While some critics probably consider television theme songs to be a lowly art form, it is a difficult task to create a one or two-minute piece of music that not only brands a successful series but also stays ingrained in your brain for years, possibly even decades, to come. Despite the fact that it is a dying art these days — how many current theme songs can you recognize or hum, excluding pop songs? — there are many that I love and will always cherish.
Following is a list of ten of my favorite TV themes. There are plenty more where these come from, but these are a great place to start.
THE AVENGERS — The greatest secret agent show of all time, The Avengers‘ most memorable pairing was between John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). They were classy, cultured, smart operatives who used brains and brawn rather than weapons, and they embarked on some surreal adventures, facing off against everyone from weather manipulators to robots. This version of Laurie Johnson‘s breezy, harpsichord-laced prelude includes a playful percussive intro that totally fits the vibe of the show.
BATTLE OF THE PLANETS — When the successful Japanese anime show Science Ninja Team Gatchaman was imported to Hollywood by producer Sandy Frank, he dubbed it with American actors (including famous DJ Casey Kasem), added a goofy robot named 7-Zark-7 and brought in Hoyt Curtin‘s dramatic, brass-heavy orchestral composition that has stuck with me to this day. G-Force! Transmute!
FUTURAMA — Simpsons composer Alf Clausen lent his diverse, genre-spanning talents to Matt Groening’s witty, animated sci fi show, and he conjured this dancey tune that used tubular bells as its central component. That unique instrumental distinction immediately helps it to stand out from the legions of lame TV themes, but it’s also damn catchy, too.
GTO: GREAT TEACHER ONIZUKA — This unorthodox series is one of the best animated shows ever. It revolves around a former gang member who chooses to teach high school in order to hit on teenage schoolgirls, but he gets way more than he bargained for in the process. Caught between battling classmates and an administration that does not respect his students, he soon identifies with and vows to help these underdogs learn to be better people and achieve more than he has. The opening title song, with lyrics written by Hyde and music by his group L’Arc〜en〜Ciel, is a funky, high octane J-rock cut that has one of the most infectious guitar melodies I’ve ever heard. Check out the full-length version here.
HAWAII FIVE-O — Some people consider this to be the greatest TV theme ever recorded. While one could imagine people go-go dancing to Morton Stevens‘ pulsating slice of Sixties symphonica back in the day, it possesses a timeless quality that keeps it fresh now. The new incarnation of the show features an updated version of the theme, but it retains the all-important melody.
MAGNUM, P.I. — Debuting in 1980, this charming private eye show balanced Magnum’s serious cases with the comedic shenanigans of his friends and wealthy landlord. While the remnants of string-driven, soft rock motifs from the Seventies surface in Mike Post‘s exciting title piece, the energetic recording and the inclusion of a hot guitar line pumped up by backing brass is irresistible. (Maybelline thought so, too, as they have been using the Magnum theme in a new commercial airing right now.) The action in the credits syncs up nicely with the music, except inexplicably for Magnum’s eyebrow wiggles at the end. This is currently my favorite TV theme song of all-time.
Note: I originally, mistakenly credited this version of the theme song to the show’s original composer Ian Freebairn-Smith, who created the original theme that was used throughout Season One, until it was replaced by Mike Post’s famous version in Season Two. Here is Ian’s original theme song, which has a jazzier, funkier flavor that many fans will also enjoy. (Thank you for the correction, Ian!)
THE PERSUADERS — I’m going to go a little left of center here with this haunting, Gothic theme song conjured by James Bond composer John Barry. While The Persuaders was a tongue-in-cheek drama that paired a privileged aristocrat (Roger Moore) with a self-made millionaire (Tony Curtis) as unlikely crime fighters, the opening credit track was more somber in tone, but it works perfectly with the series of juxtaposed images showing how the two men grew up and came to this point in their lives. It’s an unusual and beguiling piece of TV music, even for the early Seventies.
SPACE: 1999 — Upon its arrival in 1975, this was the most expensive TV series ever made (approximately $1.1 million per episode in 2010 dollars). I’ve always loved Barry Gray‘s rousing intro, which contrasts epic orchestral fanfare with funkalicious pop featuring a gnarly guitar line. It’s totally cosmic and highly apropos for the special effects-heavy extravaganza it accompanied. Look for my Barbara Bain interview coming soon.
T.J. HOOKER — Before creeping us out with his dark, moody scores to The X-Files and Millennium, composer Mark Snow cut his teeth on more conventional fare, such as this theme to the William Shatner cop show T.J. Hooker, which took a hardline stance against crime. The series was pure Hollywood formula, but Snow’s infectious blend of electronic drums, triumphant horns and radiant guitar harmonies was great for the opening intro: Flaming cars! Wild stunts! Heather Locklear! Ah, the Eighties…
WONDER WOMAN — Looking back, Wonder Woman was one silly show, but for kids in the late Seventies it was totally awesome, especially for young girls looking for a butt-kicking role model. Lynda Carter may have been (and still is) a gorgeous selling point, but onscreen she could also toss grown men through the air like they were cardboard boxes. Nice. The boogieing title song (lyrics by Norman Gimbel, music by Charles Fox) served up ridiculous lines (“fighting for your rights in your satin tights”) but is still so much fun to listen to. This is welcome nostalgia.