Long before the “Skip Intro” era, people have lamented the demise of the theme song. There certainly are times when the days of the wistful broadcast sitcom opening number (or even the days of theme songs that parodied them) seem firmly in the rearview mirror.
But with “Succession” Season 2 coming to a close on Sunday, the rapid rise of Nicholas Britell’s opening 90-second orchestral drum loop earworm spectacular is cause for rethinking that assumption. Maybe it’s just the law of large numbers, but even with the glut of shows that now reduce their openings to a simple title card and a “created by” credit, there are plenty of TV themes besides Britell’s worth celebrating.
Some of these fall closer to the more traditional instrumental expectations. Patrick and Ralph Carney’s opening for “BoJack Horseman” may not have any words, but it doesn’t make that heavy sax riff at the end any less recognizable. If Ludwig Göransson wasn’t already halfway to an EGOT, his “Patriot Act” theme song would be the best work of his career. Those whoops at the end of “The Good Fight” credits are just as much a part of the fabric of the show as the exploding office supplies. Ty Segall’s pick-scraping intro for “Corporate” is as close to capturing the bleak angst of office life in musical form as you’ll hear anywhere else.
This also goes for previously recorded songs being matched to their perfect TV counterparts. For all the problems of “Big Little Lies” Season 2, Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart” is still indelible. It’s bizarre to hear TNT use Charles Bradley’s cover of “Changes” for the upcoming NBA season when that song has so thoroughly latched itself onto “Big Mouth.” This year’s “Black Earth Rising” joining “True Detective” Season 2, “shows that open with late-period Leonard Cohen tracks” is becoming a growing market.
“A Black Lady Sketch Show” has its Megan Thee Stallion-backed puppet credits, “Tuca & Bertie” turned its title into a joyful, frenzied mantra, and there’s a good case to make that approximately 65% of the popularity of “Stranger Things” is owed to those synths. Whether that first slice of opening music extends as long as Rawin Djawadi’s “Game of Thrones” theme or is as concise a snippet as Isobel Waller-Bridge’s metal guitar or naughty Greek “Fleabag” chants, these themes as good as they’ve ever been.
As TV continues to grow, the formerly clear parameters for a TV theme are changing, too. Is there any song more associated with a TV show this year than “Gotta Get Up” is with “Russian Doll”? Sure, it may not have explicitly played at the outset of every episode, but that’s still a “theme song” by any other associative metric. One of the best jokes in IFC’s “Sherman’s Showcase” is seeing and hearing how the show-within-a-show’s opening credits change across the decades. Same goes for the late great “The Detour,” which toyed with Rob Kolar’s 10-second opening so much over its four-season run that it became an art form all its own.
So, yes, it’s true that the most popular TV shows aren’t as intrinsically linked to memorable theme songs as they have in the past. But, as with most things in this saturated streaming age, quality is still out there. It’s just a matter of finding where to listen.