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TV theme songs aren't going to make it after all

Chuck Barney
Contra Costa Times (MCT)

"Ode to TV Theme Songs"

(To the tune of "The Ballad of Gilligan's Island")

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale

a tale of an artful craft

that started out so long ago

but then got the shaft

TV theme songs were a hit with fans

The lyrics fun and shrewd

They got us all to sing along

as they set the mood

as they set the mood

But prime time started getting rough

The TV songs were tossed

If not for the efforts of a fearless few

the theme songs would be lost

They'd all sound like "Lost"

———

Excuse my lyrical hack job, but I was inspired to write that wan little ditty after being bummed out by some recent news: The TV Academy is dumping the Emmy Awards category that honors main title songs, effective next year.

It's a move that, as Michael Schneider of Variety wrote, essentially drives the "final nail in the TV theme song coffin."

And how do we respond to this bit of Emmy buzz kill? By posing the same question that the "Family Guy" theme song raises: "Where are those good ol' fashioned values on which we used to rely?"

Of course, the Academy is simply reflecting current reality. TV theme songs, once a vibrant piece of pop culture, have been on the wane for years as networks experimented with ways to keep viewers from switching channels.Their mission? Get into and out of shows as quickly as possible and create a seamless blend of programming. (Oh, and cram as many commercials in there while you're at it).

So that leaves no time to melodically run down the story of "a lovely lady who was bringing up three very lovely girls," or of a hardworking family movin' on up "to a deluxe apartment in the sky."

Consequently, shows began ditching their theme songs, or chopping them to bits. The latter trend was taken to the extreme by "Lost," with a theme "song" consisting of exactly one ominous, drawn-out note.

It's sad. Just sad. Anyone who grew up on television knows that theme music is an inextricable part of the experience. An opening line, or just a stanza or so, immediately gets us singing or humming and transports us to someplace special.

Deftly rendered, a good theme song can reveal insights into a beloved character. Before meeting Mary Richards, for example, who knew that she had a magical power to "turn the world on with her smile" — or that she could "take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile"?

Some theme songs struck emotional chords, appealing to basic human needs. "Cheers" had a hunch that we wanted to take a break from our frazzled lives and get away to a place "where everybody knows your name." And "Friends" realized that, when it seems like we're stuck in second gear, we want someone special to declare, "I'll be there for you when the rain starts to pour."

Several themes offered a quick plotline refresher course, just in case we forgot. To wit: the "Gilligan's Island" ballad told of a "tale of a fateful trip that started from this tropic port aboard this tiny ship," and then proceeded to run down each stranded castaway. Can you imagine "Lost" trying the same thing?

A few theme songs could be downright silly, mangling the language — I'd never heard my home state referred to as "Californy," as in "The Beverly Hillbillies" opener — or pouring forth crazy talk. I'm still trying to figure out what Laverne and Shirley were gabbing about when they uttered, "Schlemiel, schimazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated."

But many theme songs of the past exerted a powerful pull without saying a word. The Ventures' opening strains of "Hawaii Five-O" had me wanting to jump aboard a plane to McGarrett's tropical turf ("Book it, Danno"). And the instantly recognizable title tune of "The X-Files" can still send chills down my spine.

TV theme songs aren't entirely a lost art. You just have to look hard to find them. The best these days are usually on premium cable. A standout example: the wickedly dark "True Blood" title song (Jace Everett's "Bad Things") brilliantly sets the tone for HBO's vampire drama.

Mostly, though, TV theme songs are dusty relics of the past. When played back now, they conjure up amazingly warm memories and have us echoing the title of a little tune once croaked out by Archie and Edith Bunker:

"Those Were the Days."

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