The Evolution of the TV Theme

So.. my cousin, Sven, and I headed out to Indiana the other weekend to go golfing with our friends from out that way, and I forgot my golf clubs at home because I’m retarded. While driving out there, we ran into the awesome flooding going on in Indiana and Illinois, and as a result, they shut down the highway, leaving us parked/crawling on it a short ways past the Indiana/Michigan border for about an hour or so. All this to say we had some time on our hands, and Sven is [thankfully] the sort who puts up with [perhaps enjoys?] my fairly inane observations and questions. (inane –> Fascinating and Awesome) So I brought up something I had been thinking about a bit earlier, when trying to sleep, and I’ve decided to mention it here as well, because I don’t feel like working.

We had been talking about TV shows, and I mentioned that TV Themes/openings seem to have changed as TV Shows themselves have changed. In 80’s and 90’s (and I’d imagine before that as well) you had two main types of “standard” TV show : The Family Sitcom/Drama, and the special Situation/Gimmick Comedy/Drama. To go with these 2 main types, you had 2 main types of opening theme.. what I’d call “The Explanation” theme, and “The Introduction” theme.

The Standard Family sitcom was a show that required no explanation, as it took place in a setting we were already familiar with: A family’s home, School, etc. As such, the theme just had to introduce you to the main players, and usually gave you a quick setup for what kind of character they were. Examples: The Cosby Show, 90210, Family Ties, Growing Pains, Friends, The Simpsons… You get the idea. I think the best example of this is a more recent show: Freaks and Geeks. After watching that opening theme, you get a great idea for what each character is like, and the theme song gives a great idea about the overarching theme.

The Explanation theme was required whenever the show had some gimmick or special circumstances that need to be explained for the show to make sense, or if the setting is just foreign enough to require explanation. That can either mean the theme song explains the premise, or the opening theme visuals show you exactly what’s going on. Now, if the theme song explains the show, you can go two routes with that: Either you just have someone say the point at the very beginning, or you have a song that describes it. Examples of just explaining it: Dragnet, Law and Order, Star Trek and The Next Generation, Quantum Leap, My Two Dads, The A-Team, Sliders, Knight Rider, etc. Examples of singing the explanation: The Brady Bunch, Dukes of Hazard, Green Acres, Gilligan’s Island, Beverly Hillbillies, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Then you have the shows where the visuals explain it, that this can be something like MASH, where you are just shown the main people doing their doctor things, so by the end you know that they are working at a army hospital during a war (you’re given no clue if this episode is one of the funny ones or the sad ones). Or it can be more direct, like Who’s the Boss, where (until the later seasons, I think) you are given a full run-through of Tony showing up, getting hired, then we see all the characters, and then you see that Tony is the house keeper, and that he has the hots for Angela. Story explained. Other examples of this type: Mork and Mindy (Thanks Alan!), Perfect Strangers, Just the 10 of Us (the early seasons), Mr. Belvedere, X-Files, etc..

Okay.. so that’s what themes were like… and for the most part, shows (not counting Soap Operas) were of a sort where you could just watch a single episode and follow along no problem. There was continuity, but it wasn’t vital to your understanding of the show. I think that’s changed. A lot of the shows now, if you didn’t watch from the beginning, you’ll have no idea what’s going on, and no introduction is going to help. (Think : Alias, Lost, Prison Break, Arrested Development, The West Wing, Ed..) Some of them will have a “previously on X” spot, but that’s clearly meant for people who’ve been watching since the beginning, as you’d be even more lost trying to follow what they’re explaining in those clips than the show itself. I think that, coupled with the fact that shows are even shorter now, in order to squeeze in a few more commercials, means we just don’t have time or need for long opening themes explaining the show. Either they skip the opening theme altogether (e.g. Lost, Seinfeld), or you shrink it way down, and just throw the actors/actresses name out there, and call it good. You still get some shows that can pull off the “introducing the key players” thing (e.g. The Office, 30 Rock), but man, they zip through those characters really fast. A few notable exceptions: The various Law and Orders still on and My Name is Earl.

So what was the point of all that? There wasn’t really a point… but I managed to delay working for like, 2 hours.

3 thoughts on “The Evolution of the TV Theme

  1. A comment about those shows that skip the openning theme altogether (Lost, et al).
    I believe one of the major driving forces behind skipping the theme is certainly to squeeze in more commercials, but equally inportant is the need for individual networks to keep viewers tuned in.
    As a result you will notice (and this is especially true of the serial dramas Ron mentioned like Alias, Lost, Prison Break etc.) that fewer and fewer shows have any opening theme…the theme is pushed back and shown AFTER the openning scene. This removes the commercial break between shows which is traditionally when you would change the channel to see what else is on. Now after you’ve watched a show through to the end and you are about to change the channel or grab a snack a new show immediately pops up on your screen….and like the lemmings we are, we sit back down and are drawn in. The network execs love this!
    Some wise viewers caught on to this and with onscreen TV Guides we started to channel surf during the final credits of our show before the next hour of programming sprang to life on our screens. However this too was foiled by the clever Network execs who demanded that shows cut, move, or significantly shorten their final credits. They also tried to fool with scheduling by occationally scheduling shows with lower ratings to start 5mins before the aisle on the heels of a more highly rated show… this is all in an attempt to retain viewer on thier network and prevent changing to another network.
    Of course we still won the battle because of Tivo and DVRs we just pick and chose what we want ahead of time and watch it when we want… Ha ha! Take that Networks!

    Oh yeah…my point…also to delay work :)

  2. I think that you now should put in links to the shows that you mentioned so we could see/hear them. Also it’s another way to kill time:)

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