Amidst the chorus of people saying that TV is better than it’s ever been, you’ll always find one person lamenting the decline of the theme song. While it’s true that the days of minutes-long intros with original songs and catchy melodies might be in the past, there’s no denying that shows are still finding memorable (and in a few cases, iconic) ways to open each episode.
With that in mind, we set out to pick the best TV themes of the young century. Some of these are snippets from existing songs, others are new instrumentals that have quickly taken on meaning well beyond the shows they’re attached to. As DVRs and streaming services make it easier than ever to skip TV credits, there are plenty of songs and shows trying to keep the art of the opening alive.
And the number of these recent classics is still growing. From this year’s new shows alone, “The Keepers” and “Big Little Lies” each used memorable cues to craft a pair of impressive opening sequences.
To help narrow our efforts for this list, we only considered shows that premiered after 2000, otherwise “The Sopranos,” “Freaks and Geeks” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” would be vying for slots pretty high up in our rankings. (And of course, “The Simpsons,” but that goes without saying.) Aside from that single restriction, we let the music speak for itself.
25. “Man Seeking Woman”
Think of this chair-dancing masterpiece as the soundtrack for a voyage to a reality where best friend mechs can fight on a city street, five-star generals debate text etiquette and an affair with Santa Claus can be one of the most emotionally insightful things on TV. It’s the musical embodiment of the rocky search for love, complete with floor-shattering thuds and fleeting siren songs in the distance. Having this cheery opening to come back for at the opening of every episode is a nice mirror of Josh’s romantic persistence, even when things got weirder in the world around him. “Man Seeking Woman” is gone too soon, but this earworm from Photay will definitely live on.
24. “Malcolm in the Middle”
They Might Be Giants might be considered the MVPs of the TV theme song genre, having also written the themes to kids cartoons “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” and “Higglytown Heroes.” Plus, it was their cover of Bob Mould’s “Dog on Fire” that opened “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” But it was “Boss of Me,” the theme song to “Malcolm in the Middle,” that won the band its first ever Grammy – in 2002, in Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media category. The quirky song perfectly set up the nature of one of TV’s most untraditional families – ending, of course, with the perfect mantra for young Malcolm: “Life is unfair!”
Massive Attack’s moody “Teardrop” was already a well-known song when Fox’s medical drama “House” adopted it as the show’s theme in 2004. Originally found on the downtempo group’s 1998 release “Mezzanine,” the haunting single is sung by the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, who also wrote the lyrics (which she has said were inspired by the death of Jeff Buckley). Unfortunately, due to clearance rights, “Teardrop” doesn’t appear as the theme song on some repeats and in some international territories – perhaps the danger of choosing a popular track as your theme.
22. “Ashes to Ashes”
This list has a few homages and nods to TV and music past, but none of those are as faithful a recreation of a bygone era as this late-2000s BBC police procedural. It borrowed the premise of its spiritual predecessor (the similarly Bowie-titled “Life on Mars”), following a cop who’s traveled to another decade after a traumatic brain injury in the present day. But Edmund Butt’s original “Ashes to Ashes” theme feels like a newly discovered Jan Hammer B-side in the best way possible. Like any good theme worth its weight in guitar shredding, this is kind of theme that’ll make you a fan of a show before you even watch an episode.
21. “30 Rock”
One of Tina Fey’s not-so-secret weapons is her husband Jeff Richmond, who served as the musical director of “30 Rock,” a role he now holds on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Both shows are set in New York, but their theme songs couldn’t be more different. Like much of the show’s original music, the “30 Rock” theme boasted a jazzy, showtunes-infused sound that gave the impression of both irreverence and also classic comedic farce. Which is more than fitting: After all, star Alec Baldwin often compares Fey to comedy icon Elaine May.
20. “Halt and Catch Fire”
The opening title spiritual heir to its dear departed AMC predecessor “Rubicon,” this synth-y rush is as propulsive as any other theme on TV right now. Trentemøller’s thirty-second journey from stray electronic bits to a towering, full-powered musical monster is a fitting parallel for the way the show worms its way into your subconscious the more you watch it. As the series has shifted focus over various seasons, it’s also become a pretty awesome rallying cry for the team of rebellious, badass women now at the show’s core. It’s a digital anthem for a newly digital world.
“At Least It Was Here,” by The 88, features the compelling line “I can’t count the reasons I should stay… one by one they all just fade away.” It’s a poppy, upbeat tune until you catch the actual lyrics –when you realize that conflicted, melancholy plea for meaning actually fits perfectly with the characters of “Community” and their search for family and acceptance. The 88 played the kind of music that seemed to always pop up on TV (“How I Met Your Mother” was another show that utilized the band), but the group appears to have disbanded, with members now pursuing solo careers.
Turns out that Massive Attack really works for setting up shows about tortured men living out veiled Sherlock Holmes allusions. Neil Cross’ excellent — and newly renewed! — sinister spin on the troubled detective story needed a song with enough darkness to match the evil simmering just below the surface in the crimes that its title character investigates. In a beautiful bit of theme matching, well, themes, Hope Sandoval’s vocals hover over the rest of the show the same way that Ruth Wilson’s Alice floats in DCI John Luther’s subconscious. The result is an abstract trip into the psyche of a mind that can be as conflicted as some of the people he’s chasing. (A “Paradise Circus,” perhaps?)
17. “The Wire”
The arrival of a new version of the theme song with each passing season is an integral part of the dense, episodic mythology of “The Wire.” Each time that Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” pops up, it brings a different aspect of Baltimore along with it. Of the five themes, there’s nothing quite like the pulsing bass at the beginning of every first season episode. The Blind Boys of Alabama bring the song a sound closer to one that “Wire” creator David Simon would highlight in his follow-up “Treme,” but as an opening to a series that would change the way that people watch and think about TV, this helped set a historic precedent.
16. “Bob’s Burgers”
Part of the secret of what’s made the perpetual misadventures of the Belchers such a regular delight for the better part of a decade comes from the bright ukulele strains of this opening theme, composed by show creator Loren Bouchard himself. Up at the top of every episode, it’s a friendly reminder that this is a family and a show motivated by true affection for these characters. It’s instrumental breeziness that never feels too precious but has an undeniable warmth to it — the perfect vehicle for animal puns, noise machines and groans of insecurity.
Up next: Picks #15-11, including zombies, Superman and an ode to “Cowboy Bebop”