Wait, Do Shows Even Have Theme Songs Anymore?

As a child of the 90s and early 2000s, my most consistent babysitter was, to put it bluntly, reruns. I was especially partial to the older shows from my parents’ generation, sequestered to Nick-At-Nite in the wee small hours of the morning. If you ask my mother, she’ll say that I was snug as a bug under my covers, dreaming of butterflies and Disneyland. That wasn’t true. I was deep into TV Land. I was movin’ on up with the Jeffersons, then from Philly to LA with a certain Fresh Prince. And my poor parents were never any the wiser…until now. (Sorry, guys!) 

The older I got, though, I noticed something that I’m quite sure you’ve seen too. With a few noticeable exceptions, which we will get to throughout this article, TV theme songs have essentially gone the way of the dodo. They’ve slowly been phased out of television and out of cultural consciousness – so much so that when a TV show does have a theme song, it almost makes you say, “Huh! How retro!” 

Three Categories of Theme Songs

Whether you realize it or not, almost every TV show has a theme song. I’ve divided these into three categories: Expository, Instrumentals, and Stingers. Some TV shows have theme songs with music and lyrics written specifically for the show and also serve the purpose of explaining what the show is about. We’ll call these Expository themes, as they tell a cohesive story that can help a casual viewer catch up on what the show is about. One of the oldest examples of a sitcom with an expository theme is The Flintstones. The song tells you exactly who the Flintstones are, where they’re from, and what kind of time you can expect to have when you’re watching them. Other good examples of expository themes are the themes for Scooby Doo, Good Times, The Love Boat, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and of course, The Addams Family. 

The next type of theme song that TV shows usually have is an instrumental theme, which was composed for the show but has no lyrical element. A famous example of an instrumental theme in modern TV is the theme for Succession. It’s moody and a little bit eerie, but it doesn’t outright tell us what the show is about. Based on the images shown in the title card, I’m gonna guess it’s a family show about a pony. Other examples of shows with iconic instrumental-only themes include Law and Order, The Andy Griffith Show, The Office, and The Twilight Zone. 

Some shows forgo lengthier theme songs in favor of a quick and simple collection of notes accompanied by a title card. This is sometimes called a Stinger. An excellent example of this is Dragnet’s iconic “Duuuun dun dun dun!” (Admit it, you just did it in your head, didn’t you?)

Television Evolves

As things do, TV evolved. Airwaves had to make more time for advertisers. Writers created more complex plotlines to help their programs stand out against the growing tide of television shows. Over time, it became less sensible for showrunners to waste sixty to ninety seconds on reminding the audience what the show was about – especially during the age of streaming when people began watching multiple episodes in a row. 

So TV theme songs become a relic of the past, a pre-streaming world. They became less about telling us what the show is about and more about setting the mood of the show — like in the cases of modern favorites Succession and The Last of Us. And let’s be honest — those shows should keep their title cards precisely the way they are. Imagine if The Last of Us had a theme song like The Brady Bunch? “Here’s a story…about a group of zombies?” 

While I understand the appeal of using theme songs as a way of “setting the mood,” I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the catchy, expository tunes of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Moreover, I continue to treasure the modern TV shows that eschew the industry standard of short theme songs. Some shows have been using their theme songs to help further the story in ways we never thought imaginable. 

One More Time, From The Top!

Some shows have taken the traditional purpose of theme songs and extended it. An excellent example of this is the CW’s musical comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a delightful show featuring Rebecca Bloom as the musically talented titular character (who isn’t even all that crazy, I swear.) It makes sense to have her character sing the highly catchy theme song about how she moved from her fancy law job in New York to a sleepy town in California. However, in later seasons, the theme song changes entirely – even swapping genres to represent the main character’s slow descent into madness. 

Other modern shows, especially cartoon sitcoms like Family Guy and Spongebob Squarepants have iconic theme songs that occasionally change depending on what’s going on in that episode. The theme song can change to reflect a holiday-themed episode or a change in the cast, like that time Cleveland Brown interrupted the Family Guy theme song to take his old place after the Family Guy spinoff, The Cleveland Show, had gotten canceled. 

While some of my favorite theme songs are instrumental (lookin’ at you, Futurama theme!) I feel a kinship to expository theme music that I suspect goes deeper than pure nostalgia. 

Theme songs help set the stage for every episode of TV that we watch. Whether those themes are instrumental, expository, or stingers, they all serve a special place in creating quality television.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Alexandria Love is a writer, comedian, and actor from Oakland, California. She’s been a featured stand-up comedian in numerous clubs and festivals. Her comedic writing is seen on Netflix, ABC, and NBC. She has contributed essays to an upcoming “She Series” book compiled by Karen Hellion. Alexandria currently resides in New York City.

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