From Gilligan To Kimmy Schmidt: The TV Theme Song Changed But Never Went Away


There was a time — not all that long ago, especially not in the grand scheme of things, where we’re all just temporary clusters of cells that will be erased from existence when the sun swallows the planet whole in a few billion years, if we don’t wipe ourselves out first through reckless machismo or blinding stupidity — when a television show’s theme song told a story.

You can probably tick off a few examples right now, while you’re reading this sentence. Gilligan’s Island gave viewers what would today be an entire season’s worth of origin story in 90 bouncy seconds. Mr. Ed told the audience that there was a guy who had a talking horse, which is, amazingly, all you need to know about that show. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air literally explained the main character’s entire life from birth to age 16 or so. None of this is to say this era is better or worse than today’s. Sometimes things are one way and then suddenly they’re another way and both ways are fine.

The change happened for a few reasons. Some of it was just a stylistic choice, with the people who make the decisions opting to evoke a theme instead of telling a story. Some of it was shrinking runtimes for episodes as commercials ate up more of a half hour or hour. Some of it was the broad shift away from procedural dramas and comedies that wrapped up stories in a single episode, with big fancy prestige shows and their intricate seasons-long plots and “Previously on” segments sliding in and rendering the explanatory ditty both useless and impossible. Some of it was, well, all of it. And again, it’s fine. Different, but fine.

That’s not to say the theme song died. There have been a few memorable ones over the last decade or so. The Sopranos had themselves a gun; Mad Men had the strings, bass, and drum groove that was somehow both improved and ruined by the realization that you could repeat the show’s title over and over as the lyrics and it would sync up perfectly; Parks and Recreation had the bouncy flutes that matched up just right with the bright optimistic tone of the show. Again, none of them told a story, really, but I’m sure hearing any of them now would bring up dozens of memories of your favorites moments just the same.

My favorite current examples are both from Netflix shows. There’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, obviously, with its infectious auto-tuned news jam that probably made you say “THEY ALIVE, DAMMIT” out loud just now, before you even read it in this sentence. (Show me a person who clicks “Skip intro” on Kimmy Schmidt and I’ll show you a person who should be jailed preemptively like in Minority Report.) For me, though, nothing tops the opening to BoJack Horseman.

Three things about this music:

– I have, in the past, described this as “driving around a city at night in the rain while contemplating how to take down a powerful local crime boss” music. I stand by that today. I think it’s the horns. Close your eyes and listen to it again with that thought in your head and tell me I’m wrong.

– It was written by Patrick Carney of The Black Keys, which is just a cool thing I want to pass along to make myself seem smart and informed and cool.

– It is actually one of two songs the show uses, with the other coming at the end of each episode. That second is a poorly sung take on the kind of storytelling theme songs I mentioned at the beginning of this post (“Back in the 90s I was in a very famous teeeeeevee show…”), which brings us full circle. Let’s pretend like I did this on purpose and didn’t just stumble into it.

Below, members of the Uproxx staff share some of their favorite current television theme songs. Some of yours might be in there, too. Especially if you watch a lot of Netflix.

Queer Eye

Technically, talking about how wonderful the Queer Eye introduction and theme song are means talking about two things at once. That’s because the one used for the first season of Netflix’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy reboot was replaced by an updated version for season two. The latter, performed by Australian singer Betty Who, was released to celebrate the beginning of Pride Month in June. It’s just as fantastic as its predecessor, and to be frankly honest, they’re both awesome and catchy as hell. As most fans of the show will surely agree, however, the original Queer Eye intro will never be surpassed — because of how new, fresh and honest it is. It begins with B-roll footage of the new “Fab Five” (Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Tan France, Antoni Porowski, and Jonathan Van Ness) preparing for their first shoots, then quickly transitions to assorted shots of everyone having a blast. Seriously, how can anyone not feel good about themselves after watching and listening to this opening sequence? — Andrew Husband

The Good Place

The Good Place has a theme that might be barely considered a TV theme song, but it works on many levels. It is a positive chime that welcomes you to the tale and almost lulls you into the idea of a “good place.” The Office theme song, while popular, always felt disconnected from the show in my opinion. Here, The Good Place has a theme that fits and welcomes you, much like the characters on the show. You pull open the door to enter, and the chime plays for you. It also reminds me of the music that plays between chapters in audiobooks, especially those you’d listen to as a kid.

At the same time, it sounds like a jingle you’d hear while on hold. It’s perfect for the bureaucratic world the show presents, both in the “good” and “bad” places. It’s also a fitting thought since being on hold would be a type of punishment you’d deal with on the show. — Andrew Roberts

Stranger Things

I didn’t realize I felt so strongly about the Stranger Things theme until I was watching the second season with my dad over the holidays and realized that he was one of those monsters who used the Skip Intro function and was horrified. My own father, my own flesh and blood, intentionally opted out of this 80s techno perfection. How was he ready to face the Demogorgon without the hype? Could he full appreciate Dustin’s one-liners without this time for mental preparation? Could he feel all the feels about poor Will’s suffering without setting the tone? I say no. So, yeah, I guess this one is my favorite. — Alyssa Fikse

Orange Is The New Black

Regina Spektor’s “You’ve Got Time” is recognizable to all Orange is the New Black fans, but in this case, the song itself isn’t what matters. Yes, the tune is fine in small doses, maybe a bit jarring when binge-watching, but any annoyance factor is surpassed by the theme’s visuals. One by one, the faces of real (current and former) inmates flash across the screen. Some smile, others frown, all are genuine and not-at-all airbrushed, and the entire gathering is meant to communicate to viewers that this show isn’t simply about Piper Chapman.

Instead, OITNB features an ensemble cast that’s truly treated that way. Some players dominate the spotlight more than others, only to fade into shadows and return. Many of these women are much like you and I, aside from one or two very bad choices or some unbeatable life circumstances. The theme reinforces that reality and reminds us that each of their stories deserve to be heard. — Kimberly Ricci

The Joel McHale Show – End Credits Song

There are plenty of really good theme songs but I don’t know that any touch greatness. I’m talking about hitting that Amen level (it remains my great hope to reenact the Amen title sequence one day complete with fire Sherman Helmsley jump rope moves). And so, with nothing passing for legendary in the current landscape, I’m going to cheat and go with an end credits song.

The Joel McHale Show end credits song knows you don’t care about who the Best Boy is on Nu Talk Soup and it knows that it’s been tiny windowed as you countdown to the next episode or play algorithm roulette. It does not care about convention. It’s just here to spit truth and be meta, changing the words every so often to muse on its non-essential existence and shout out some of singer/songwriter Eli Braden’s boys. The unpredictability is what makes the end credits song a treat worth hanging around for. Also, watching the end credits allowed me to find out that Liz Plonka (Late Night With Conan O’Brien, many many other shows) directs The Joel McHale Show. Which is neat and something I wouldn’t have discovered if not for the end credits song. Thanks end credits song! I hope you read this, but no one reads the last entry in a listicle, either. — Jason Tabrys