Diamonds in the idiot box: Top 20 TV themes

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 10, 2017)

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After screening (and reviewing) 25 films over the last several weeks for my SIFF coverage, I’m taking a breather from sticky floors and the smell of stale popcorn tonight to share my favorite TV show themes. It began as a “top 10” list, but I quickly gleaned that I had assigned myself a fool’s errand with that limitation. So I upped the ante to 15. Then it had to be 20 (damn my OCD). Even with that generous margin, I still had to rob Peter to pay Paul on a few choices, which almost guarantees dissension in the ranks. So if I have “overlooked” your favorite(s), feel free to share in the comments section (be nice).

The Adventures of Pete and Pete – Nickelodeon’s best-kept secret, and a guilty pleasure. Gentle anarchy in the Bill Forsyth vein. I discovered, watched, and continue to re-watch it, as an (alleged) adult. So sue me. Besides…you can’t resist the hooks in Polaris’ theme.

Cheers – “Norm!” Gary Portnoy performed (and co-wrote) this upbeat show opener.

Coronet Blue – When I was 11, I became obsessed with this noir-ish, single-season precursor to the Bourne films. This theme has been stuck in my head since, oh…1967?

Due South – Paul Haggis’ unique “fish out of water” crime dramedy about a Canadian Mountie assigned to work with the Chicago P.D. was one of my favorite shows of the 90s (confession: I own all 4 seasons on DVD). It also had a great theme song, by Jay Semko.

Hawaii Five-O – The Ventures were the original surf punks (and they’re from Tacoma!).

M*A*S*H – Johnny Mandel’s lovely chart (ported from Robert Altman’s 1970 film, sans Mike Altman’s lyrics) is quite melancholic for a sitcom-but it spoke to the show’s pathos.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show – This ever-hopeful tune plays a bit wistfully now that Ms. Moore has shuffled off, but hey-as long as we have syndication, we’ll always have Mary.

Mission Impossible – Argentine jazz man Lalo Schifrin hit the jackpot with this memorable theme (he composed some great movie soundtracks too, like Cool Hand Luke). Legendary “Wrecking Crew” bassist Carol Kaye really lays it down on this one!

The Monkees – Here’s the cosmic conundrum that keeps me up nights: Mike Nesmith was my favorite Monkee…yet the Monkees remain Mike Nesmith’s least favorite band.

The Office (BBC original series) – For my money, nobody tops future Atomic Rooster lead singer Chris Farlowe’s soulful 1967 take on this oft-covered Mike d’Abo composition, but this nice rendition by Big George obviously won Ricky Gervais’ lottery.

Peter Gunn – Henry Mancini was a genius, plain and simple. Wrote hooks in his sleep.

Portlandia – Somehow, stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (along with series co-creator/director Johnathan Krisel) have mined 7 seasons of material by satirizing hipster culture. Like any sketch-comedy show, it’s hit-and-miss, but when it hits a bullseye, it’s really funny. It’s easy to fall in love with Washed Out’s atmospheric dream pop theme.

Rawhide – “Move ‘em on! Head ‘em up!” This performance explains why Mel Brooks enlisted Frankie Laine to sing the Blazing Saddles theme. I’m afraid this squeezed Bonanza off my list (I’m sure I will be verbally bull-whipped by some of you cowpokes).

Secret Agent Man – This Johnny Rivers classic opened U.S. airings of the U.K. series Danger Man (which had a pretty cool harpsichord-driven instrumental theme of its own).

The Sopranos – For 7 years, Sunday night was Family night in my house. Fuhgettaboutit.

Square Pegs – This short-lived 1982 comedy series (created by SNL writer Anne Beatts) was, in hindsight, a bellwether for the imminent John Hughes-ification of Hollywood. Initially a goofy cash-in on New Wave/Valley Girl couture, it has become a cult favorite.

The Twilight Zone – It’s the Twilight Zone “theme”, but it’s not so much conventional composition as it is avant-garde sound collage (ahead of its time, like the program itself).

Weeds – I suspect that many of the writers, directors, actors, and producers of this outstanding Showtime dramedy weren’t even born yet when folksinger Malvina Reynolds recorded this song; yet it works in perfect simpatico with the program’s ethos.

The Wire – This lauded HBO series is a compelling portmanteau of an American city in sociopolitical turmoil. The Blind Boys of Alabama’s urban blues hits just the right notes.

WKRP – I’ve worked in broadcasting since Marconi, so trust me when I say that this sitcom remains the most accurate depiction of life in the biz. Tom Wells composed the breezy theme, show creator Hugh Wilson wrote the lyrics, and Steve Carlisle performs it.

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and one more thing…

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R.I.P. Adam West. He was a class act; especially apparent if you watch the excellent 2013 documentary, Starring Adam West. He weathered his “one role” cult status with grace, wit, and a considerable amount of god-given charm. My favorite role of his was a wonderfully droll performance as an aging Lothario in Michael Tolkin’s criminally underappreciated 1994 social satire The New Age…which  hints at what “might have been.” Weirdly enough, the Batman theme was one of the “finalists” I discarded in the process of whittling down my list. Well, no excuses now. So…in memoriam:

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