Being a television composer is a pretty thankless task, but then that’s just how we tend to regard TV anyway. Despite the praise that backs up shows like The Wire or the sheer longevity of shows like The Simpsons, we still tend to treat TV and the people who work in it as the amateur league equivalent of film.
This isn’t the only issue that informs this rundown of our greatest TV themes. The truth is, the art of the TV opening has died a rather unexpected death. With American networks continually paring down the time you get to actually tell a story by filling up a half hour slot with 10 minutes of commercials, a decision must be made between having an opening and having an entire extra scene in your show.
The US still finds time for proper openings in some of its shows, but such examples tend to either cram new material in every week (like the Simpsons couch gags) or be on networks with no advertising (Band of Brothers has a coffee break length opening because it’s on HBO). But around the world, having a ten second opening sequence is considered ‘bold’ and ‘ultra-modern’. I personally think we’ve lost something great as a result.
Now, I won’t deny that The Simpsons’ opening theme is likely to divide opinion, but there’s nothing like the test of time to silence the naysayers. Baring the occasional Halloween variation and early versions in the show’s formative seasons, this is a theme we’ve been hearing for over twenty years. It’s iconic, memorable and a little bit annoying.
What makes it a remarkable piece of production music though, is the fact that Alf Clausen has had to revisit the Danny Elfman original and work it into countless pieces of incidental and closing theme music ever since the second season. We’ve had psychedelic versions, grunge versions, vegas show tune versions and versions that parody everything from Dragnet to The Adams Family.
And this opening is so much more than the music that accompanies it. Not every chalkboard gag has been incredible and not every couch gag has animated the entirety of human evolution. But they sure go all out when they get it right.
Stating the entire premise of your plot in the opening seconds of your titles is either a hilariously hamfisted approach or a sign that you really understand your audience and the show itself. Thankfully, the A-Team wouldn’t know how to spell ‘subtle’ if the word was burnt into the side of a barn door in the middle of a nuclear testing range. This is a theme so gung-ho that makes you want to go outside a flip a jeep.
Curb of course takes the complete opposite approach: contrast the awkward protagonist and his gloomy life with a tune so sunny and light-hearted that the gulf in between becomes the source of much hilarity. The song, ‘Frolic’ by Luciano Michelini joins a number of other public domain tunes in the same vein. And like much of the preceding music for tv, the tune owes as much to the context in which it is used as it does to the accomplishments of the composer.
The Sanford & Son theme tune is so iconic that for the longest time, I never even knew where it was from. This Quincy Jones composition, (officially called ‘The Streetbeater’) appears at length in Scrubs and pops up in one shot gags in Futurama and The Simpsons. Living in the UK, repeats of Sanford and Son are non-existent (I’m not convinced it originally aired here, considering that it’s a derivative of Steptoe and Son) whereas the constant rotation of those three comedy shows is enough to let you hear this wonderfully pompous tune at least once every month.
And the best thing about it? Quincy Jones claims he worked no more than 40 minutes on composing and recording it.
The collaboration of Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire didn’t just create a memorable theme that is still being sampled in the same show nearly half a century on: the Doctor Who theme was pure science fiction brought to life. The work behind this half minute of haunting music was painstaking: cutting, splicing and playing sounds at different speeds isn’t rare nowadays, but the kinds of machines we have today simply didn’t exist. Manipulating single notes and test-tone oscillators, Derbyshire worked with analogue tape for hour upon hour to achieve the desired results before attempting to run several machines simultaneously for the final mix. If the theme is an imperfect match for the show it introduces, it’s only because the show isn’t otherworldly or innovative enough.