observations and opinion
Let’s whistle a happy tune, shall we? I don’t wanna wait, for my life to be over.
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In a week when the President of the United States belicosely threatened the poorest nation in Asia with nuclear armageddon, but was too cowardly to criticize neo-Nazi White Supremacists marching a hundred miles from the White House, let’s take a moment to debate a slightly less nerve-wracking topic:
What were the worst TV shows with the best theme songs?
Let’s make sure we have the rules of the game down first. The question is not simply “which were the worst shows?” Or “which were the best theme songs” but rather, what unique situations existed where really bad shows had really great songs?
For example, I think “I’ll Be There for You“, the theme from Friends, is arguably one of the best, catchiest songs ever to kick off a TV show. But the show itself was pretty good, sometimes really funny, so it wouldn’t qualify. The magic in this game is the contrast – the stark difference – between the terrific tune and the terrible TV series.
Let’s begin with the obvious winner, or at least a Top Ten contender: The Beverly Hillbillies. This was as wretched and stupid a waste of talent ever assembled on TV (the film version of “Mama Mia” is its movie equivalent) but its theme music is a piece of art: it explains the premise, introduces the central character conflict (noble woodsman resists the corrupting influence of riches) and made the whole planet appreciate the banjo.
Second on the list is Gilligan’s Island. Everyone alive seems to know the song. You could climb a hillside in Nepal and get a monk to sing “well sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…” It’s a GREAT tune, and the show, though fondly remembered, is treasured in the same way that jello salads are. In memory.
Still in the Pacific but less pacific, is the epic theme from Hawaii Five-O. The show itself was a yawn, when not laughably arch and over-acted. Who can forget the steely, brainless gaze of Steve McGarrett squinting into the tropical sun? But what’s really unforgettable is the massive, thunderous drum rolls before the horns blast in: DA DA DA DA DA, DA….!
The Monkees, a sitcom about a band that was invented to have a sitcom about it, never raised a chuckle that wasn’t squeezed out of a laugh track machine. But the theme song – “Hey Hey we’re the Monkees” was really good and it had a warm, 60s spirit to it – “we’re too busy singing, to put anybody down.”
So too, slightly later, the OTHER ultimate singalong TV theme to a show that nobody thought was funny, but everybody sort of loved: The Brady Bunch. This tune, like Gilligan’s, had the benefit of explaining the entire series premise – week after week after week – to the millions of viewers who somehow might forget that seven castaways were stranded or that two families had merged into a happy melee, complete with built-in working class foils (Alice the maid and Sam the butcher, cheerful servants to the upper-middle class perfectoids named Brady).
Let’s not forget ABC’s other bad but popular early 70s sitcom: The Partridge Family. This show, like the Monkeys, was about a band that didn’t exist, which once it existed on TV started issuing records in the real world (mainly via David Cassidy). Still, you can’t forget “Come on Get Happy”, the tune which they crooned out at us every week over the opening credits.
Although many CBS sitcoms of the 70s had memorable tunes (All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, Mary Tyler Moore, even Bob Newhart) they don’t qualify here, because they were also really good shows. Mary’s best friend spun off into the lame Rhoda, which also had a really lame theme song that they kept re-arranging, like the show itself, to no avail. More successful shows were Happy Days and its spawn, Laverne and Shirley, the latter having a memorably chipper, upbeat and hopeful theme song about the characters overcoming their extreme below-averageness.
The 1970s was an era of flaccid, soggy detective shows with aging movie stars resuscitating their careers (McMillan & Wife, Colombo, McCloud, etc) but only one had a brilliant, edgy theme: The Persuaders. The show, a very expensive and not very successful pairing of Tony Curtis and Roger Moore as galavanting playboy millionaire crime-fighters, was blessed with music from John Barry (“Goldfinger” “You Only Live Twice” etc). It’s a theme that deserves a better show.
Floating into the 1980s, we find “The Greatest American Hero.” This was a silly, harmless show – terrible in the sense that it delivered nothing, like vaping from an oxygen tank dipped in sugar – but the theme song was a legitimately catchy, cheerful pop song that made the charts. In that same decade, a TV show which at the time re-defined style (kind of) with a theme that just makes you rock: “Miami Vice.” Awesome intro to a less-than-awesome show. The 80s also gave us bad show/good theme song pairings with The A-Team, Dallas and Dynasty.
The 1990s pose a dilemma: Dawson’s Creek was an underwhelming teen soap opera, not terrible, but its theme song was SO GREAT (“I Don’t Wanna Wait” by Shawn Colvin) that I am slipping it into this list, mainly because of the contrast. Same goes for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a song of epic Beverly Hillsiness and Gilliganosity in its stark statement of the so-so show’s premise. Same again for Party of Five, a morose orphans melodrama with a kick ass song (“Closer to Free“). One definite qualifier (great song, bad show) was “Love and Marriage” – the only show I can think of with Frank Sinatra singing the theme.
Since the turn of the Century, things have gotten tougher in the TV theme department. The songs are short, they’re often instrumental and the shows are, typically, WAY BETTER than they used to be. I suppose The OC or Big Bang Theory qualify as bad shows with good songs. But most of the really great music for TV shows now, fits with really great TV shows (Mad Men, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Breaking Bad, The Americans, and on and on).
TV is truly in a golden age and the days of Gilligan and the Clampetts are long gone. If we do singalongs now, maybe this 1960s film theme is most appropriate: