Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Theme Songs That Outclassed Their Shows

 The television theme song has become a victim of shorter episode running times and escalating commercials. Much has been lost because of this trend.

Television themes used to routinely crack the music charts, but that hasn’t happened since Friends more than ten years ago. The only notable contemporary theme is the one for New Girl, but even that plays more like a parody than a tribute. 

In the Comfort TV era almost every scripted series had either a 30- or 60-second theme that introduced the show and its cast. Some went longer than that: Room 222 had only four series regulars but the theme ran 90 seconds; Happy Days ranged from 1:15 to 1:30 depending on the size of its ever-fluctuating cast; The Waltons theme ran 1:40, and didn’t even introduce the whole family.

Which shows had the longest themes? Among those anyone would remember now, Hotel and The Love Boat rank near the top, with music that introduced the cast and a slew of guest stars in each episode. Among the obscurities, there was the short-lived Christopher George series The Immortal (1970) that opened with two full minutes of theme and voiceover narration. 

Theme songs are such an important and beloved part of TV history that we’ll probably talk about them often here. We’ll explore which ones are always worth listening to one more time (The Bob Newhart Show, Mission: Impossible, Hogan’s Heroes) and which ones can be safely fast-forwarded (Gidget, Wonder Woman, Star Trek: Enterprise).

But for now, let’s take a look at those rare instances when a TV show’s theme song is more memorable than the series itself. It doesn’t happen often, but here are three examples of shows that peaked after their first 60 seconds.

Peter Gunn
It’s not that Peter Gunn was a bad series. The show was created by Blake Edwards, starred Craig Stevens as a dapper detective and enjoyed a respectable 3-season run. There was a stylish film noir appeal to Gunn’s adventures, but it was Henry Mancini’s jazzy theme, played by guitarist Duane Eddy, that set the perfect tone for Gunn’s crime stories. It’s been covered dozens of times by jazz and blues musicians, and was introduced to a new generation in the Blues Brothers movie.

Angie was a classic Cinderella story about the romance between a sassy coffee shop waitress (Donna Pescow) and a pediatrician from one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest families (played by a pre-Airplane Robert Hays). The show was ok but “Different Worlds” was an outstanding pop song that made the top 20, and the entire opening credit sequence is quintessential of the breezy ‘70s sitcom. "Different Worlds" is also one of the few themes from that era you can still hear performed live, if you happen to catch Maureen McGovern in concert. 

Makin’ It
After David Naughton became a familiar TV face through a series of popular Dr. Pepper commercials (“Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?”), ABC cast him in a situation comedy loosely (and unofficially) based on Saturday Night Fever. The theme song, performed by Naughton, reached #5 on the Billboard chart, and received an additional boost after playing in the film Meatballs. The series debuted in February of 1979 and was canceled in March, thus rendering the title sadly ironic. 

1 comment:

  1. It's good that you mentioned Christopher George in this blog entry. Lynda Day George made a guest appearance in one episode of "The Immortal."