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Critic's Notebook: Emmy status threatened, TV themes still play on

April 20, 2010 |  6:10 pm

You are no longer loved, TV Theme Music, at least not by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which is threatening to decommission your category from its Emmy Awards. In its place, more or less, will be a new prize for "music composition for a non-fiction program." As if you could ever hum that.

Many of us, I'll wager, had forgotten, or never knew, that they were giving you an Emmy at all -- even before it was eliminated, your category was shut out of the prime-time telecast. The stated reasoning behind this bruited change is the fact that fewer and fewer series are mounting a "traditional" TV theme, though just what "traditional" means is unclear, and fewer does not yet mean "none."

Certainly, you have grown shorter, TV Theme, at least on broadcast prime-time television, where credits are increasingly a thing to be got through quickly in order to get straight to the crowd-pleasing action or to squeeze another 26 seconds of commercial time out of the hour. Indeed, host Neil Patrick Harris joked about this very thing on last year's Emmys broadcast, comparing the rustling chord that introduces "Lost" -- the Ad Reinhardt "Black Painting" of TV openings -- to that of "Gilligan's Island": "The last time there were people on a desert island, there was a song about it and, dagnabbit, it was awesome."



Even you must admit that you are not what you were. Anyone whose memory reaches back even as far as the mid-'90s, when the theme to "Friends" gave the Rembrandts a brief career in real-world pop, knows that. Recall the effervescent Latin pop of "I Love Lucy," the dark march of the "Dragnet" theme, the hopeful soft-rock of the theme to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Remember the reign of Mike Post, whose vast catalog of themes included "The Rockford Files" and "Hill Street Blues." Try to forget, once heard, the premise-reiterating ballads of "Green Acres" and "The Beverly Hillbillies," and that awesome song about the seven stranded castaways, each of them individually mentioned. I can see why they wouldn't do that with "Lost" -- the song would end sometime after the episode.



Indeed, questions of time aside, it is nearly impossible now to write such a theme, unless drenched in irony or purposely old-fashioned. (Garry Shandling completely dismantled the expository theme song with the extremely specific and utterly generic opening to his "It's Garry Shandling's Show": "This is the theme to Garry's show/The opening theme to Garry's show/This is the music that you hear as you watch the credits.") And except in cases of actual pathology, do we really need to be told each week the reason those hillbillies were living in a mansion or just how those six kids, two adults and a housekeeper all became the Brady Bunch. Probably not.

But TV themes were once in a real dialogue with pop music at large. The best, or at least the catchiest, would even find their way into the mainstream of pop. The Who covered "Batman"; the Ventures hit with "Hawaii Five-0." In 1976, the themes from "S.W.A.T." and "Welcome Back, Kotter" became No. 1 singles, with those from "Baretta," "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley" not that far behind. Anyone who has ever played in a band knows that when things get slow at rehearsal, guitar players will pick out the "Green Acres" theme and bass players slap out "Barney Miller."



That is less likely to be the case with the brief themes to "House" (an instrumental passage lifted from Massive Attack's "Teardrop") or "Fringe," which are more about setting a mood than planting a tune in your head, or even the jolly theme to "Modern Family," which is over almost before it starts. In a way, I can see the academy's point: Some of these pieces do seem too short to nominate, like giving out an acting award for best sigh or a screenwriting prize on the basis of a well-chosen adjective.

Nevertheless, TV Theme Music, reports of your demise are premature and exaggerated. Old-style, original singable themes are still standard in tween television, for one thing, which at the moment is dominated by actors who have secondary, or in some cases primary, singing careers; Miley Cyrus of "Hannah Montana" (theme song:"The Best of Both Worlds," Top 20 in Ireland) is only the most successful example. Cartoon series still produce memorable signature music, albeit they are rarely nominated for any but the most obvious Emmys. And even the briefer themes can set the tone for what's to come: creepy, kooky, mysterious, spooky. The themes to "The Office," "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation," just to name three series I watch in a row each week, are inextricably a part of the viewing experience; they comment on and color the content. There may not be much to "Mad Men"'s mash up of Bernard Hermann strings and Aphex Twin electro-skitter, but it tells you right where you are.



They can cut you from the honor roll, TV Theme Music, but television can't do without you. This will be made clear at the next Emmy Awards, when the winners in all the surviving categories make their way to the stage. And what will be playing as they do? It will be you, TV Theme Music, recognizable yet unrecognized.

--Robert Lloyd (Tweetering @LATimesTVLloyd)

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