Moss Island Top Ten: Television Theme Songs

Who doesn’t love a great TV theme song? The best of them represent their series and stand as music, too. Many are cheesy earworms we have a love/hate relationship with. Most people I know can sing a few from memory.

This collection is in the finest tradition of top-ten lists. Seemingly random and “aha-of-course” in equal measure. You’ll disagree and wonder how I could have possibly left out [your favorite theme song.] It’s probably because I’m a jerk, or because I have no taste.

Gilmore Girls10. Gilmore Girls
“Where You Lead,” lyrics by Toni Stern, music by Carole King. Recorded for Gilmore Girls by Carole King and Louise Goffin.

I’d never watched Gilmore Girls until Netflix started streaming the series last year. Carole King’s old song Where You Lead doesn’t suggest a mother/daughter relationship (it was originally a love song), but this version, sung by Carole with her daughter Louise, is charming and catchy as hell. Case-in-point: as Susan and I watched every episode, our dog Frodo would hump my leg whenever the song played, even on binge nights when it would play three or four times. Gilmore Girls got old after two seasons, but this song never did.

The Love Boat9. The Love Boat
Written by Ben Lanzarone and Duane Tatro.

“Love! Exciting and new…” So cheesy, and the show delivered exactly what the song promised. I can’t defend the music (much less the program); I know dozens of TV theme songs more polished. This is musical comfort food – meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, on a cold winter night. I melt at Jack Jones’ smooth baritone, and wonder if my own love awaits on the lido deck. No way I’m changing the channel once I hear this dulcet theme.

Big Bang Theory8. The Big Bang Theory
Written and performed by Barenaked Ladies.

A clever pop song that rises from and ultimately surpasses its show. The Big Bang Theory has never delivered on the premise its creators thought it did (“really smart guys navigate romance”) – it invariably dumbs everything down to sitcom stereotypes. Although, some episodes scored off those stereotypes – the series highpoint is when Penny gave Sheldon a napkin Leonard Nimoy used to wipe his mouth. The song’s near-perfect wordplay underlines but doesn’t overplay the double entendre in the title. It’s become a concert staple for the band.

The West Wing7. The West Wing
Composed by W. G. Snuffy Walden.

Inspirational and aspirational in equal measure. Soaring strings, yearning horns, crashing cymbals. The characters shown as this music plays can be nothing but serious, striving heroes; the music sets the tone. Walden is the John Williams of television music; like Williams, his themes are iconic and often vaguely reminiscent of each other. When he’s good, few are better.

Composed by Johnny Mandel, lyrics by Mike Altman.

A sad song written for Robert Altman’s movie; Altman’s 14 year-old son Mike wrote the lyrics (“Suicide is painless, it brings so many changes…”) and earned more in royalties than his father received for directing the movie. Like the show, Mandel’s elegiac theme compromises to appease corporate bosses – it becomes peppy in its last ten seconds, promising a goofy laugh-tracked sitcom (the showrunners didn’t want a laugh track, and CBS allowed them to omit the device during operating room scenes, starting in season 2.)

Friends5. Friends
“I’ll Be There for You” by The Rembrandts.

A fast, rocking tune made irresistible by those four hand claps after the first line. The lyrics capture a certain early-20’s ennui better than the show itself, which was rightly accused of allowing its characters to live way beyond their means in NYC. One of the better friendship-themed songs in my library, well ahead of That’s What Friends Are For and Has Anybody Seen My Invisible Friend, if not quite as timeless as Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend.

4. Sesame Street
Music by Joe Raposo, lyrics by Raposo, Jon Stone and Bruce Hart.

Joe Raposo is a brilliant songwriter who isn’t as well known as he should be, because he wrote mostly for children’s programming. (He also composed the theme for Three’s Company and had a #3 single on the Billboard chart when The Carpenters released a version of Sing.) Being’ Green, C is for Cookie and I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon are just a few of Raposo’s endlessly clever compositions. His Sesame Street Theme (Sunny Day) is perhaps the least cloying theme ever written for a kid’s show – while many parents groan when they hear others for the ten-thousandth time, Sesame Street elicits nothing but affection.

Hill Street Blues3. Hill Street Blues
Composed by Mike Post.

I remember Michael Conrad’s morning role call, finishing with “Let’s be careful out there.” Then the opening piano, weary and comfortable. Hill Street Blues was a forerunner of today’s “new golden age of TV,” establishing a gritty realism and long-running plotlines that frequently ended tragically. It was like nothing else on TV in the 1980s. Mike Post’s wordless theme song was a top-ten radio hit in 1981, long before the show became popular.

Greatest American Hero2. The Greatest American Hero
“Believe it or Not,” music by Mike Post, lyrics by Stephen Geyer.

Let’s set aside the idea that this program’s Greatest American Hero is a white guy with an afro. Joey Scarbury’s recording spent 18 weeks in the Top 40, reaching number 2 in August, 1981. (Note this was not Mike Post’s only radio hit that year.) The show baffled me, with its uncertain mix of comedy and drama. It’s about a guy who’s given a super suit by aliens, then loses the instruction booklet. My eleven year-old self didn’t appreciate ambiguity in superhero stories – I wanted less Charlie Brown and more Superman. The song promised something much sunnier and clear cut, and accordingly went on to become a staple of middle-school talent shows.

cheers1. Cheers
“Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” Gary Portnoy, Judy Hart Angelo.

Third try’s the charm.  Portnoy and Hart Angelo wrote two songs for Cheers before this one, both of which were rejected by the producers.  Like the best TV theme songs, this one sets a tone, which the show celebrates.  “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name” is a universal sentiment, and the song helped to make the concept of a bunch of losers in a bar less about drinking than about community, and makeshift family.  The syndicated version of this theme song cuts the opening verse and jumps straight to chorus, presumably to allow more time for ads.    A mistake – the entire song is part and parcel of the show itself.