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.