Now that we’ve gone to the trouble of compiling our lists of the most memorable TV themes of the ‘80s and ‘90s, it would seem irresponsible (not to mention totally at odds with our obsessive-compulsive nature) not to carry on into the 2000s — in spite of the fact that TV theme songs all but disappeared in the decade, replaced on most shows by a quick title hit (though sometimes an ingenious and musical one) and credits rolling under the opening scenes.
However, a few shows (particularly on cable) managed to keep the opening theme song alive, while others took the fifteen to thirty seconds allowed by their networks and made something special of them. As before, it’s not just about an appropriate theme for great show (enough about the Buffy theme already); it’s about a catchy tune that fixes itself in your cranium, one that you not only sing along with when the show starts, but that even pops into your head during the day, or works its way into your shower-crooning repertoire. Our playlist is after the jump, and you can drag and drop your picks into the comments.
Pay cable is one of the few places where the credit sequence has flourished, since their network honchos are less concerned with losing viewers during a two-minute opener (they’ve already got your money). Shows like Six Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire, Dexter, and Deadwood have paired evocative instrumental music with vivid imagery, and thus accomplished what a good opening credit sequence should do: set the table for the show that follows. Few did that better than HBO’s masterful The Wire, which used the 1987 Tom Waits song “Way Down in the Hole,” but with a different performer to match the shifting focus of each passing season. The first year, exploring the Baltimore drug world, featured the Blind Boys of Alabama cover; season two, set on the docks, used the Waits original; season three, exploring compromise and corruption at City Hall, used a Neville Brothers version; season four, set in the crumbling Baltimore school system, was recorded specially for the show by a group of Baltimore teen singers dubbed DoMaJe; and season five, focusing on the newspaper business, used a cover by Steve Earle (who also played the recurring character of recovering addict Walon). As with the seasons, everyone has their favorite, but we prefer the original, Blind Boys version, which supplements the track with wire-tapping sound effects and imagery of the surveillance operation which dominated the season.
One of the many reasons we prefer the early seasons of Weeds was for its clever opening sequence, which was jettisoned after season three in favor of a network-style, title-and-creator-only combination (albeit an occasionally clever one). In the show’s first year, the Malvina Reynolds folk/satire song “Little Boxes” was used over the imagery of a middle-class suburbia where every house, car, and resident looks the same. Then they got clever — in seasons two and three, they went to cover versions, but did The Wire one better by getting a different artist for every episode. Elvis Costello, The Shins, Joan Baez, Regina Spektor, Death Cab for Cutie, and Tim DeLaughter were among the 27 additional artists who were heard warbling Reynolds’s tune, before the show returned to her version for the season three finale and then dispensed with the device altogether.
Sure, The O.C. was a soapy teen drama that we were a little too old to be watching, and Phantom Planet’s “California,” from the distance of these few years since the show’s cancellation, sounds more and more like a disposable mid-decade pop washout. And for those reasons, we almost didn’t include it on this list. And then we remembered that both the show and its theme were explicitly endorsed by none other than Ira Glass, and suddenly it felt okay to like “California” again.
As a general rule, we tend to avoid instrumentals on these lists, merely because they’re harder to sing along with, loudly, in front of your television, and therefore seem less likely to get carried around in your daily life. That said, NBC’s Thursday comedies tend to capture the sprit of their shows in their distinctive instrumental openers, from Parks and Rec’s stirring, almost military march to The Office’s amicable, piano-heavy work anthem. (Community’s lively theme isn’t an instrumental, but I’ll be damned if I can decipher those lyrics.) The best of the bunch, though, is probably 30 Rock’s chirpy, upbeat theme, composed by Tina Fey’s husband Jeff Richmond, which has a jaunty air and a whiff of old-show biz; it almost sounds like a leftover from TV’s golden age, which is a nice fit for the subject matter.
We’ve spent the last four years mourning the loss of Rob Thomas’s perpetually underappreciated noir-soaked mystery series, which ran for three seasons and should have run for many, many more. Being the adventures of a teen detective (played, marvelously, by Kristen Bell), Veronica Mars needed an opening sequence that would sum up all of the show’s moods: edgy, dark, fast-paced, funny, smoky. Luckily, they managed to swipe the Dandy Warhols’ 2003 track “We Used to Be Friends,” equal parts danceable fun and mournful dirge, and it did much of that hard work for them.
If we’re being honest, it must be said: your author is no fan of Family Guy. In fact, my feelings towards the show pretty much run the limited range of “loathing” to “detestation.” But even I have to admit that this theme song is a winner. Composed by Walter Murphy (best remembered by your parents as the artist behind “A Fifth of Beethoven,” the 1976 disco repurposing of Beethoven’s Fifth), this 30-second gem manages not only to invoke the brassy sound of a Broadway production number, but the classic opening of All in the Family.
Within the shrinking timeframe allowed to network shows for at least an opening title, a few series managed to get creative — whether it was How I Met Your Mother’s snazzy, sing-along scat (“ba-ba-ba-baaaaah”), Scrubs’ single-couplet summary song (“I can’t do this all on my own/Oh I know, I’m no Superman”), or this fast-paced overture to Chuck Lorre’s geeky sitcom. The theme, composed specifically for the show by the Barenaked Ladies (and seriously, if you’re doing a show about nerds, that’s the first band on your wish list), does nothing less ambitious than compressing the history of the world into its 24-second running time; paired with a dizzying array of historical and scientific visuals, it’s a fast, furious, and rather funny opener.
Just about any show smart enough to nab a Black Keys song as its opening theme deserves a place on this list, period. This HBO comedy/drama uses “I’ll Be Your Man” from the duo’s 2002 debut album The Big Come Up; their distinctive and gritty blues/rock sound is matched with beautifully composed images of star Thomas Jane strolling through the streets of Detroit and slowly, purposefully disrobing before taking a giant, naked leap. The symbolism may not be subtle, but it’s a helluva way to start your show.
It only runs forty-five seconds or so, but the opening of FX’s Rescue Me is a potent mix of New York iconography, firehouse hero shots, and rapid-fire cutting, accompanied by the infectious “C’mon, C’mon,” performed by Detroit alt-rock band The Von Bondies. The song, which charted for the group in 2003, was suggested to co-creator/star Denis Leary by his son; it gives the already-jittery a show a weekly shot of adrenaline, right at the jump.
With a sound akin to Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing” on steroids, Jace Everett’s “Bad Things” sets the scene for Alan Ball’s Bayou vampire yarn so perfectly, it seems inconceivable that it wasn’t composed especially for the show. But it wasn’t; country singer songwriter Everett released the song clear back in 2005, three years before True Blood’s bow. After the show’s success, it was released as a single in the UK, Sweden, and Norway (where it got al the way to #2 on their charts), though not in the States, which is too bad — this dirty, rowdy slice of swampland rockabilly is often more memorable than the episodes that follow it.