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19 August 2010 Things We Like 20,963 views 9 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

Here’s a phrase you don’t hear anymore: “It’s going on!” In olden times, this alert was yelled toward the kitchen at whomever was gathering the snacks in anticipation of a relaxing evening in front of the tube. The old-fashioned TV theme song gave you another minute to get yourself situated, like the house lights blinking at the theater. Somehow, these intros fell from favor, leaving the viewing public with shows that launch right into the action without warning—and woe betides the stragglers. Sometimes I miss the TV theme song almost as much as I miss the days of good TV itself.

My parents set the stage for my appreciation for a good theme. During the ’70s, the stone grooves of “Quincy” and “Baretta” were lullabies to me, drifting in from the living room of our flat in a sleepy Marin County town that was still many years from becoming prohibitively posh. I grew to consider the top-shelf themes to be the instrumentals: “The Rockford Files,” “Sanford and Son.” “Hart to Hart” had its cool narrative prelude on top of the music; it also had Robert Wagner wearing driving gloves behind the wheel of a red convertible, which was a pretty strong argument for its inclusion on my list of favorites.

But the songs closest to my heart came from sitcoms—do they still make sitcoms? For a while now, I’ve been down to a diet of “Seinfeld” reruns, “Judge Judy” and any show featuring chef Gordon Ramsay yelling at people.

The song, of course, goes hand in hand with the visuals. I was fairly young when I began to imagine my grown-up life as one of those effervescent montages: a world of reaction shots and lots of raucous laughter, of the turn-and-smile and someone taking a cake in the face on the downbeat. (Never the heroine agonizing over a stack of bills, or in sweats and a stained T-shirt washing dishes on a Wednesday night.) The intros were as ingratiating as they were fantastical; even characters with arguably hopeless lives, like “Alice’s” desert-wasteland waitresses, were depicted having a jolly old time, with a tight social support network and wacky adventures galore. In the same vein, the rampant enthusiasm of the bouncy “It’s a Living” intro hardly squares with my own brief restaurant-industry experience.

The effective theme was shorthand for an entire series. I don’t feel the need to ever partake of another helping of “Silver Spoons,” for instance—a show whose purpose, as far as we were concerned, was to fill time on babysitting nights. But hearing its song again gives rise to an affection I never felt at all for the program when it was on the air. In sixty seconds, the tune encapsulates not only the experience of the show, but also the context of our lives in which the show existed: recess musings about how semi-regular Jason Bateman deserved a better gig, and what kind of sickie would buy a teen rag for a picture of Ricky Schroder?

Other themes were so evocative you didn’t need to know the show to catch the mood, like “Welcome Back, Kotter” and the white-hot “Good Times.” As for the series that weren’t so brilliant, a strong opening ditty served as foreplay—because hey, a little warm-up action can make almost anything better. The intro that successfully gets into our hearts boils down to the simple formula of an infectious tune and crack editing, as demonstrated in this note-perfect marriage of the “Three’s Company” theme and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.”

There just isn’t room to fete every great theme that’s rocked my TV world (sorry, “Maude” and “WKRP”). I’ll close by nominating my favorite—and by opening the debate. Of all the TV themes I’ve enjoyed, “Laverne & Shirley” remains tops on a very long list. Why do I love it so? Is it the lyrics’ cheery determination that the titular working stiffs will slip the surly bonds of the Shotz Brewery and make all their dreams come true? Is it that classic shot of horndogs Lenny and Squiggy? I don’t know. But Cyndi Grecco’s vocal makes my heart soar every time as DeFazio and Feeney whiz by on that bicycle in the final frames.

Care to declare your own champion? Tell me all about it.

Sheri Quirt

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  1. The opening them to “Alice” — the one that begins “Early to rise, early to bed” (there were several, lesser vocal arrangements over the show’s run) — strikes me as the broken reflection of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme. It’s got that same “you go, girl” chorus, but “There’s a New Girl in Town” doesn’t end with a bang; it ends with a sigh. It sounds like Linda Lavin is trying to convince herself that she’s where she wants to be. For that reason, I prefer it to “Love is All Around,” though I still love the bit at the end of the opening titles where the song goes “dah-dah-dahdah-DAH!” and Mary throws her hat in the air. I wish I could feel that good about working in the media.

    I love the TV themes of the 1970s. I love that they made an effort to set up the story for those who came in late, and that many of them were arranged for orchestra — a rarity these days. (For God’s sake, Hollywood, pay for a freaking studio orchestra. It makes all the difference.) And I love the way some of them mixed in narration from the show’s characters; the “Laverne & Shirley” theme is great, but that opening chant by the girls makes it immortal.

    As for my own favorite theme, I don’t think I could narrow the field down to one. I’m fond of “Car 54, Where Are You?”; I love “The Jetsons”; I get giddy when I hear both of John William’s themes to “Lost in Space.” This week, though, I’m all up in the “Wonder Woman” theme. It’s catchy, it’s memorable, and it makes no effort to conceal the fact that the show was basically softcore bondage pornography.

    Terrific piece, Sheri — thanks much for writing it. This made my day.

  2. “…and then there’s Maude…”

    (so what?)

  3. “Hawaii Five-0″…a theme song so bitchin’ it hit #4 on the Billboard singles chart!

  4. Geoff, you’re so right that the original “Alice” arrangement was the best — the subsequent versions being mainly showcases for some of Linda Lavin’s more annoying vocal mannerisms. In any case, “Alice” wasn’t worth a damn once they spun off Flo. Anyone remember “Flo’s Yellow Rose”? I did watch an awful lot of TV in my youth, but when there were just three networks and PBS, it wasn’t that great a feat to sample pretty much everything.

  5. Great article Sheri!

    I love all the themes you mention, with a special shout to Hart to Hart as that is the one that will be stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

    I think the lack of lyrics and strong theme songs has hurt modern TV shows. The tiny credit sequences of today are just a sad reminder of what used to be there.

    I think there is another post in fan versions and improvements to TV themes.

    This is a link to my current favorite. The best bits are the sound of the spaceship being tossed to the floor and the look of pride on his face when he’s finished. He NAILED it.

  6. My favorite theme song is to the show “What’s Happening!!” I grew up in a VERY white neigborhood in Sacramento (there were only like 6 black kids in my school) and always wished I could hang out with Raj, Rerun, and Dwayne (who I had a major crush on). I miss the “bounce” of the theme song, and the part where Rerun is running after the guys. (My favorite episode is the one with the Doobie Brothers concert!)

  7. Glad to hear that I am not the only one who muses over the tv show themes from the 70’s and 80’s with such fondness. This was such fun to read!

    I recently put together a playlist of some old show themes and my daughter, who is eleven and has never seen any of the shows, LOVES it. She now has a bee in her bonnet about Laverne and Shirley and wants to get it from Netflix.

    It may be the epitome of dorkitude, but I admit I still have quite a fondness for the perky optimism of the much-maligned Brady Bunch intro and the faux-hip Partrige Family theme. Ahh, grade school Friday nights pining over David Cassidy. And you know what was actually a terrific tune? Love, American Style.

    Welcome Back, Kotter is brilliant and WKRP is an all-time fave. (I fantasized about working at the radio station and thought Andy Travis was hot. Apparently I had a thing for guys with floppy hair.)

    Barney Miller trumps Rockford Files for instrumentals. That opening bass riff gets me every time. While the theme from MASH seems overplayed and ubiquitous (they on the air for what, a million years?) it still tugs at my heart strings.

    Nope, don’t think I could choose just one, but thank you for inspiring a little audio time travel, now I must go visit iTunes…

  8. I’m guessing you grew up in the same town as me…Novato.

  9. Just down the road, James…quiet, idyllic Ross was my family’s Marin interlude. Before the Sean Penns and Huey Lewises of the world rendered that charming town beyond the reach of the common man.

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