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Criticwire Survey: Great TV Show, Terrible Theme Song

Criticwire Survey: Great TV Show, Terrible Theme Song

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: There are great TV shows and great
theme songs, but they don’t always match up evenly. What’s the best
show with the worst song (or the worst show/song pairing)?

Eric D. Snider, Movie BS

My all-time go-to answer for this is “Cheers.” The theme song is great, of course — catchy, hummable, sweet. But it’s totally wrong for the show! It’s sentimental, which the show was not. If a sitcom within the world of “Cheers” had “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” for a theme song, every person in the bar would make fun of it. 

Charles Bramesco, Random Nerds, The Dissolve

I love a good sexual double entendre just as much as the next guy (perhaps even more so, as my two back-up copies of “Dr. Strangelove” on DVD might suggest), but there’s a point of diminishing returns. Masters of Sex has set itself apart from the recent crop of post-“Mad Men” prestige dramas with subtlety and wit — two qualities conspicuously absent from its cringe-worthy theme sequence. A barrage of highly suggestive images gets viewers nice and uncomfortable before the show begins, finding phallic symbols in sprouting fungi and keys penetrating locks. Hold up, theme sequence designer! Are we to understand that the train entering a tunnel evokes sexual intercourse? You’re blowing my mind.

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture, RogerEbert.com

“Angie,” the 1970s sitcom starring Donna Pescow, was never anything special, but wow, that theme song is an earworm. Likewise “The Time Tunnel,” a terrible science fiction adventure about two guys traveling to different periods and getting into fistfights; even as a kid watching reruns I realized it sucked, but the theme song always tricked me into watching the first five minutes anyway. As for good shows with bad themes, I know I’m in the minority on this, but I always found the peppy-gooey theme to “Friends” nearly unbearable, and not accurately reflective of how amusingly brutal that sitcom could be. 

Katey Rich, Vanity Fair

“The Mindy Project.” It’s not a great job but a perfectly lovely one, but the theme song is like nails on a chalkboard — it sets the obnoxious tone that the show really successfully avoids.

Mike McGranaghan
, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

I don’t watch a lot of TV, but one show that I make a point of catching is “The Mindy Project,” starring the hilarious Mindy Kaling. It never fails to make me laugh, but what is up with that weird theme song that sounds like techno music combined with somebody choking a chipmunk? It’s aural torture!

James Poniewozik, Time

You’re going to get, probably justifiably, 95% “The Mindy Project”s mixed with the occasional “Homeland” or something. But if we can include past series, I could name others. For instance, the second theme song for “Big Love,” which inexplicably replaced “God Only Knows,” possibly the greatest song conceived by human consciousness, with the insipid “Home.” (A close second would be the second “Felicity” theme song, cowritten by Andrew Jarecki.) 

Marc V. Ciafardini, GoSeeTalk, The Film Stage

I am a huge fan of “Justified,” but I always thought those lyrics killed the intro. The music is good, and starts off catchy, but whenever the bluegrass-meets-West Coast rap kicks in, my thumb instinctively fast-forwards to the show.

I guess the words make sense from a narrative and slightly metaphorical point of view, but I prefer the vibe that I get from score only intros like “The Walking Dead.” Now the song is not abysmal, it just doesn’t connect with me so I skip past it and get right to Raylan, Boyd, the sweet melodrama in and around Harlan, KY, and the music of Steve Porcaro of Toto fame…yes, Toto.

Casey Cipriani, Indiewire

I feel like everyone is going to say “Orange is the New Black” and Regina Spektor’s “You’ve Got Time.” (And really, I love love love Spektor but the segment is way too long and gets annoying on binge.) But my choice is the instrumental opening of HBO’s “The Leftovers.” The show, which just had its first season over the summer, is really really good but really really dark. But that doesn’t need to be accompanied by the seriously overdramatic opening credits that it has. The whole thing begins with that blasted “Inception” horn. The instrumental music would be lovely were it not accompanying an animation of really caricaturish, Cathedral-ceiling full of suffering souls, some being sucked up to who-knows-where, the rest being left on earth engaging in “depraved” acts like same-sex sex. It’s such an over-the-top sequence for such a great show.

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times

I’ve found that even when a theme song is corny as hell, the show’s quality usually makes it endearing over time. And so, many cheesy ’80s and ’90s sitcoms get a pass, but not the ill-fitting instrumental rock track over the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” opening credits. The guitar shreds and out of control drumming embody much of what was wrong with late ’90s music while the quality of the show’s writing, acting and prototypical kick-ass female lead were rare for its time and helped pave the way for numerous such shows in subsequent years. (And no, Seth Green “playing” part of the theme song beginning in Season 3 didn’t help.)

Also, shout out to “The Leftovers,” an otherwise excellent show, for having the overall worst credits sequence I’ve ever seen. The music is fine, even good, but the imagery the show runners selected is just plain awful.

Greg Cwik, Vulture, I

Most of the awful theme songs I can think of were consorts to awful shows. But, without a doubt, my least-favorite theme from one of my most-favorite shows is belongs to “Angel.” While the “Buffy” song is absurd (and so ’90s), its hair-metal guitar screeching and chugging along, it had a certain, undeniable verve to it, an almost tangible fervor; when you hear the song (which changed slightly for the first few seasons, eventually incorporating faux-gothic organs), you can’t help but feel like Fuck, yeah, I’m watching “Buffy”! But the “Angel” song hurts, and not in a good way. Maybe the producers wanted to go for a noir-ish feeling to accompany the show’s detective conceit, but they failed. 

Zac Oldenburg
, Having Said That

“Firefly,” is there competition?

Mark Young, Sound on Sight

I will always maintain that “Seinfeld” had terrible music. While it was distinctive, it was distinctive in a bad way that didn’t say anything to me about the show’s setting or characters. It’s only because the show was so good that the music worked at all, and if the show was any less good then the music would become an additional complaint. It’s basically the aural equivalent of Elaine’s dancing: in you walked into a bar and that stuff was happening, you’d walk right back out.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

My wife will kill me for saying this, but the original “Star Trek” theme really isn’t good. In fact, most “Star Trek” TV themes are not good, save the one for the first movie that subsequently got adapted for “The Next Generation” (the Abrams movie one is passable too). We like it now because of what it represents, but those “ahhhh-aaaaahhhh!” vocals really are terrible, and always have been.

Honorable mention: “Quincy” had one of the most godawful themes ever. I somewhat suspect it was supposed to be.

Jordan Hoffman, NY Daily News

Oh for the love of Surak, “Star Trek Enterprise” — that song is a greater disaster than the Battle of Wolf 359.

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

I don’t hate “Star Trek: Enterprise,” though I would call it the weakest of all the television series in that franchise. I love many of the songs written by Diane Warren, who is a great commercial songwriter and composer. But as far as a dreadful song being dreadfully matched to a show, “Enterprise” has it locked up. Nothing else comes close.

Scott Mendelson, Forbes

I honestly can’t of anything that egregious. I’d argue that the theme song to the “The Avengers: Earth’s Greatest Heroes” is supremely goofy, or that the Rod Stewart song “Faith of the Heart” had always felt jarring for “Star Trek: Enterprise,” but otherwise I’m honestly at a loss this time around.

Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running, RogerEbert.com

I’m gonna go with “Lassie’s Rescue Rangers.” 

No, actually, I’m not. I once got trolled on this very same question, in high school, by a guy whose dad did the orchestration for the “Underdog” theme or something. I’m not gonna fall for the same trick twice!

Richard Brody, New Yorker

Theme songs remind me of a word from a dear departed classics professor about prologues in Greek tragedies: they suggest that playwrights could no longer trust the audience to know the myths on which the plays were based. The early classics, such as “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy,” didn’t need word-themes, because the situations of these situation comedies were self-evident; it wasn’t the situation but the action that was extraordinary. The shows with word-themes, which set the stage anew each time the show was aired, offered situations so idiosyncratic that the rules of the game had to be explained again before each match, for anyone coming in fresh. What’s at stake is the very concept of drama — the double motion by which the beginning implies the past and each step forward implies a step backward — in which the construction of the drama builds upwards even as it constructs the foundation beneath itself simultaneously and it’s only at the end that edifice and substructure are equally complete. On the other hand, the theme, like the prologue, eliminates the need for exposition (“Hey, Gilligan, remember the storm that wrecked our boat? Well, . . .”). The good filmmaker doesn’t engage in exposition at all but simply sees the moments where the past comes to life in the present, where memory is inextricable from action. Then there are art-house mediocrities of academic diligence and slender inspiration, whose notion of character-driven drama results in two-hour movies with a hundred and ten minutes of exposition and a last scene that actually should be the first scene of the movie that should have been. (Look for an acclaimed one in theatres this Friday.) As for the worst pairing of a theme to its show? William F. Buckley, Jr., forever spoiling the third movement of Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto by association with “Firing Line.” (The best? The electro-funk-bouzouki that opened John Bandy’s late-night talk show from around 1970; I remember him as being the hippest guy on television at a time when I had no idea what hip meant.)

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit

I’ll go with “The Newsroom.” Loved the show, but the theme was generic and just felt like a lesser version of the theme used for The West Wing.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

If I like the show I usually like the song, or at least don’t notice the song much.  I think the ’80s/’90s had many more examples of great songs for lousy shows.  Like I really like the “Heathcliff” theme song and “Heathcliff” sucks!  It’s been 20 years and I still can’t get over how bad “Heathcliff” was.  My god I need to make some changes in my life.

Gary Kramer
, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

“Too Many Cooks” is an irresistible, irrepressible earworm. But if that doesn’t count (because it’s not a real TV show), I may have to go with the breezy theme song to “Welcome Back, Kotter,” which didn’t grate on one’s nerves like the show often did.

Farran Nehme, New York Post, Self-Styled Siren

Flatt and Scruggs’ playing for the theme to “The Beverly Hillbillies” holds up to many revisits. The show, god knows, does not.

Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter

“That’s Living Alright” by Joe Fagin, the end-credits theme-tune from the first series (1983-4) of Dusseldorf-set British comedy-drama “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.” Not only is the song itself is a gratingly matey and 80s-dated slab of blokey pub-rock, the producers missed a major trick by not realizing that among their ensemble (which included an unfeasibly youthful, convincingly Brummie-accented Timothy Spall) lurked a singer-songwriter of startling skill in the unlikely, hulking form of Jimmy Nail (as slobbish brickie “Oz”.) His enduring masterpiece is “Big River” (the version by folk-music giant Bob Fox is peerless). And Oz’s impromptu AWP rendition of Merle Haggard’s “I Can’t Be Myself” would have brought a grin to Dennis Potter’s chops.

Ali Arikan, RogerEbert.com

I like this question. The greatest theme tune belongs to the greatest show, obviously: “The Sopranos.” But I think theme tunes matter more for sitcoms. They matter only, in fact, for sitcoms. Great shows of emotional value might have shitty theme tunes (yes, I do think sitcoms do not have emotional value), but I give them a pass. This matters for two reasons: first, who the fuck am I to give them a pass as a viewer in a backwards country whose viewing habits mean fuck all; and two: the rest is more important. But it is a problem with sitcoms. They must get you in the mood. Otherwise, huge problem. You can’t expect someone to be invested in the wacky hijinx of a bunch of 60+ women getting all horny and shit in Miami unless the theme tune calls for it. Which is to say, of course there is much more to “The Golden Girls,” but by god, it is the greatest piece of opening credits in the history of television. And thank you for being a friend.

Nell Minow, Movie Mom, Beliefnet

“My Mother the Car” comes to mind.  But I’d have to say “Sydney,” with the theme song by the then-husband of the star of the show, Eddie Van Halen.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: “It Follows”

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter”

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