My Top 12 (Live Action) TV Themes

The opening sequence for a TV show is a funny phenomenon. They’re simultaneously absolutely fundamental to the show while not giving you any indication of the quality of the show. Think of Seinfeld, the highest grossing (and best) sitcom of all time, which – catchy scene change bass licks aside – had no ‘opening credits’ to speak of. But then think of something like Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, whose theme I find myself humming periodically and/or whenever I think of the show (that’s how integral it is), even though the show itself was kinda forgettable. (Unlike his other two major shows, which I will get onto in due course).
But a good opening sequence does so much for its show. With a few notable exceptions, it usually serves as the most recognisable soundbite for the show. It also serves as a kind of psychological trigger, a repetition of a sonic stimulus that reminds regular fans that “it’s time for your dose of entertainment once again.” But most of all, it sets the tone for the show, both audio-ally (?) and visually.

I watch a lot of TV. Much more than almost everyone else I know, and certainly more than is good for me. So the following list is a collection, and ranking, of the TV opening credits that have really made an impression on me. Sometimes they hold a place in my heart because of the quality of the show as a whole, and sometimes in spite of it. We’ll see.
N.B. as a musician I will focusing primarily on the music, but when the editing/video construction of the opening credits also serves to make an even better case, I’ll mention it.
N.M.* I’m only covering live-action TV in this one. Animated TV would require extensive research into anime, which… ain’t nobody got time fo’ that.
*N.M. (Nota Melius) – that’s Latin, bitches. N.M. is to N.B. as P.P.S. is to P.S.

Honourable Mentions

Before I start, honourable mentions must go to the following:
Community – because a cult show of this quality deserves a mention in any list. It didn’t make the cut because the theme in particular doesn’t really stand out at all. It doesn’t really set up anything for the show, and actually feels inferior to the quality of the show as a whole. Doesn’t mean I don’t know all the lyrics, though.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air – because I don’t know anyone my age who *doesn’t* know the lyrics to this. (Except me). I’ve never actually seen the show, so it doesn’t make the cut, but it absolutely deserved an honourable mention.
Oz – because it’s awesome. And so is the show. But neither the theme nor the show ever made its mark, either on me or on TV as a whole, regrettably. Extremely good show, but not necessarily ‘great’, so it doesn’t make the list.
Band of Brothers – only really got cut from the list because I didn’t want to include miniseries, as that would complicate things. Don’t let this detract from the fact that it’s one of the best things ever to be put on the screen. This is a rare instance of an opening theme not really being all that hummable – but still, anyone familiar with the series, with the sheer gravity and emotion that it conveys, can’t help but feel a swell of emotion when that choir starts up.
Breaking Bad – cutting this might be a little controversial, simply because Breaking Bad is (rightly) considered one of the best TV shows of all time. Is the theme recognisable? I suppose so. But not as recognisable as most of the lines from the show. Does it do anything for the show? Maybe – it sets up the idea of ‘chemistry’ and ‘the American southwest’. Does it do anything for me? Nope.

12. Daredevil (Netflix, 2015-present)

Perhaps I only included this one because I’ve just come off a Daredevil binge. The show is extremely high quality, and the opening sequence sets up the atmosphere perfectly. Dark, bloody, mysterious, and most of all, catchy. It lets you know what you’re getting into, and it’s difficult to get out of your head.

11. The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006)

While visually not all that much to marvel at, it’s the music of this sequence that really makes it memorable. It’s bright, it’s orchestral, it’s grandiose, it’s hopeful, and it seems to transport us right into the Oval Office. It sets us up perfectly for the optimistic, regal atmosphere of the White House in this exceptional (needless-to-say, as it’s Aaron Sorkin) series.

10. Dexter (Showtime, 2006-2013)

This’ll be the first example in this list of a theme outdoing the actual show. While Dexter had an interesting premise, it never really lived up to its potential. The opening sequence, on the other hand… unbelievably catchy, jazzy, smooth song? Ohh yes. And then the brilliant visuals: a fried breakfast, so knives and ketchup (=blood) everywhere; shoelaces like piano wire; suffocating under his shirt – everything about this is a combination of serial killer ideas incorporated into a daily morning routine. It’s a little on the nose, but it’ll make any viewer go “ooh, that’s clever”, and above all, it’s memorable.

9. Parks & Recreation (NBC, 2009-2015)

This might be one of those where I include it because I’m just so fond of the show. If you don’t have good memories of watching this kind-hearted, optimistic, hilarious show, then you have no soul. And the opening sequence captures that perfectly, with the music sounding very ‘American Midwest’ – summery, upbeat, but with a slight military feel. And funnily enough ‘summery, upbeat, and a slight military feel’ pretty much sums up the team of Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson (Leslie’s optimism superseding everything else). Every time I listen to this theme, I’m immediately transported back into those offices, and all the good times I had watching that motley crew, and that’s why it makes the list.

Also, this is the only full-blown comedy to make the list, which… I don’t know what that means.

8. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The WB/UPN, 1997-2003)

And now we come to the middle of the pack, where it became impossible to rank the next few entries.

It’s pretty difficult to fully describe the impact Buffy The Vampire Slayer had on a generation of young minds, and just how much it stood out from the rest of the herd of teen TV shows. And there’s so much to praise, even within these opening 50 seconds. Those first few chilling notes over a shot of a full moon? Check. That incredible bass lick 0:24-0:29? Check. Guitarmanship that’s firmly rooted in the nu-metal/punk rock days of the late 90s and early 2000s? Check. Smiling teens juxtaposed with images of them killing monsters? Of course. The music and the video combine to let us know this is a teenage high school drama about a kickass girl who slays vampires at night, and that’s that. Let’s do it.
And of course it’s catchy as hell. Anyone who’s seen the show would recognise this with the first note.

7. Sons of Anarchy (FX, 2008-2014)

It’s possible I only stuck Sons of Anarchy here because I wanted to break up the two Joss Whedon shows a bit. But regardless, it’s certainly earned its spot in the middle of the pack. Both visually and audio-ally (??), this opening theme lets you know *exactly* what you’re getting into. Acoustic southern rock about “riding through this world”, and pictures of bikers’ tattoos which rather cleverly morph into the actors’ names. You can have no doubt about what this show is, having seen this clip. In fact, if anything, the intro undersells the high-octane Hamlet that Sons of Anarchy becomes.
It also gets bonus points for being appropriately short, and not dragging the intro out (*cough* The Wire *cough*).
Oh, and of course, the key criterion: catchy as balls.

6. Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-present)

Speaking of catchy as balls, I put Game of Thrones on this list. Wouldn’t you? There’s no opening theme quite like it. It’s a cinematic landscape experience, set to a tune that will make you beat your head against a wall to try and get it out.
Moreover, it’s the most-pirated show in the history of television, so that’s something. The show obviously means a lot to a lot of people, and I know a lot of people who mime conducting while the theme plays. Certainly not me, though. Definitely. I would never ever do that. Nope.

Not much else to say about Game of Thrones because everything that needs to be said in praise of it has been, many times. The one thing I will say is why it’s not higher on the list: it’s a mightily entertaining show, but it’s not the *best* on television by a long way. And equally the opening theme has its downsides: as one musician I know put it, “I can’t believe somebody is making millions for having written that theme.” He was right; it’s not exactly clever. But then, neither is ‘Smoke on the Water’, or Beethoven’s V.
But yeah, I feel a little bit anti-Game of Thrones simply because it’s not as ‘good’ as it is ‘entertaining’, and doesn’t deserve to be at the top of this list. Still absolutely deserves to be on it though.

5. Firefly (Fox, 2002-2003… bastards)

The fact that this is only #5 on the list, I hope you’ll take as an indication that all the rest are impossibly awesome, because I’m a browncoat, and any browncoat should put Firefly at the top of any list (except a list of ‘shows that ran too long’… bastards).

This is another one where my fondness for the theme is entirely wrapped up in my fondness for the show as a whole. But it goes to another level: not only does the country music set up the ‘space western’ premise, but the lyrics (‘…you can’t take the sky from me’ etc.) capture the anarchic, free spirit of Mal Reynolds, his crew, and the whole show.

This is also my ringtone, so believe me when I say the ones ranked above this theme in this list have definitely earned their place.

4. Orange Is The New Black (Netflix, 2013-present)

Orange Is The New Black deserves to be on a ton of different ‘best of’ lists. It’s like no other show I’ve ever seen.
The opening sequence is perhaps the hardest-hitting in this entire list. Regina Spektor singing about animals trapped ‘until the cage is full’, while we’re presented with the faces of actual faces of women in the American prison system – some smiling, some not, some with scars, some with crooked teeth. Plus, it’s (mostly) edited in time with the music. Clever. Spektor reminds us to remember their faces and their voices, and wails, almost desperately, ‘you’ve got time.’ It’s deep, and it adds a really serious tone to this semi-serious semi-humorous show that’s undeniably great.

3. The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008)

You’ve got to keep the devil way down in the hole.

I will openly admit that I ranked The Wire this high up on the list because it’s the best piece of television I’ve ever seen. For me, then, to recall any of the five (!) different opening songs, reminds me of greatness, of a writing quality like no other, and of the most socially incisive drama on television.

It gets bonus points for having five separate theme songs – changing as each season changes focus to another sector of society. Pretty cool.

The whole show has been analysed to death, so there’s not much more to say – let Charlie Brooker say it. But this is certainly an entry where it’s not just my love of the show, but its sheer undeniable quality, that seeps into the opening sequence. Of course there’s the standard showing us clips of what happens in the show – wire taps, phone numbers, police surveillance cameras, etc. but there’s more than that; we see parts of Baltimore that even residents of Baltimore hadn’t seen (or hadn’t chosen to see), all in the opening sequence. That clip of kids throwing a rock at the CCTV camera has for me become as recognisable as ‘I am the one who knocks’.

The show as a whole is a piece of TV which deals with incredibly complex and deep issues of social justice, so for that to be noticeable even within the opening sequence is great.

“When you walk through the garden…”

2. The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007)

If you took a survey of a million TV connoisseurs about the best TV dramas of all time, there are three names that will ultimately rise to the top. Breaking Bad, The Wire, and The Sopranos. And I’ve already mentioned the other two.

So why has The Sopranos, which I actually think is the worst of the three, ended up highest of the three on this list? Because oh my god, listen to that theme song. It’s like Sammy Davis Jr., Tom Waits, and Fatboy Slim had a baby. It’s coolness in music form. If you watch all six seasons of The Sopranos and don’t find yourself both singing and dancing along to that theme song by the end, then please do something suitably hyperbolic to yourself.

I could analyse the visuals ad nauseam, but suffice it to say this car journey over the New Jersey Turnpike means more to most people than actually driving home themselves. It tells us what we really need to know: yes, the Sopranos is a show about the mafia, as hinted at by the name, but what this is really about is the daily grind of being a mafioso. The daily trip home through NJ surface streets to see your family. And all the while James effing Gandolfini is smoking a cigar.

This whole intro is just an avatar of coolness.

1. True Blood (HBO, 2008-2014)

What could possibly top a TV list that has The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and Orange Is The New Black on it?

Yeah. True Blood.

This is absolutely an entry where the opening sequence is awesome pretty much in spite of the quality of the show. It’s a trashy vampire romantic horror… so why on earth does it have such a perfect opening sequence?

Everything good I’ve mentioned in previous entries is present here. It has possibly the catchiest of all catchy theme songs, whose lyrics (‘Bad Things’) also hint at the trashy, slightly fetishistic nature of the show. The visual edits set the scene: death (we see decomposing foxes and alligator carcasses); Louisiana (the southern-ness of the setting plays a huge role in the show, and we see swamps and whatnot here); the vampire/gay rights metaphor that’s quite prevalent in the opening seasons (‘God Hates Fangs’); and the bizarre, corrupting duality of the American south – baptisms, children at KKK rallies, gospel choirs, everything. It has so many hints, subject matters, and overtones that I’m tripping over my own words to just try and convey them to you.

The opening sequence tells us more, and in a more stylistic, catchy way, than any other opening sequence on TV. It also probably tells us more than the show does itself… but on a list of opening sequences, True Blood has earned its place at the top.

******

Thanks for reading, if you made it this far! Please feel free to recommend others, disagree, or create your own list.

JH