10 Greatest TV Themes of All Time

Categories: Lists

Northern Exposure

Sometimes it's hard to tell if you genuinely love a show's theme, or if your affection for the show just sort of commands you to love the show's theme. I wasn't sure I liked the theme from cult '90s CBS show Northern Exposure as I eagerly and obsessively devoured the first season on DVD. In fact, I was pretty sure that it annoyed the shit out of me. Something about the David Schwartz-penned tune felt like the incidental music on Seinfeld to me: self-consciously quirky and far too reliant on the bass guitar as a lead instrument.

So what changed? I'm not sure. It probably had something to do with Northern Exposure's pitch-perfect, explored-and-developed characters. Prissy Joel Fleischman's interactions with the townsfolk of Cicely, Alaska, are just about perfect. He's befuddled by the beautiful, roughhewn Maggie, beholden to astronaut-turned-businessman Maurice Minnifield, inspired by Natives Ed and Marilyn. The song started to sound like something the zen-like Chris would play on fictional radio station KBHR 570 AM, offering sage wisdom as the song (which was now starting to remind me of the Talking Heads more than scatty improv stuff) faded out, as patrons of Holling and Shelly's bar, or the shoppers at Ruth-Anne's market, listened intently.

The song started serving as salve for my wounds, inflicted when the show would take deeply emotional turns, unflinchingly examining mortality, loneliness, and existential dread on the Alaskan plains. The song started acting like the show's jokes -- never delivered a moment too late, always maintaining a warmness that lesser shows and lesser writers would miss in favor of "big picture ideas." Northern Exposure was capable of very serious stuff, but the theme, with its accordions and and bubbling percussion, never took itself too seriously.

So I don't know exactly when it stopped unnerving me and started making me dance a little (probably somewhere around the second disc of season one), but it did. That's one of the central themes of NorEx, too. First impressions aren't everything, and you never know who, what, or where you're going to fall in love with. -- Jason P. Woodbury

True Blood

Not every show can claim to leave the viewer hot and bothered before the opening credits are over. But HBO's True Blood can, thanks to singer/songwriter Jace Everett.

The show has more going for it than steamy sexiness. It imagines what the world would look like if vampires existed and integrated themselves into society. Racial tensions replaced by conflict between the living and the undead? Hell yeah! The extreme, twangy intro speaks as much to the soap opera elements that fans love as much as the allegorical aspects.

Swampy and smoldering, "Bad Things" is a delicious rockabilly come-on; the rumbling reverb of its opening riff, the slide guitars, and the moaning accordions are wickedly bluesy, a perfect example of a modern take on the Mississippi Delta blues. Everett's desperate vocals slice right through the carnal tune, as image after image peels away like a flipbook of Deep South postcards: civil rights footage, bayou wildlife (rotting and alive), neon crosses, hysterical river baptisms, seedy bar encounters, a "God Hates Fangs" sign.

The song, "Bad Things," appeared on Everett's 2005 self-titled debut album. But while it sounds like it was meant to be sexual and dark, it's quite the opposite. During an interview with Up on the Sun in 2011, Everett said: "I was ripping off Steve Earle, really. I flipped the chords around and made them all minor. His was kind of a tough guy song, and I was pissed at a guy who owed me money...it ended up sounding more sexy than I intended it to." -- Lauren Wise


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23 comments
WeWhoEat
WeWhoEat

Am I the only one that's completely shocked that this list contains nothing (save taxi) from the golden era of TV themes; the 70s?  Hawaii 5-0, SWAT, Streets of San Francisco, Dallas just to name a few.  Although not from that era, but definitely along the same lines are Hill Street Blues and Cheers and Miami Vice.  Those themes hit you with impact and you enjoyed every moment of the opening credits; they were nearly as much an experience as the show was.

Robden Brethauer
Robden Brethauer

Dallas, Boston Legal, The Sopranos and The Dukes of Hazzard!

Leah Miller
Leah Miller

Nanny and the professor - look it up!

Brad West
Brad West

Sledge Hammer! or the original Lalo Schrifin Starsky & Hutchison.

Natalie Gossen
Natalie Gossen

Why the heck was Fresh Prince of Bel-Air not listed?

JohnQ.Public
JohnQ.Public

You missed Movin' On Up from the Jeffersons.

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