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

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)

Comments () | Archives (15)

Great story, Robert. The Academy of TA&S should reconsider. The creativity behind TV themes can be quite extraordinary and, as you noted, can leave a long lasting impression. They are like stepping stones in our lives. There are enough shows on TV today, that a half dozen nominees could be found in this category.

How come no love for the TV Western? Who can forget the themes from Have Gun Will Travel or Maverick? They were classics.

You really hit the nail on the head with this one. I have A CD of the fifty best TV theme songs starting with Lucy and ending with Alias and by the time you get to the end the song are only about 30 seconds long!

How could you have left out the theme from the Sopranos?!

My entire family sings along to the theme of "The Big Bang Theory." You gotta love that they slipped "autotrophs" in there. Educational and fun!


You may be too young to remember (or just have different taste than I have), but you've left out what in my opinion is the all-time best: Hicky-Burr, the theme for the original Bill Cosby Show (1969-'70), composed and arranged by Quincy Jones and scatted hilariously by Bill Cosby himself. It's pure genius. (If you want to check it out, make sure to listen to the short version-- the one actually used on the show-- not the less piquant, less funny, full-length version Jones put on one of his albums.)

The Big Bang Theory. Best show on TV and has an excellent theme song.

What about the theme from "NCIS"- great scene-setting music that grabs your attention immediately! And of course the "bah-bah-bah-bah-baaah" of "How I Met Your Mother"-perfectly pop-py and instantly relate-able! Please, Academy-don't go the way of the Grammy's and dumb-down the show for the fly-over states-honor those tunes who set the stage for our favorite shows!

You left out such iconic TV themes as "Mission Impossible", "Cheers", "All in the Family", "The Jeffersons", "Good Times"(and just about every theme from a Norman Lear- produced sitcom), not to mention "The Love Boat", "Charlie's Angels", (and just about every theme from an Aaron Spelling-produced series) in addition to "The Sopranos", "Six Feet Under", and "Sex and the City". Is it no coincidence that these were all hugely successful, long-running series? The problem isn't the TV Academy. The problem is the nervous network executives, too insecure to take enough stock or confidence in their programming to feel they can hold an audience beyond a 30-60 second theme. Main title themes aren't only a means to perk up and peak an audience's interest. The best ones function to help create an IDENTITY to the show, often serving as a key component to the show's success. Some of the most enduring shows even restate a snippet of their theme music over each scene change. History has repeatedly proven that the series which last are those with a memorable theme, not to mention the potential ancillary market revenues a good theme can generate from music publishing. Maybe networks ought to consider that as their current business model of total dependence on ad revenue is eroding.

How about going way back to Kukla, Fran, and Ollie's "Here we are, back with you again"? Or Ed Sullivan's "It's the Toast of the Town"?

And it was more of a commercial than a theme but I won't forget Dinah Shore's "See the USA in your Chevrolet."

I bought the full version of the Big Bang Theory theme on iTunes! It TOTALLY deserves an Emmy! Great writing, Barenaked Ladies!

Wonderful post. Parks and Recreation has got to be one of the best theme songs in television today!! It's so catchy I'm singing along to it all day...

Great article, Robert. TV theme songs are the closest we composers get to having hit songs. They often define the stylistic content of the entire score for the series, and sometimes the direction of the series itself. On new series, in my personal experience, composers are most often chosen based on their Main Title Theme submissions. Removing the category from Emmy competition, in my opinion, devalues the creative, collaborative role that a composer brings to the table when a TV series is being crafted.
Themes are not dead, as some Academy members have said. There are more themes on TV now than there ever have been. They are very much alive.
I'm voting AGAINST the proposal to change the Emmy Music Categories.

Russ Landau
2007-2008 Emmy Winner
Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music

Nice article. Now where's MAGNUM, P.I.?!?

I saw the original pilot for Gilligan's Island, (which was not broadcast), with some different actors. The theme song was a very dark and relatively scary calypso song that seemed to last five minutes, which didn't seem to fit comedy. There was an actor who appears during the opening credits who was never in the series. He was on this unaired pilot.


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