Television shows can be immortalized in a number of ways. Perhaps it’s a character like The Fonz from “Happy Days,” who haunts our lives and Henry Winkler’s to this day. Or maybe it’s a catchphrase like “You got it dude!” uttered in “Full House” by a much-less-terrifying Olsen twin. Even a setting, like the Central Perk coffee shop of “Friends,” can launch a TV show into everlasting fame. But among these quirks and traits, there is one element of television that is both wildly important and vastly underrated: the theme song.
Like the score to a movie but arguably much more important, a TV show’s theme song sets the tone for the entire series. Take one of the most famous, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” of “Cheers” fame. The soft piano, banging chorus and melancholy lyrics perfectly mirrors the escape from the brutality of life the show’s bar provides its characters. Or the catchy rap of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” that literally details the entire background to the series. How could we possibly understand what was going on if we didn’t hear that Will Smith got into one little fight and his mom got scared, so he had to move in with his auntie and uncle in Bel-Air?
Theme songs are a unifying force among people who love a show and those who hate it. Even if the characters and plotlines of “Friends” send you spiraling into a fit of rage, you’re still going to do the four claps when called for. Does “Full House” make you want to punch Bob Saget a little? Too bad, you’ll be wondering whatever happened to predictability everywhere you go.
Every theme song I’ve mentioned so far is just that — a full-blown song. The themes of pre-21st century were long and cheesy, featuring some band you haven’t heard of singing vague references to the show. This changed in the years approaching the 2000s. With some exceptions, most contemporary shows rely on an instrumental to define themselves; it’s a brilliant display of sound association. What was before just some dramatic orchestral music will have you thinking of “The Simpsons” for the rest of your life. All one has to do is look at the impact that “Law and Order”’s dun-dun has had on society to understand this phenomena.
But some shows are more successful at this than others, and some theme songs will fall from the public’s mind while others will be associated with their series forever. In the past decade, some of the best theme songs of all time have kept us from clicking “Skip Intro” on our streaming services. For the sake of options, I’ll be talking about (not ranking) shows that may have started before 2010, but that ended in this decade or are still airing today. So as much as it kills me to have to leave out the absolute banger that is the “That ’70s Show” theme, it won’t be included here. All of these themes are also solely instrumental, so Zooey Deschanel will have to remain locked up in her fairy castle for yet another day.
“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Frolic” by Luciano Michelini
Leave it to Larry David to use a short and springy theme that perfectly captures the mediocrity of life. “Curb Your Enthusiasm”’s bouncy theme combines a tuba and a mandolin to accent the ridiculous mishaps and embarrassments of David’s life. The way the tuba pomp pomp pomps in before the strings take over is pure genius, capturing a human emotion of absurdity that words cannot. The theme song has taken on a life of its own, becoming a meme and the go-to music to edit over any stupid event that occurs. The title of the theme, “Frolic,” further embodies the essence of “Curb” as Larry David scampers through life in yet another show about nothing.
“Bojack Horseman,” “Bojack’s Theme” by Patrick and Ralph Carney
Similar to “Curb,” “Bojack” is a mildly depressing show that’s thematically centered around the mundanity of life. The theme song’s psychedelic synths are drowned out by horns as the colors of Bojack’s life flash behind him while he stares, emotionless. The theme embodies the confusion that Bojack faces as he tries to turn his life around, bouncing back and forth between who he once was and who he is now. The theme is slightly mournful, rounding out an artistic commentary unexpected from a show in which people and animals coexist, have sex and use drugs.
“30 Rock,” “Theme from ‘30 Rock’” by Jeff Richmond
Comedy theme songs love their horns, and “30 Rock” is no exception. The theme to this “SNL”-based sitcom is rushed and upbeat, as though New York City has been turned into sheet music. The unmistakable rise and fall of the baritone sax works its way through the hectic background of the drums. Anyone that’s ever walked outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza or worked in entertainment knows exactly the sentiment being conveyed: Everything is chaotic and a disaster, but hey, at least we’re having fun.
“Game of Thrones,” “‘Game of Thrones’ Theme” by Ramin Djawadi
Yes, the show is overrated, but the music definitely isn’t. The intense orchestral intro to “GOT” sounds both modern yet fitting to the medieval setting to the series. The battling of string instruments that start low and eventually crescendo is able to represent many aspects of the show without saying a word. The listener can feel the battle raging between dark and light, good and evil. There is a sense of urgency to the sound that brings the viewer through a journey before the first scene. If you’re not about the gore and assault that this show is rooted in, at least watch the first two minutes for some good music.
“Mad Men,” “A Beautiful Mine” by RJD2
Just as comedies love horns, dramas love strings. Set in the ’60s, “Mad Men” could have easily picked a jazzy piece from the era, but they went a different way. While Beck was originally contracted to make a theme, the singer dropped out due to little faith in the success of the show. After hearing this RJD2 song on NPR, show creator Matthew Weiner scratched the words and edited the instrumentals to get the theme song for his showpiece. The suspenseful strings in the beginning suggest danger is near, and when the drums come in it’s as if someone’s running to get away. The song is sexy, polished and mildly unsettling — everything you would get if you took starring actors Jon Hamm and John Slattery and turned them into a composition.