There was period, thankfully brief, when it seemed like the opening credits sequence was becoming a dying art in television. It doesn’t help that you can just click “skip intro” during a Netflix binge and get straight to the money shot. But for every show with absent or irrelevant opening titles, there are an equal number of notably great contemporary opening title sequences — Succession, Game Of Thrones, The Americans. Most shows on HBO or FX have solid intros.
When Phil Rosenthal, creator of Everybody Loves Raymond and current host of Somebody Feed Phil, took his food show to Netflix, a memorable theme song was one of his first requirements. As he told us a few years back, “[A theme song] adds a lot. Suddenly, you think of the show, you think of the song and that’s something that is in your head. It brands the show with a feeling.”
Which raises the obvious question: what were the best opening themes in television? It’s a fun thing to think about, because as soon as you start naming favorites, you realize just how many incredible opening themes there have been. Some of the golden ages for opening theme songs have been 70s-80s detective shows, late 80s family comedies, and a brief period in the early aughts where the punky indie bands I loved got to write theme songs for mainstream television songs for some reason (weird, but weird-cool). Sometimes the music itself is so good that it gets you pumped for the show. Sometimes the show is so good that it creates a Pavlovian response to the music, even if the music itself is kind of bad. The best are a little of both. I tend to favor the major key, openly cheesy bangers that make you want to run through a wall.
Amazing America With Sarah Palin
I’m only including this because I came across it during my research and I needed to spread it around to keep it from poisoning my brain. Remember Madison Rising, “America’s Most Patriotic Band?” For Sarah Palin’s short-lived travel show for the Sportsman Channel, they wrote this theme song, which includes the brain-melting couplet from the snowy passes to the desert sun/the dogs and the horses and the trucks and the guns...
The crazy thing is, I’m not even sure that’s the worst lyric. Whenever you think politics is too stupid these days just remember Sarah Palin. This song is so bad I need Scott Stapp’s Florida Marlins pump up song as a palate cleanser.
Now, moving on…
25. The Sopranos
Almost every person who helped me brainstorm this list mentioned The Sopranos. I get it! It’s one of the best shows of all time. I even do a podcast about it. The theme song definitely has that Pavlovian quality of setting the tone and putting you in the mood for a great show. However, and I’m sorry if I start offending people right out the gate here, but separated from the show this is an objectively terrible song. It comes from that thankfully brief, strange era where quasi-techno, hipster whisper songs were all the rage (some of the Dust Brothers songs from the Private Parts soundtrack come to mind). The most interesting thing about the Alabama 3 is reading the descriptions of the band members on Wikipedia:
Rob Spragg a.k.a. Larry Love: vocals
Orlando Harrison a.k.a. The Spirit: keyboards, keyboard bass, vocals
Mark Sams a.k.a. Rock Freebase: guitar, bass guitar
Steve Finnerty a.k.a. LOVEPIPE: production, guitar and vocals
Jonny Delafons a.k.a. L. B. Dope: drums, percussion
Greg Fleming a.k.a. Wizard: sequencer and effects
Aurora Dawn: vocals
Be Atwell The Reverend Be Atwell: vocals
Nick Reynolds a.k.a. Harpo Strangelove: harmonica, percussion, vocals
Jake Black a.k.a. The Very Reverend D.Wayne Love: vocals (d. 2019)
Brian O’Horain, “Paddy Love”: vocals
John Jennings a.k.a. Segs: backing vocals, bass guitar
Zoe Devlin a.k.a. Devlin Love: vocals
Simon (The Dude) Edwards a.k.a. Sir Eddie Real: percussion, vocals
Piers Marsh a.k.a. The Mountain of Love: Synths, programming, harmonica
Marianna Little Eye Ty: dancer
Laura Lady Love dancer: dancer
Robert “Hacker” Jessett : a.k.a El Comandante: harmonica, guitar, backing vocals
Rob Bailey : guitar
This band has NINE MEMBERS (and one LOVEPIPE). That was a shocker. I would’ve bet the house that it was one guy in a leather fedora. Hey, didn’t LOVEPIPE write “The Freshman?”
Another song I don’t really love (“I’ll Be There For You,” by The Rembrandts) but feel compelled to include for reasons of ubiquity. I remember my high school band playing the Friends theme song during half time shows. It was that iconic. Divorced from the show it was introducing… I don’t know how well it holds up. It falls into the category of “guess you had to be there,” but it’s inextricably bound up in television history.
23. The Simpsons
Another song I’m putting on here because it has to be on here. No shade, Danny Elfman is probably my favorite of the famous-ish film composers, but I think any song tends to lose its novelty after 32 straight years. Overuse aside, you can’t deny the tone-setting quality of this entire sequence, which, like language, is just mutable enough to adapt to new situations and circumstances.
Of the shows that have run for 32 straight years, The Simpsons is the only one with the same theme song. I mean, I’m assuming. Do not make me look this up.
22. The Deuce
The Deuce, in my mind, is almost a perfect show, and it bugs me that it didn’t seem like many people were watching it. I loved Game Of Thrones and Succession too, but it felt wrong somehow that they drowned out what was otherwise one of the best shows ever made. Oh, you wouldn’t watch a show with two James Francos? Philistine. Give me the show where James Franco plays triplets. Make him a quintuplet. Every season add a new James Franco.
Anyway, The Deuce had a different theme song each season, and I can’t decide whether I prefer the Elvis Costello version or the Blondie. They’re kind of cheating because both were reasonably well-known songs before the show, but the mix of music and archival footage make them both more than the sum of their parts.
21. (Tie) Family Matters and Blossom
Both these shows were pretty terrible but you have to admit, they really went for it in the theme songs. They come from basically the same “stop being sad, we have TV!” genre of early 90s TGIF schmaltz. (Whoa)
20. Green Acres
I don’t think I’ve ever seen this show. I don’t even really know what it was about. Some rich people moving to the sticks? I want to say it was a proto-Schitt’s Creek on a farm, starring one of the Gabors. Anyway, as soon as someone mentions it I automatically think of this catchy ass riff. Deer nert na-neer nert NERT NERT!
19. Beverly Hillbillies
Speaking of sixties shows, the Beverly Hillbillies theme isn’t a great song per se, but it does an incredible job of catchily explaining the entire premise of the show in a bite-sized rhyme. Think of the work this song is doing. It’s essentially the Fresh Prince Of Bel Air for Boomers.
18. Laverne and Shirley
Laverne and Shirley is another show I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen an episode of, yet for some reason, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the rejoinder to “schlamiel” is “…schlimazel, hosenfeffer incorporated.”
I don’t have any idea what those words mean and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter. This theme song is imprinted in my brain, and it seems to have happened almost entirely by osmosis. It’s an incredible achievement. Mostly I just want to live in a world where a show about two young ladies working blue-collar jobs at a Milwaukee brewery with a theme song full of random Yiddish could still exist. And this was back when there were four channels! The Laverne & Shirley theme isn’t a great song so much as a wonder of the world.
17. Growing Pains
Growing Pains is very much in the same vein as Blossom and Family Matters, but slightly elevated, in my opinion, with Michael Bolton-esque chest belting and a sweet duet. “Don’t waste another miiiinute on your cryin…”
I enjoy that the premise of all these songs is that people are very sad about the world and just need to see a nice family on TV as a break from it all.
16. Simon And Simon
The sheer number of gutbuster theme sequences to 70s-80s detective shows is truly incredible. For like 15 years I think these were the only types of shows that were made. Whereas these days, we have a bunch of science nerds talking about stool samples in a crime lab somewhere, in the ’70s and ’80s, it was all fluffy-haired men in Pendleton sweaters driving muscle cars and smirking wryly while hot witnesses sauntered by. Anyway, in terms of funk-rock opening themes to shows about similarly-named men, I think Simon and Simon is clearly superior to Hart to Hart.
15. Golden Girls
The Golden Girls theme song slaps. I make no apologies for it. It’s the same basic theme as “I’ll Be There For You” only it wholeheartedly embraces its own earnestness. It’s hard to find a more apt tone-setter than this one. Isn’t friendship great? Now here are yours, the people from the TV!
14. Rockford Files
You could make a case that Rockford Files is the single greatest private detective show opening theme song ever written. Is that… a moog synthesizer fading into a harmonica? God damn that rips. According to Wikipedia: “For more than forty years, the British soccer team Tranmere Rovers have used the Rockford theme as walk-out music for most games. Occasionally it has been dropped, and then restored by popular demand.”
That song is so good it makes me want to go to Liverpool to watch football. Also: I never watched The Rockford Files. Is he just a handsome Colombo? Discuss.
I don’t know whether I actually like the Frasier theme song or if I just appreciate that it’s one of the weirdest things that’s ever existed. Kelsey Grammer doing a lounge lizard version of himself, scat singing “scrambled eggs all OVAH mah face, ha-ha HA-ha!” God, what an absolute weirdo. It’s like he came out of the womb rich and eccentric.
I like to think that for all his roles, “Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs” is the most telling glimpse into Kelsey Grammer’s actual personality.
There are probably a ton of great cartoon opening theme songs that could go in here but I’m too lazy to look them all up. “Ducktales,” though, is a certified banger upon which all can agree. I’ve heard that bassline was actually banned in three states on account of inciting obscene gyrations. It’s true, look it up, dude.
11. Get A Life
Get A Life, starring Chris Elliott as a 30-year-old paperboy, ran for only two seasons in the early ’90s, but I remember it fondly despite almost certainly not being old enough to understand it. It had Charlie Kaufman and Bob Odenkirk on the writing staff, and I think this is my favorite bit from the Wikipedia excerpt:
The show was unconventional for a prime time sitcom, and many times the storylines of the episodes were surreal. For example, Elliott’s character actually dies in twelve episodes. The causes of death included being crushed by a giant boulder, old age, tonsillitis, stab wounds, gunshot wounds, falling from an airplane, strangulation, getting run over by cars, choking on cereal, and simply exploding.
Incredible. Long overdue for a rewatch.
Anyway, the theme music is a catchy REM song to begin with, but it also works perfectly with the credits, which start with the little bike bell and then build the entire time, changing keys, and then ending with that percussive little thump when Chris Elliott crumples on top of the car hood. It’s sneaky brilliant. Every Vine and TikTok with a sound fx match as the punchline owes a debt to Get A Life.
10. Malcolm In The Middle
The overly distressed, grunge-style titles are such an anachronism that it’s hard to believe Malcolm in the Middle is only 20 years old. But I think Malcolm in the Middle‘s obviously anachronistic elements tend to disguise the fact that it was actually pretty good show. It had Bryan Cranston playing a sitcom dad, for God’s sake. It was a kind of smarter, weirder, single-cam version of Married With Children, with all due respect to Married With Children, whose existence helped make Malcolm possible. And you know they had to have pretty good taste because they used a They Might Be Giants song for the opening credits.
9. Drew Carey
As long as I’m just putting opening theme songs on here because I like the bands, I couldn’t leave off “Cleveland Rocks,” by The Presidents of the United States of America for the Drew Carey Show. Sure, they had “Lump” and “Peaches,” but I feel like POTUSA never quite got their due. But considering it was a band made up of one guy playing a three-string guitar, another playing a two-string bass, a drummer with a tiny drum kit that looked like a toy, and lyrics that sounded like a weird fart dad singing mild gross-out humor to his kid on a porch, maybe it’s a wonder that they ever had any hits to begin with. There’s something very “rural hijinks” about them that probably doesn’t play well in cities. Anyway, they’re great.
8. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Probably the greatest evidence that the art of the opening theme song isn’t dead is The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, from 2015, which manages to explain its entire premise in an autotune-the-news style using a fake news clip from a show-within-a-show. I’m glad I’m not high as I write this because it’s pretty out there when you think about it.
7. The Jeffersons
Movin’ on up/tooo the eeeast side…
Are there more soul/gospel-style opening theme songs that I don’t know about? There must be. I suppose there’s Good Times, but it feels less iconic.
6. Magnum PI
Of all the 70-80s cop and detective shows with theme songs that are unsubtle homages to Shaft (and there are MANY), Magnum PI‘s is probably the best. Like the theme song for The Rockford Files, this one was written by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter, who could clearly write the hell out of a cheesy pump-up song. I also appreciate that this era of opening credits basically covered every possible iteration of the plot of the show that you were about to watch. The intro sequence to Magnum PI is so thorough that it actually jumps the shark mid-credits (a rodeo clown? what the hell?). Just an incredible television time capsule.
5. The Muppet Show
I wasn’t really alive for it, but from watching old clips, it’s clear that The Muppet Show was genius on so many levels and it sort of makes me wish I was around for the heyday of far-out, drug-fueled children’s television. I watch this and try to imagine what all the hippies looked like sneaking around under the stage with their hands over their heads. I bet puppeteers get super weird. I bet they party.
Music was always a big part of the Muppet experience and the theme song, written by Jim Henson and Sam Pottle is fairly representative. Even with all the technology we have now, it’s wild how much more visually inviting puppets are than animation ever could be, computer or otherwise.
4. The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air
Now, I would never sit here and tell you that the Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air theme song is the hottest jam I’ve ever heard. As a stand-alone song, it’s just okay. But it’s also a song that basically every American aged 25-50 years old knows the words to by heart, an achievement virtually unmatched by any other single piece of music, theme song or otherwise. In terms of songs Americans know the lyrics to, “The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air” theme song is probably second only to “Happy Birthday” (third is “All Star,” by Smash Mouth).
Picking up where the Beverly Hillbillies left off (and not entirely dissimilar in plot) it also maps out the entire premise of the show in meticulous detail without ever feeling like it’s trying to convey too much. Why even bother with a pilot episode when you’ve got this song? It’s all right there.
I don’t think they even make cultural touchstones like this anymore.
Speaking of towering cultural achievements, the Baywatch theme song and opening sequence is one of America’s greatest cultural exports, up there with blue jeans and strategic bombing. It’s… perfect, really. It’s somehow cheesy, dramatic, and entirely earnest at the same time, perfect for a show that imagined lifeguarding as a sexy, dangerous, glamour-filled profession (I was a lifeguard at the city pool, where I had to keep people in the surrounding houses from shooting people on the diving boards with a BB gun. It was only semi-glamorous).
For a show about a lifeguard who named his son after a catamaran (lotta people forget that), you might expect a theme song that was more laidback, some country-fried Jimmy Buffet tune about living the sweet life in the sun. Instead, we got this Bruce Hornsby-meets-Phil Collins arena banger about the noble calling of constant vigilance, courtesy of Jimi Jamison from Survivor (who was also in the bands Target and Cobra). Fun fact I learned while researching this: Jamison has the lyrics from “I’ll Be Ready” on his tombstone. And why wouldn’t he?
I don’t think Baywatch would’ve become a thing without the opening credits sequence. In fact, it was canceled after one season in its initial run, when the theme song was “Save Me,” by Peter Cetera (which honestly isn’t bad).
Then Hasselhoff and his partners bought it, put it into syndication with the new theme song, and it ended up being broadcast in 142 different countries. Such is the power of “I’ll Be There For You.”
In America, it’s easy to explain Baywatch‘s popularity: we just wanted to watch hot people wearing red underpants run around in slow motion. But in Europe? They have exposed nipples in ads for children’s cigarettes over there, what did a land of topless beaches care about a bunch of dorks in one-pieces? It’s incomprehensible until you remember that Europeans can’t get enough goofy pop-rock. With “I’ll Be Ready” introducing it, Baywatch was basically a Eurovision Song Contest skit. It was glorious. I’ll never forget the episode where the lifeguards had to fight a crocodile.
2. Wonder Years
As much as I enjoy bagging on Boomers for making us relive the ’60s for the duration of our natural born lives, even I’m not enough of a monster not to enjoy Wonder Years. Its pitch-perfect opening credits, home movies set to Joe Cocker’s white boy soul cover of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” set the tone perfectly for an unabashedly melodramatic sixties coming-of-age tale. How iconic is it? There’s even a Simpsons parody version.
Yes, my number one is Cheers. It kind of just sweeps you away, doesn’t it? The root of every story is people and place, and the Cheers theme (written by Gary Portnoy and Julie Hart Angelo) is somehow hyperspecific without ever showing a real image of an actual cast member. The actors’ names juxtaposed with historical photographs is a unique touch that as far as I know has never been replicated, especially the way they found historical analogues for all the characters. I can’t read the name Les Charles without thinking of a smug guy in a bowler hat.
FontsinUse did an interesting breakdown of how this was all created some years back:
For the Emmy award-winning title sequence, Castle/Bryant/Johnsen departed from the standard sitcom formula of introducing the cast by showing them in corny poses or scenes from the series. Instead, they collected archival illustrations and photographs of bar life, culled from books, private collections, and historical societies. They hand-tinted the images and paired them with typography inspired by a turn-of-the-century aesthetic. The look is old tavern — but think Tiffany lamps and Chesterfield sofas, not spurs and six-shooters. The vintage imagery is a tribute to the long history of the fictional bar where the series is set. The sign outside Cheers says the bar was established in 1895 (though at least two episodes indicate that this date was made up by the bar’s ownership).
Additionally, yes, there is possibly transphobic (?) lost verse that got edited out:
Roll out of bed, Mr. Coffee’s dead
The morning’s looking bright
And your shrink ran off to Europe
And didn’t even write
And your husband wants to be a girl
Anyway, it was the 80s. Content-wise, the Cheers theme basically combines the themes of Friends (your life is going shitty!) and the TGIF schmaltz (the world is terrible, but you’re with family now!) but applies them to a gang of lovable drunks at your local bar. How could you not love it? Also, the show still holds up.