Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The End of an Era: TV Theme Songs Disappear

My close friend - and often commenter on this blog - Dr. Howard Margolin (the host of Destinies: the Voice of Science Fiction) pointed out an interesting trend in TV the other day. Have you noticed how the new dramas, including Supernatural, Night Stalker, Invasion and Surface have eschewed a noble and time-honored TV tradition? Not a one of them features an opening theme song or opening credits montage.

Although I'm enjoying the new trend of high concept TV, the disappearance of the theme song and accompanying music-video like credits sequence is something that concerns me. In fact, I submit that these new TV series will have a harder time becoming iconic cultural touchstones without the theme song and accompanying montage that would cement a connection in the viewer's mind.

Think about some of the theme songs and montages we've seen in TV history. Everybody remembers the tune to Gilligan's Island, and the montage that sets up the premise. We know what to expect when we hear "Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip..."

Ditto The Brady Bunch. The lyrics "Here's the story..." cue us in about the program, and have stayed in our minds for thirty years!

Inside the sci-fi genre, the bold opening notes of Alexander Courage's Star Trek theme, followed by Captain Kirk's voiceover ("these are the voyages of the starship Enterprise...) are a clarion call to adventure, and set up the very premise of the series.

Likewise, I cannot imagine Joss Whedon's Firefly without the folksy theme song, "The Ballad of Firefly," which explores the very themes of the series: independence, liberty, and defiance of authority . Similarly, I think of the rush of excitement I feel when I hear the first notes of The X-Files theme, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My enjoyment of these series' would be seriously hindered without these moments.

Why is it happening? Why is the theme song disappearing? Well, as Howard pointed out in a comment, in part because Lost aired without a theme song last season, and everybody this season is intent on capturing some of Lost's magic. Also, I think it comes down to time. Series' creators now have to tell a lot of story in basically 41 minutes. Almost twenty minutes of commecials occur per each so-called "hour" of drama. Therefore, some producers might feel it better to utilize the time with story, rather than a theme song and montage.

Frankly, I miss the theme songs. And I deplore the amount of commercials we're subjected to. Did you know that Star Trek episodes are 52 minutes long? That Space:1999 episodes are 48 minutes long? That early X-Files episodes are 45 minutes long? Why is it, that as time goes by, our drama is being cut short, and we're being exposed to more commercials? It really sucks.

Anyway, I miss the era of distinctive theme songs and their accompanying opening montages. To this day, I can't separate Space:1999 from that Year One opening: the drum roll, the blare of of the horns, and then the quick-cutting of the first amazing sequence, depicting an Eagler spinning and crashing on the lunar surface.

What's your favorite series theme song and montage? And why do you think they're disappearing today? Have we finally just gotten so busy, so pressed for time, that we don't want any extras in our TV? That we just want to cut to the chase and get immediately to the narrative? Is that it?

3 comments:

  1. My favorite theme songs include "The Greatest American Hero," which is also my all-time favorite show and song; the original "Battlestar Galactica," "Wizards and Warriors," "The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne," and "Space: 1999 season one (which, I've long felt was the best part of the show, especially since scenes from each episode would be included in the opening montage).
    I think, like you, that with commercial time increasing, something has to go, and in order to avoid losing even more story time, that ends up being the theme song. Plus, several of the no-theme shows (including the first, "Seinfeld"), were major hits. It is possible the networks want to grab the audience's attention immediately, and not give them a minute to switch stations if the theme music doesn't particularly appeal to them. As an example, I offer "Enterprise," the only "Star Trek" show not to have an orchestral theme. Many people complained about the use of a vocal theme, and the audience disappeared quickly. I'm not saying that that was the only reason for "Enterprise's" demise, but for all its (similar) faults, "Voyager" had an award-winning theme by the great Jerry Goldsmith, and it ran seven seasons.

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  2. Anonymous4:09 PM

    One of the best TV Theme songs is the song from "The Adventures of Pete and Pete", which all around used amazing music in the show. It was a song called "Hey Sandy" by Polaris, with undecipherable lyrics and it went perfectly with the opening montage.

    The "Seinfeld" theme is kind of shockingly different...We're used to it now, but once in a while it will hit me "Wow that's really strange for a tv show."

    I have to say the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" theme kind of gets on my nerves after a few episodes...Its just so loud and piering, like everyone in the house knows I'm watching the show when that circus music comes on.

    -Jordan
    www.timwarnermovie.com

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  3. When I remember the TV programs I grew up with, I realize that my memories of the opening theme song/montage are inseparable from the show itself. I recall the themes to Buck Rogers, The Six Million Dollar Man and Wonder Woman as prime examples. As soon as I imagine those progams in my "mind's eye," I find I'm humming the theme song. I really do think that the new series opting to discard this sort of "identification" are making a mistake.

    Obviously, it's worked for Lost, but certainly "Invasion," or "Threshold" or "Surface" could use a distinguishing theme song. You'd recognize it, and say 'oh, that's the one with the cool theme song...'

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