You know a television show has piqued your interest, when the idea of waiting a week to view the latest instalment leaves you feeling that near death is imminent, like Frankie Boyle at Harvey Price’s birthday party. Addictions to shows can take weeks, creeping up on you until you realise that you’re much more attuned to it than you initially thought, or it can be an instant craving, a gnawing that won’t go away until you’ve addressed the wound thoroughly. The excellent show Portlandia really defined this phenomenon with their very amusing sketch about a couple developing a full blown obsession to the behemoth that is Battlestar Galactica.
Now myself, I’m not really one for mammoth American TV shows. I like the concept of immersing myself in those hour long epics which go on for many seasons, but honestly, I haven’t got the patience – or the interest to dedicate myself to such shows. To me, these shows are like energy drinks – I understand the appeal, but too much of them and you tend to get really annoying.
My own TV addiction is comedies; particularly US based ones, just like everybody else. Parks and Recreation, Community, Arrested Development, Party Down – I’m like a living Tumblr blog. There is something about those slightly smug, surprisingly superficial shows that I really enjoy. Perhaps it’s because they remind me of myself – an attempt to do something different, but by doing so really just being the same as everybody else.
However, one thing you notice when watching any sort of show a lot of times in succession, is that the opening music is important. If it’s not memorable, catchy, or particularly interesting then it’s guaranteed that for at least the first twenty seconds of every episode, you are going to be disappointed. If there is nothing to hum, to tap, or to dance to, then you’ve wasted a significant period of your life. Twenty seconds at a time might not sound like much, but if you multiply those twenty seconds by the amount of episodes you watch, you’ll come to a figure that, if spent wisely, could get you to do something more meaningful than to bulk watch TV shows.
But we’ll never do that, because TV is both the beauty and the beast. Because of Arrested Development, and because I love Will Arnett’s character in the show, I recently decided to start watching his newish sitcom, entitled Up All Night. Now, this is where I stop talking about how good shows are, because I’m about as qualified to talk about the content of comedy shows as I am qualified to talk about making quality metaphors. Instead this is where I shall start examining the most important question in television today – what on earth happened to the memorable theme tune?
I’m going to share a video with you now. It is the opening eighteen seconds of Up All Night. You don’t have to actually watch the titles; it’s just a series of still photographs stuck together with a flash. Just listen to it, embrace it, and then listen to it again. Go on, it’ll only take thirty-six seconds if you do it quickly.
I bet you any money in the world that even if you’ve listened to it twice in a row, you won’t be able to remember it properly. And why would you? It’s eighteen seconds of the most nondescript ‘music’ you’ll ever come across. It’s too jaunty to be hold music, too lifeless to be lift music. I’m getting a bit of brass instruments in there, but I can’t really make out exactly what it is making that dirge. There is a baby chuckling at the end, or perhaps being winded, and well… nothing much else really.
So when I started to get into the show, and watched a couple of episodes in succession, I found that the theme did begin to become memorable, not in a fun, special way, but in the same way that you can’t stop remembering when you made a really unfunny joke, or when you come back home, look in the mirror and realise that you forgot to take your Batman cape off when you went to the shops.
It’s not just Up All Night’s fault. All of the shows I have mentioned are completely dull theme-wise. Let’s go through them, starting with Parks And Recreation.
It’s alright. It’s memorable – if a little long, but it foretells nothing of the story about to be unfolded in front of our eyes. It’s just… there. It wouldn’t feel out of place if it was the soundtrack to an advert advertising butter, and that’s not what I really want to hear unless I am watching a show about butter, which as it goes, happens never.
Next up, let’s have a little listen at the theme from Community.
This is just horrible. It’s the sound of being pipped on the line for the bronze medal in a race, it’s the sound of over-cooking vegetables, and it’s the sound of the first person booted out of X-Factor. Yes, it’s the sound of failure. An uninspiring boring singing voice, backed up by a boring tune, with lyrics so mind-numbingly boring, they can only be described as boring. For a show that can have such creative ideas, it is, to quote Bernard Manning in a Chris Morris sketch, “a fucking disgrace”.
What of Arrested Development, a show lauded by many for its complex humour, for the jokes you have to watch five times to notice, for the warmly named George Michael?
Now this is a little better. Who doesn’t love the voice of Ron Howard? Nobody! But then try asking that question when you hear it not only as the narrator, but in the titles as well. This is not what you want to hear every twenty-five minutes or so when the next episode starts.
I’m not even going to waste more than one sentence on Party Down , considering all they bother to give us is THREE SECONDS of the most bullshit music you’ll hear this side of Mumford and Sons. [go to about 2.25below]
So what makes a good theme song? For me there are a number of key components, and they vary for certain types of shows. For example, if we look at sports based television, the iconic themes that people love and remember, especially over in the UK, are mostly instrumental. Match of the Day, Ski Sunday, Soul Limbo for the cricket, the almost prog like quality of the snooker theme. Of course the granddaddy of them all, the irresistible force and the immovable object, is the Grandstand theme.
The fact we live in a world without Grandstand is completely twisted and tortured, even dismissing the theme song. We’ve just spent the last month watching judo, archery, and shooting in our millions, yet the BBC can’t devote four hours every Saturday afternoon to crown green balls, regional athletics and Final Score? Sadly, the only memories I have left of Grandstand now is the theme, a peacock-like piece of music, as it struts and flaunts its worth, and so it bloody should. One of my ultimate (clean) fantasies is to conduct an orchestra to play this wonderful piece of music.
So that’s sport, but what of comedies? What do I want from a comedy show in my theme? I want craft, I want thought, and I want catchiness. Cagney and Lacey didn’t work just because of the hair; it also worked because of the irresistible theme, crafted from the very same brain that produced the theme from Rocky.
So I want craft, but I also want words, and not just hastily scribbled together words like the ones you’re reading now, I want words which have relevance to what I’m watching. I want craft, and I want words which are instantly memorable and lasting, which leads me to Happy Days.
There is not a soul out there who doesn’t feel like moving when they hear the Happy Days theme. But I want more, I want craft, I want words, but I also want musicianship – I want a hook that will drive me wild. I want Red Dwarf.
And then I’ve almost got it all. But there’s a couple of missing ingredients left to fill. I’ve got my craft, words, musicianship – but I haven’t got a sense of belonging. Cagney and Lacey is too jazzy, Happy Days too jolly, Red Dwarf too “out-there”. I want to feel like I belong, like I’m part of something. I want to feel like I’m about to buy a David Bowie LP.
It’s almost perfect. The theme song is almost complete, but even if you include the craft, words, musicianship and sense of belonging, there is still something missing. Amidst every great comedy, is the dark sheen of tragedy and melancholy lurking. It’s the reminder that laughter is one extreme, and the other is tears, sadness and regret. Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves, that while comedy, TV or music might not save our souls, at least we’re all going down together. People are all the same…
Now, taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot, but not in the case of the current batch of TV theme makers. If this sermon has taught you anything, it’s that there is more to making a memorable theme than sticking a couple of instruments together and hoping nobody notices. Because that’s not how this game should work – we want to notice, we want the theme to become a part of the piece, the final puzzle that can turn a good TV show into a great one.
You wouldn’t have a baby and then not try to give it the very best start in life, so why not try and do the same for TV shows?
If you think I’m right, wrong, or have great hair, feel free to share your thoughts – and your favourite (and least favourite) themes in the comments below. Alternatively, you can catch me on twitter @martinhines or not watching The Wire