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June 9, 2013

The Art of the Evocative Opening Theme Song






The late Cleveland Amory once began a TV Guide review with: “Laverne & Shirley is shot before a live audience. We recommend the same for the composer of the show’s theme song.” At least, in my memory he did. If it’s not word-for-word, I’m betting it’s pretty close. That Cleveland Amory, he used to say the darnedest things. Then he died, and stopped saying them.

Anyway, I find myself thinking of that bon mot on weekends when I’m binge-watching pirated dramas, and then pondering the evolution of the American TV theme song. I’m not enough of a student of the form to paint you a broad overview—I’ve lived my entire adult life outside the U.S., for heaven’s sake, most of it in the desolate pre-Pirate Bay era—but I first became aware of a quantum leap with the advent of The X-Files in the Nineties.

Here was a theme song that didn’t appear to actually be a song, or even aspire to be one, and yet it was bitingly, bracingly effective in its creepy-mood-setting role every time out of the box. At the peak of the series’ popularity, those synthesized strains were universally and instantly recognized. In a Japanese university classroom, instead of describing something (such as decisions emanating from the dean) as weird or unfathomable, I could use the shorthand of going, BOO-du-la-DUH-du-la-DUH-du-la…chahhh chahhh chahhh chahhh chahhh chahhhhhhhhhh…BOO-du-la-DUH-du-la-DUH-du-la, and gain instant understanding from at least the geekier corner of the room.

Since then, it seems that show runners have pulled out all the stops to grab themselves a buzz-generating opening theme. Below I present—again, with the disclaimer that I’m by no means a scholar of the genre—theme songs of serial dramas that have captured my attention in the last decade.

Program What the opening theme sounds like Accompanying video What it conveys Evaluation
Lost Foooooooooooooo-
waaaaahhhhhhhhh
(with extra dropped-silverware goodness)—and that’s it!
Title falling from a black sky Impending airsickness, disorientation Effective mood-setter, and gets itself out of the way in roughly the time it takes me to ejaculate after penetration. A-
Dexter Weeer-wahh, warrr-waaaww, weeer-wahhh, woo-wahh??? Etc. A fleetingly glimpsed, intense Dexter seemingly slaughtering twelve dastards twelve different ways, but in fact just going through his morning routine. . Playful menace for about a season and a half. After that, it’s just, Oh, there’s good ol’ Dexter again, squishin’ his damn breakfast fruit. A- for Season 1, then ever diminishing returns. I think they needed to pull a mind-scramble around Season 3 or 4-- a la the way Dick Van Dyke finally evolved the skill to circumvent his living-room ottoman-—by having Dexter actually mashing a guy’s brains out with the grapefruit juicer around Season 4. That would have been way cool.
Deadwood The Band circa 1971 tuning their instruments on LSD. (Substitute Mumford & Sons and Ecstasy if you’re too young to know who The Band was.) Lots of mud, ill-fated livestock, and mud-caked tits “This is not going to end well, but at least there’ll be tits.” Overstays its welcome a bit, despite sideboob shot. C+
Mad Men Verrr-dunt, verr-dunt, verr-dunt, verr-dunt, verr-dunt, verr-dunt, verr-dunt, verr-dunt, verrrrrrrrrrr… Etc. Man-shaped Wile-E-Coyote-like silhouette slowly plummeting “This show is really going to depress you, and since it’s on AMC, there won’t even be tits to break the monotony.” Ironically, a prime example of truth in advertising to represent a show that reminds us that advertising is BS. B
Game of Thrones Chun-chuh-chah-CHAHHH, chun-chuh-chah-CHAHHH, chun-chuh-chah-CHAHHH, CHAAAAAAAANNNNN… Etc. Perpetually mesmerizing graphics of cities rising up behind the names of actresses that you can half expect to see naked tonight. “We’re starting the theme song halfway through because we’re starting the story halfway through. You getting all these cities’ names? Because there’ll be a quiz.” Perhaps inflated by the remarkably consistent quality of the show itself, this stirring cri de guerre's grade is A-.
Homeland A compendium of things that you don’t want to have to listen to: avant-garde jazz trumpeting, the Gipper’s voice, an unstrung lady, etc. A compendium of things you don’t want to have to see: 9-11 in New York, women in burqas, Bill Clinton “You’re about to watch a program in which the most sympathetic character is soooo nougatty-naggatty nutty that this is what her typical dream feels like.” Accurate mood-setter but off-putting nonetheless. B-
The Walking Dead Nuh-NUH-na-NUH-na! (BLAT!), Nuh-NUH-na-NUH-na! (BLAT!), Nuh-NUH-na-NUH-na! (BLAT!), etc. Fleeting, blurry images of desolation from a cameraman about to be reduced to a roadside heap of bloody laundry. “Whaaaat? Jesus! Get away from—What? Huh? These things!! That one looks like—Oh god! More! More! Oh shit! Oh crap! Mooooommy!” This panicky, neurotic kid brother of the Game of Thrones opener sets the gold standard: A+
Boardwalk Empire Jangjangjangjangjangjang
jangjangjangjang-
jaaaaaaaaaaang!
Etc.
Floating bottles of bootleg whiskey and Steve Buscemi looking remarkably constipated for an anorexic. “Did you know that they had thrash-metal guitar music in the 1920s? I shit you not, bro!” Was the Laverne & Shirley theme really all that bad? I honestly don’t recall it. All I’m getting is “schlemiel, schlemazzel.” But this mess, oh, this will stick with me forever. F
Spartacus Whooooooshhhh,
wahhhhhhh… BUM-BUM-BAH-BUM-BAH-
BUM-BA-BA-BEH!
(Aaaaand we’re good to go!)
Title slide, spattered with gore. “We’ve got tits galore and refreshing new forms of decapitation to show you, dadgum it, so let’s get to it already! At 6 seconds, this makes the 11-second Lost theme seem like "MacArthur Park." A