’ve Got Time” sets the stage for the burning fear, desire, anger, and delirium that besets the inmates of Litchfield Federal season after season.
“Let the Mystery Be” by Iris DeMent (theme from The Leftovers, Season 2 + Finale)
This song would be a too-obvious case of ironic recontextualisation if The Leftovers hadn’t spent its second season belly-flopping into exquisite madness. Iris DeMent’s yokel yelp on this breezy acoustic opening to a brutal, surreal drama both undercuts and emphasizes the show’s central conflict. After 2% of the world’s population mysteriously vanishes, we’re not just grappling with a worldwide tragedy – we’re trying to understand death itself. The fact that we can’t is the source of all human anxiety, and The Leftovers simply amplifies that anxiety to its logical extreme. The fact that, after a third and final season that played literal musical chairs with theme songs, the finale saw the return of “Let the Mystery Be” showed that the mystery – and our unwillingness to let it remain unsolved – was the boot our heroes spent possibly twenty years stuck under. Only on The Leftovers could giving up be the ultimate triumph.
“Container” by Fiona Apple (theme from The Affair)
I don’t listen to a ton of Fiona Apple, but as I see it she does two things really well: musical minimalism and lyrical economy. She knows the power of a well-wrought line, and drops plenty of bold one-liners into her hookier-than-most-people-give-credit-for choruses. (She can also really work the low end of a Steinway.) As the theme for The Affair, this song risks overshadowing the show it introduces, especially since that show started to slip off the rails in its third season. (Brendan Fraser as a psychopathic corrections officer might seem like a can’t-miss idea in writing but oh wait, no it doesn’t.) Her breathless refrain of “I have only one thing to do and that’s/Be the way that I am and then/Sink back into the ocean” speaks to the show’s ability to shift perspective between several characters, and how each of those characters is continually in the process of erasing and remaking themselves. The sands of time and the unintended consequences they bring with them are what The Affair, in its best moments, brings into focus, and “Container” points the way with its author’s trademark forcefulness.
“Unbreakable” by Jeff Richmond (theme from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt)
Okay, this song breaks almost every rule I started with – it describes its own show, it’s borderline obnoxious, it’s infectious as fuck – but come onnnnnn. When you’re watching a show where pretty much every single character is forty leagues beyond batshit, isn’t this the song you wanna hear THIRTEEN GODDAMN TIMES IN A ROW while you’re binging it on a Saturday afternoon? I also like that the song arises organically out of the plot; the scene in the first episode that sparks this ridiculous Auto-Tune is one the funniest of the entire series. Some songs won’t leave you alone and that sucks, but some songs at least earn the right to take up permanent residence in that part of your brain that refuses for forget ridiculous things. THEY ALIVE, DAMMIT!! ISS A MIRACULLLL!!