Whatever happened to predictability? The milk man? The paper boy? How about evening TV? Better yet, whatever happened to the classic TV theme song? That staple of prime-time, impetus of 80s and early 90s nostalgia, that uber-cheesy yet heart-warming introduction to your favorite sitcom?
Slowly, steadily, almost sneakily, the trend of TV theme songs – as we once knew them – has all but vanished, and given my Liz Lemon-level love for the tube, I feel like I can make that bold statement with authority. Just think about some of the top rated, scripted television shows of the last few years: The “Glee” intro features a melodic “dum” sound as a narrator recaps the previous episode, while “Parenthood” borrows the Bob Dylan version of “Forever Young” to accompany its opening credits. Most others – “The Office,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Modern Family,” “Friday Night Lights” – have all gone the way of ‘instrumental’ – albeit uniquely composed instrumental – intros.
Maybe I’m nostalgic for the long family road trips filled with the “Guess that Theme Song” game. Back then, when someone would throw out a ‘Seinfeld’ or ‘ER’ clue, my siblings and I would groan, dismiss it with a degrading “instruuumeeennnntal” and move on to a more distinct theme a la “Growing Pains” or “Friends”.
Or maybe I miss the shared experience and memories that TV theme songs instantly evoke. Not sure what I mean? Try singing, “Travel down the road and back again” to a group of 20-something women. I’ve no doubt the response will be the entirety of the “Golden Girls” theme in unison, with laughter echoing the exaggerated “Thank you for being a friiiiieeeennnnnd” conclusion. Or go to a bar and ask a group of 20 or 30-somethings to finish the line, “By the time I grab my books, and I give myself a look….” In no time, you’ll have them chanting, “It’s alllll riiiiggghhhht” as they conjure memories of Zack and Kelly’s prom and A.C. Slater’s sporty mullet.
Essentially though, I guess I’m thinking about more than a generation addicted to catchy lyrics. The advent of the instrumental intro is just a small piece of what seems to be a bigger change in TV itself – in what’s popular, what works and what doesn’t; it’s an indication of how TV has evolved. In the era of reality’s rule, the scripted television shows that manage to hang on are often the ones that adhere to an authenticity of sorts, whether it’s the pseudo-documentary style of “The Office,” which seems to say – here’s real life, let’s make fun of it, or the gritty, ripped from the headlines truths of shows like “Law and Order” or “CSI.”
How does a theme song play into that shift towards reality? A scripted show that lacks a lyric-laden theme song lacks a formal introduction; without a specially written song (with lyrics) to introduce the characters or the themes of the show, there’s less instruction about what to think and expect. There’s no outside source contextualizing the segment we’re about to watch, and thus, it seems less like fiction. More immediately, we feel as if the characters are real people, the plot lines real stories. In essence, without a theme song, we are asked to imagine less. And it’s not that we need less imagination to watch the real life stories on screen; it’s that we don’t want as much to be imagined. We want Jim and Pam Halpert to be a real life couple, and we want the Bravermans to be a real life family, with real life problems just like ours.
The difference then is a change larger than just the presentation of the opening credits. When I watch older TV shows, it seems as if the intent is to watch someone else’s story while still somewhat aware of the difference between the character and the actor, between reality and the show being put on for us. We like Mike Seaver, for example, but we know his mischievous stunts are an unrealistic ploy for laughter to make the show and his character entertaining. “Glee”’s Puck, however, is a different portrayal of a similar mischief – in his voice-overs, we hear his thoughts and motivation for throwing dorks in a dumpster, and while we don’t condone his actions, we can identify with him. He’s performing less than he is mirroring a real teenager, entertaining less than relating to his audience. As viewers, we crave that real life tint on the TV screen that the new era of TV seems to offer, and as producers of successful, scripted shows, they deliver it to us with pleasure.
I could speculate on why we want this spin on scripted television, how perhaps the desire for our characters to be real life people who exist in our own lives is an indication of society’s overall loneliness, or how maybe we’re all so unfulfilled that we long to live out our days vicariously through our more successful and more attractive on-screen counterparts. Really though, I think it’s just a reflection of what we all want out of our entertainment: people and situations that we can relate to, sympathize with and laugh about. And if eliminating the words from our TV theme songs helps to do that, then who am I to stand in the way? I’ll be quietly in the background, laughing at Sue Sylvester from my living room couch as I reminisce about my own crazy high school coaches, and humming “As long as we’ve got each other…” with Liz Lemon as we each search for our own astronaut Mike Dexter, who will necessarily share our devotion to almighty TV.