Film Score Friday Top 5: Television Theme Songs – Expanded Edition!

So finally, I’m doing the TV themes edition, and I had such a hard time picking only five, I’m doing a special expanded version!  It’s a 2 for 1 special here at the Temp Track.

For this, I’m counting all themes songs, both instrumental and vocal songs.  There is no length requirement, but as you’ll see, the list does skew a bit older given that so many TV shows today have either no theme, or a very brief theme song (wanting to sell more ad time has been the death of the TV theme song).  Also, for the list, I have made two lists of five songs each, divided into live-action and animated shows.  It’s all here today, in a super-sized edition of Film Score Friday!

As always, in no real particular order, and for some of these were gonna have to fire up the Wayback Machine:

Live Action Shows:

#1: M*A*S*H (aka “Suicide is Painless”) by Johnny Mandel (music) and Mike Altman (lyrics): Even though the lyrics are not part of the television theme, most people do know at least the title of the song as sung in the original film.  And while it seems odd to have such a melancholy song as the theme for a sitcom, it helps remind the audience just what was the underlying nature of the show: war is hell and there are no winners.

#2: The Dick Van Dyke Show by Earle Hagen: Growing up I watched a lot of  ‘Nick at Nite,’ the late night block of classic tv shows that was on Nickelodeon prior to them spinning the whole thing off into its own network, ‘TV Land,’ and one of my favorite shows was Dick Van Dyke.  I loved the way they synced the theme song to the pratfalls and gags that Dick van Dyke did, most notably tripping on the ottoman (or avoiding it, or tripping on the carpet).  There are a number of great 60s theme songs, but this one stands out as a favorite, along with…

#3: Get Smart by Irving Szathmary: My other favorite show from ‘Nick at Nite,’ the zany Mel Brooks comedic sent up of James Bond, and the theme perfectly captures the spirit.  Using the Bond-type guitars as a basis, this theme plays as Maxwell Smart negotiates his entry into C.O.N.T.R.O.L headquarters.  Classic.

#4: Battlestar Galactica (Classic) by Stu Phillips and Glen Larson: Co-composed with series creator Larson, the theme for the original series by Phillips is an iconic example of gradiose Space Opera music composition, throughly in the vein of Star Wars and Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture main theme.  In many ways, I enjoy this theme more then either of those.  Its just got more spunk at times.

#5: Cheers (aka ‘Where Everybody Knows Your Name’) by Judy Hart Angelo and Gary Portnoy: One of the most recognizable tv theme songs ever, it really set the tone of alot of 80s themes.  So morose and sad before breaking out into cheer when it gets to the refrain of “Where everybody knows your name,” how could you not help but enjoy knocking back a few brews with your buds.  The theme was brillantly parodied in The Simpsons episode “Flaming Moe’s” and began with the lyric “When the weight of the world has got your down and you want to end your life” whereas the original begins “Making your way through the world today takes everything you got.”

Wow, two mentions of suicide in the same post, but fear not loyal readers, my own mental health is not a concern!  (Does it seem like this blog is taking on the tone of either a 1950s comic, or a Victorian era serial?)  Bringing us to…

Animated Shows:

#1: The Simpsons by Danny Elfman:  For almost twenty years now, the adventures of Homer, Bart, Lisa, Marge, and Maggie, have been bookended by Danny Elfman’s theme song, opening with a tri-tone resolving up to an open fifth.  It has become a major hallmark on the landscape of television themes.

#2: Cowboy Bebop (aka “Tank!”) by Yoko Kanno: If you haven’t heard this song, go to YouTube and look it up right now…no seriously…right now…I’ll wait……….okay?  Ya, wasn’t that awesome?  ‘Nuff said.   Okay, a few more things.  While the show only rarely gets up to the excitment level of the them (usually towards the end), the theme really sets you up for the general tone of the show, a bunch of cowboys in space who make things up as they go along (aka improvise).

#3: Pinky and the Brain by Richard Stone (music) and Tom Ruegger (lyrics):  The antics of a genius mouse and his dimwitted sidekick as they try to take over the world made up for a lot of tv viewing for me in the 90s.  This theme so-inspired me that I worked it out at the piano and made a version of it for bassoon duet.  Yes, I was that nerdy.  The sheer genius of the lyrics though, with its bad puns and rhymes, still crack me up to this day: “Their twilight campaign is easy to explain / To prove their mousey worth, they’ll overthrow the earth”  Anyway, onto…

#4: Batman: The Animated Series by Danny Elfman:  Based on his scores for the Michael Keaton films, Elfman reworked that material into the theme for this seminal animated show.  What was more striking about the whole opening was that not only was it a dark, fully orchestral theme, but also the name of the show is never shown (not until the later incarnation of the series as The New Adventures of Batman and Robin, which also features a different theme by Shirley Walker, based on her themes for the show).  From the very opening, you know that this is a different breed of cartoon.

#5: Samurai Champloo (aka Battlecry) by Nujabes and Shing02: Created and produced by the same man as Cowboy Bebop (Shinicihro Watanabe), Samurai Champloo shows the same keen musical awareness as Bebop (I’m planning a future blog post to discuss these two shows more in depth).  The theme sets up the hip-hop musical aesthetic of the show and its setting, as it is a mid-tempo rap about samurais in the late Edo period in Japan’s history.

That’s it for now, folks.  Tune in next week for Top 5 Video Game Themes.

2 thoughts on “Film Score Friday Top 5: Television Theme Songs – Expanded Edition!

  1. If I had done a top 10 live action themes, A-Team would of made the list (along with Phillips Buck Rogers theme).

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