With over 532 scripted series premiering in 2019, how does a TV show make noise in this over-saturated era? Maybe make some of your own.
In the case of both of my title examples, neither “Misbehavin’” (from HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones) nor “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” (from Netflix’s The Witcher) are technically theme songs. And yet, both have come to define their series. These catchy, “here’s the story” singalongs are reminiscent of the cheesy but great TV theme songs of yore, a tradition that only cartoons have (sparingly) carried over into the new millennium.
In their place, there are three categories of TV intros that have thrived: the bumper, the score, and the pop song. Examples (linked to the YouTube vids) of bumpers would be the intros of Lost, Breaking Bad; scores include Mad Men and Succession; pop songs (or more accurately “samples of full tracks released by professional recording artists as part of a larger album”) are used by Anne with an E and The Affair. Most half-hour series have cut their themes down to just bumpers to save time and give them that more space to tell their episodic story, while dramas are still a hodgepodge. And while you can definitely sing along with the great intros to Friends or Anne with an E, it’s still not as potent of an experience as the rip-roaring good time of “Misbehavin’” or “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher,” both of which are the even rarer breed of diagetic non-theme songs that become breakouts.
There are always exceptions, of course. Outlander (Starz) has an original theme song that defines the series and also changes with it (each season it takes on a new style to reflect the shifting location of the show—something HBO’s The Wire also did). But at its heart, Bear McCreary’s “The Skye Boat Song”—an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Sing me a Song of a Lad that Is Gone” and a Scottish folk tune—is one that both explains what the show is about and that you can sing/dance along with, yet it never feels cheesy. On the cheeseball (but still classic) side, though, there are The CW superhero shows that do the first person cartoon-like explanation of who the protagonist is, how they got their powers, and what their objective is now. But it does set the tone and catch viewers up on what the show is about. It’s not sung though, only spoken over a score. And I would be remiss to not mention one of the greatest throwback theme songs of the modern era for a reality series, which is Bachelor in Paradise. (Catchy, cheesy, fantastic fun!) There’s a reason all of us elder Millennials (and older) continue to sing and be delighted by the TV intros of our past; it’s a joyful, nostalgic experience.
So back to those without; my only complaint with the otherwise fantastically-crafted Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance series on Netflix last year was the lack of a theme song. The score is beautiful, although since it only plays over the end credits it’s not one that most people are familiar with, and it also wasn’t something I could sing or hum to express my enthusiasm for the show. A scored theme can be iconic, but as much as I try to intone along with the Succession intro, it’s not the same as singing along with Outlander. And I’m not saying that every show needs a theme song (as funny as it would be for a modern comedy, in particular, to introduce itself with “Too Many Cooks” flare), but as Outlander in particular shows—for fantasy series especially—it helps to not only set a tone, but create a full immersion into the world. Would we have embraced “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” or “Misbehavin’” if they had been presented as the official intro music? I think so, because both songs are so much fun and so genuinely good on their own. The context of the episodes where they appear does help, but there aren’t many ear worms as potent as these two.
A safer road to bridge the gap between old theme song intro styles and the scores and bumpers of modern dramas is, of course, the pop song. Sons of Anarchy did it to great effect, the aforementioned Anne with an E is an exceptional one, and though I’m not really a fan of The Affair’s Fiona Apple track, it’s certainly memorable. Yes it cuts into the run time, but maybe that 30-second to minute-long sacrifice is worth it to give us a bop between binges. One that, if “Misbehavin’” and “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” have taught us anything, will be something we continue to remember long after we watch. Let us sing!
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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