tv

What you see on this page was originally going to be a single, humble weblog post, a simple list of ten great TV themes - but I ended up with too many personal favorites to choose from. So it was expanded to 50. With descriptions. Why do I work so hard on these damned things? Anyway, to preserve my sanity, I restricted the choices to shows that were aired in prime time on one of the four major networks at one time or another (#1 and 22 may have been syndicated shows, however).

Selections were judged by their musical merits alone, although try as I might some nostalgia creeps into a lot of the rankings/critiques. And I'm sure there were a lot of others' favorites left out ("Wha, no Gilligan's Island?!?"). Now that mine are out of the way, what are yours?

Many of these themes can be heard at TV Themes Online, Sitcoms Online, and The 80s TV Theme SuperSite. This article was originally published in slightly modified form at scrubbles.net, August 2002.

Also check out:
The 100 Favorite Moments in Television, originally published in Egg magazine, March 1991.

All content ©2002-04 Matt Hinrichs
Comments, questions, corrections? Email me!

50 Great TV Themes
By Matt Hinrichs

1. Space: 1999 (1975-77; Barry Gray)
It kicks off with with a blast of overblown kettle drums, strings and horns, ripe for a Monty Python parody. Then it's down with the funky drums and electric guitars, both regular and wokka wokka, for some intense disco-ish jamming. Then the orchestra. Then the disco. But wait -- before it's over, orchestra and disco merge for a grandiose finale, leaving the viewer breathless with excitement. Barry Gray completely redid this theme for the second and final season - but like everything about Space:1999 that year, it was crap.
2. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77; Sonny Curtis)
How different Sonny Curtis' MTM theme was, coming along at a time when sitcom openers were either moronic or tooth-achingly cute. The song combined with that amazing montage of opening credits vignettes to form the image of perfect womanhood, '70s style. Really, those credits even make shopping for meat look glamorous. "Love Is All Around" was fantastic all around, but I give a slight edge to the first season version ("How will you make it on your own?") for bringing a hint of angst and self-doubt into the cheery world of Mary Richards.
3. Mission: Impossible (1966-73; Lalo Schifrin)
The apex of spy music - hard-hitting, efficient, cool. What seals the M:I theme's greatness, however, is its odd 5/8 time signature. Interesting how, when U2 switched to standard 4/4 time in their remake, the melody seemed lifeless in comparison.
4. I Dream of Jeannie (1965-70; Hugo Montenegro)
Hugo Montenegro wasn't the best or most prolific composer/arranger of the '60s, but his groovy output tapped into the swinging, sexy zeitgeist of the era better than anyone else. His Jeannie theme is a time capsule of innocent, navel-concealing naughtiness. Also notable: the entirely different first season theme, a lovely waltz written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King(!). Although probably better suited for a chi-chi fashion show than a sitcom, it's worth seeking out.
5. Barnaby Jones (1973-80; Jerry Goldsmith)
If Beethoven were working in Hollywood in the '70s, the results might sound like this theme. It's that amazing - full of purpose and drive. Pay attention to the percussion fills, busily working away under the flutes and woodwinds. Wow.
6. Dynasty (1981-89; Bill Conti)
A Reagan-era indulgence in champagne wishes and caviar dreams. Bill Conti's orchestration is so stately and dignified, you could picture it being played at some European royalty's wedding ceremony. It even made the Carrington's sniveling machinations appear somewhat noble.
7. The Avengers (1961-69; Laurie Johnson)
Created during the Diana Rigg years, Laurie Johnson's theme was the definitive musical expression of sexy Brit elegance. My judgement may have been clouded by Diana's fab catsuits, however.
8. The Brady Bunch (1969-74; Frank DeVol and Sherwood Schwartz)
It told a story (of a lovely lady) so well, with brilliant compactness, that one could divine the history of this family without having seen an episode before. So many variations, which one is best -- the white bread male singers from season one? The funky arrangement from the later years? Personally, the one I prefer the earliest season where the kids sang, off key and uncoordinated in that charmingly clumsy way.
9. The Simpsons (1990-present; Danny Elfman)
When I first heard this, I wasn't too impressed. "Too much like Pee Wee's Big Adventure," I sniffed. Well, I've converted. It's an excellent theme, charting new ground while implicitly acknowledging those that came before (see #21). Lisa's ever-changing sax solo is a terrific bonus.
10. Mannix (1967-75; Lalo Schifrin)
Schifrin's waltz-timed instrumental is easygoing and fun, an outgrowth of that particular culture of adult swankiness that died aound the same time cigarette companies stopped advertising on TV.
11. The Waltons (1972-81; Jerry Goldsmith)
The show itself may have been corny, but Jerry Goldsmith's Waltons theme is one of the all-time greats. A wonderful, subtle arrangement accurately conveys the togetherness of a Depression-era family.
12. Land of the Giants (1968-70; John Williams)
John Williams (then credited as "Johnny") did several hysterical TV themes for producer Irwin Allen in the '60s, this was the best. The intricate composition was tightened (and vastly improved) in the second season.
13. Hawaii Five-O (1968-80; Mort Stevens)
Stevens' drum-heavy theme came on like a full force tsunami, and in the process became the template for ass-kickin' cool cop show themes to come.
14. Charlie's Angels (1976-81; Jack Elliott and Allyn Ferguson)
tvThe critics said it was nothing but fluff. But what fluff. SurelyCharlie's Angels' popularity was partly due to its glamorous theme song, which merged disco and lush orchestration into the very image of blow-dried fabulousness.
15. Jonny Quest (1964-65; Hoyt Curtin)
This one has a simple mission: musically portray a boy's dream world of adventure and excitement. It succeeds brilliantly, pterodactyl scream and all.
16. The Bionic Woman (1976-78; Jerry Fielding)
I love this instrumental for how smoothly it changes moods, from urgency to wistfulness and back again. It helped that the accompanying title sequence was a masterpiece of tight editing.
17. The Munsters (1964-66; Jack Marshall)
The Addams Family was the better show, but The Munsters had the better theme - a funny and macabre symphony of surf guitar and some sort of low-pitched woodwind instrument (bassoon?). Season two's theme was sped up and reworked to sound even more hard-hitting and sinister, to an almost punkish degree. The entire career of The Cramps can be traced to this one tune.
18. ABC Movie of the Week (1969-75; Burt Bacharach)
Bacharach's jewel-like composition was given a snazzy arrangement by Harry Betts. Combined with groovy 2001-style special effects, ABC's TV movie intros gave the impression that something special was in store. It wasn't just another Connie Stevens movie, it was an event! More info can be found here.
19. Sanford and Son (1972-77; Quincy Jones)
Quincy Jones' S&S theme is so gritty and atmospheric that it immediately conjures up a specific time and place. Funky old junkshop from the '70s? Bingo.
20. The Patty Duke Show (1963-66; Sid Ramin and Harry Geller)
With Patty Duke as identical twin cousins (don't ask), the perky theme for her show became an icon of kitsch. "Patty loves to rock n roll/A hot dog makes her lose control ..." oookay.
21. The Jetsons (1962-63; Hoyt Curtin, William Hanna and Joseph Barbara)
Nowadays it's remembered as a harmless kiddie cartoon -- but don't forget the brilliance of Hoyt Curtin's Jetsons theme, a marvel of intricate precision (better appreciated on the '80s remake). I especially love the hot trumpet solo during Judy Jetson's segment.
22. UFO (1970-73; Barry Gray)
If this seems a little too mod, too swingin' for a sci-fi show, we forgive Barry Gray. Cool typewriter sound effects, too.
23. Police Woman (1974-78; Mort Stevens)
One of the definitive '70s cop show themes. A fast paced, dynamic arrangement set up the premise - Angie Dickenson as a butt-kickin' cop - and it was all wrapped up in less than two minutes.
24. Maude (1972-78; Dave Grusin and Alan and Marilyn Bergman)
Sure, this funky theme has dated about as well as Bea Arthur's pantsuits. But you can't deny its rousing feminist power, especially with those campy lyrics: "Joan of Arc, with the Lord to guide her/She was a sister who really cooked".
25. Angie (1979-80; Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel)
The show, I remember, was a dreary, typical ABC sitcom - but it had a killer theme song. An upbeat slice of late '70s pop, winningly sung by Maureen McGovern.
26. Good Times (1974-79; Dave Grusin and Alan and Marilyn Bergman)
Gospel-infused ditty mirrored a theme commonly used in the earlier seasons of this show - keeping your dignity despite squallid surroundings. It had a certain poignancy missing from most TV themes.
tv27. The X Files (1993-2002; Mark Snow)
Cornered the market on creepiness, now and forever. Mark Snow's theme and the title sequence imagery were as perfectly matched as Fox Mulder and a conspiracy theory (pick one, any one).
28. Square Pegs (1982-83; Jonathan Wolff)
Square Pegs introduced something hitherto unknown to sitcom themes - rock 'n roll, courtesy of the Waitresses. Very hip, very different, very evocative of kids bopping around in skinny ties and Vans slip-ons and flouncy, polkadotted miniskirts.
29. Wonder Woman (1976-79; Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel)
THE camp classic, with a propulsive groove that could rival any disco hit of that era. Dig the lyrics: "In your satin tights/Fighting for your rights/And the old red white and blue."
30. Futurama (1999-2003; Christopher Tyng)
Perfectly suits Matt Groening's funky, messy vision of the future - which is just like the present, but with sassy robots and stuff. This theme was heavily influenced by Jean Jacques Perry's trippy 1970 classic "E.V.A.".
tv 31. Bewitched (1964-72; Howard Greenfield and Jack Keller)
Perky, '50s-style instrumental complemented the delightful animation in the opening credits perfectly. Why didn't Samantha ever transform herself into a cat on the show itself?
32. Alice (1976-85; David Shire)
Something of a "gotta get outta this town and follow my dream" anthem. I always found Linda Lavin's singing so warm and inviting here. Bonus: her scat singing on the closing credits theme.
33. NBC Sunday Mystery Movie (1971-77; Henry Mancini)
One of my treasured childhood memories was, after Disney was over, this show would come on and this mysterious "weeeooo" song would play accomanied by cool visuals of a guy with a flashlight. That's all.
34. Laverne and Shirley (1976-83; Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel)
"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, shlemeel, shlemazel, hasenfeffer incorporated." Less evocative of '50s Milwaukee than "all ages" night at the disco, but the melody, the defiant lyrics, and Cyndi Grecco's vocal are all terribly charming.
35. The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78; Lorenzo and Henrietta Music)
Jazzy theme makes footage of Bob Newhart walking through downtown Chicago look glamorous. That's really saying a lot.
36. thirtysomething (1987-91; Steward Levin and W. G. "Snuffy" Walden)
While the whininess of thirtysomething's circle of yuppies got annoying real quickly, the same couldn't be said of its memorable theme - a beautifully understated gem of acoustic guitar, piano and woodwinds.
37. The Streets of San Francisco (1972-79; Pat Williams)
Perhaps the TV theme that best captures the funkiness of Blaxploitation film soundtracks. Killer sax highlights a tight, energetic arrangement.
38. Hullabaloo (1965-67; Peter Matz)
Corny and dated -- but good.
39. In Living Color (1990-94; Heavy D)
New Jack Swing and hip hop were all over the radio in 1990, but still rare on network TV - which is why this theme was just as fresh and exciting as the comedy sketch show it supported. The theme was redone halfway through ILC's run, but it wasn't nearly as appealing as the original.
40. The Mod Squad (1968-73; Earle Hagen)
This show was about a trio of hip P.I.s, so it made sense it had an equally "with it" theme. Benefits from having an odd time signature and a hot arrangement, particularly the organ fills.
41. It's a Living (1980-82; Leslie Bricusse and George Aliceson Tipton)
"Life's not the French Rivier-a/Believe me, life's not a charity ball!" This brassy, showtune-like song was of my favorites as a kid. I didn't know Leslie Bricusse (of "Willy Wonka" fame, among other stuff) composed this.
42. Medical Center (1969-76; Lalo Schifrin)
Another fantastic, punchy theme from Lalo Schifrin. Love how a siren-like sound is used to convey the urgent activity of a hospital.
43. The Facts of Life (1979-88; Al Burton, Gloria Loring and Alan Thicke)
The "soft rock" arrangement used in seasons 2-9 might be better-known, but I have a soft spot for the stilted, silly first season theme. Besides, the earlier one has Mrs. Garrett singing!
44. Remington Steele (1982-87; Henry Mancini)
The '80s had a surplus of plush, heavily orchestrated themes, this was among the most memorable. Great melody; powerful yet befitting its feminine lead.
45. Route 66 (1960-64; Nelson Riddle)
Don't know whether the vocal or instrumental version was in the TV show; this ranking is for the vocal-less rendition. The ultimate "driving in a convertible with sunglasses" song.
46. Star Trek (1966-69; Alexander Courage)
Remove yourself from its Trekkie ubiquity and appreciate what a truly strange and beautiful composition the Star Trek theme is. That combo of wordless female vocals and theremin is dynamite.
47. Survivor (2000-present; Russ Landau)
Survivor's theme is like a contemporary version of '50s Exotica - where the quasi-third world cheeziness actually adds to its appeal. Plus it's catchy as hell.
48. Eight Is Enough (1977-81; Earle Hagen)
Let me clarify this refers to the wonderful, first season instrumental theme -- NOT the rather icky vocal theme sung by star Grant Goodeve in the later seasons.
49. Peter Gunn (1958-61; Henry Mancini)
Among the coolest themes ever, and the earliest to use the rock 'n roll influence. Guitarist Duane Eddy's sound was so distinctive that the Art of Noise used him again for their remake nearly thirty years later.
50. Phyllis (1975-77; Dick DeBenedictis)
An unusual exersize in Broadway style razzle-dazzle, which ultimately becomes a joke at the title character's expense. The final punchline (and Cloris Leachman's reaction to it) is priceless.